Soul singer Tyrone Davis was born in Greenville on 4 May 1938 to the Rev. Willie Branch and Ora Davis-Branch. (One source suggests that his family lived in a small rural community south of Leland.) After his parents divorced, Davis attended school in Arcola until age fourteen, when he left to join his father in Saginaw, Michigan. He moved to Chicago in the late 1950s and soon began hanging out in the city’s blues clubs at night. Davis eventually was hired as a chauffeur and valet by bluesman Freddie King, touring with King for a year. Davis then found work in a Chicago steel mill alongside Otis Clay, another Mississippi native who also aspired to a musical career. The two became lifelong friends. Davis was married twice. After an early union ended in divorce, he and his wife, Ann, married in 1963 and remained together until his death. He was the father of five daughters.
Fortune smiled on Davis one evening when he stationed himself near the stage during a Bobby “Blue” Bland concert. Bland offered the nattily attired Davis an opportunity to sing and then tendered some sage advice: “Be you, don’t be me.” Davis later credited Bland’s remark with helping him forge a distinctive style. Yet Davis’s early efforts singing at clubs on Chicago’s South and West Sides were imitative of other singers, particularly Bland. Pianist Harold Burrage befriended Davis and arranged for him to record several songs released under the name Tyrone the Wonder Boy, but none found commercial success. After Burrage died in 1966, two years passed before Davis attracted attention with a song on the Dakar label. “Can I Change My Mind” soared to the top spot on the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts. “Is It Something You’ve Got” continued the momentum, achieving Top 5 status on the R&B charts, but the song was eclipsed by the infectious “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” which reached No. 1 among R&B songs and No. 3 on the pop charts.
Davis’s success continued into the 1970s, with a string of hits that included his third R&B chart-topper, “Turning Point.” Unlike fellow Mississippi expatriates in Chicago such as Otis Clay and Otis Rush, Davis relied on his smooth baritone more than on a shouted blues sound. While Davis was a versatile vocalist, on his biggest hits he sang in a penitential tone, apologizing for some misdeed or pleading for a second chance with his woman. These songs particularly resonated with the females in his audience, many whom viewed Davis as a sex symbol and rushed the stage when he performed. Davis benefited as well from a top-notch band that he drove relentlessly in rehearsals.
Davis left Dakar in 1976 and signed with industry giant Columbia the next year. Although he continued to churn out albums and hits that ascended the R&B charts, by 1981 his sales had slipped, and he parted with Columbia. He recorded on a series of smaller labels until landing in 1996 at Jackson-based Malaco Records, which took in a number of black musical elder statesmen, among them Davis and fellow Mississippi native Little Milton. Although Davis sold twenty-five million records and recorded thirty-eight albums, he never achieved the crossover appeal of some of his R&B contemporaries. Music critics lament the relative lack of attention paid to Davis, but his main constituency of urban working-class blacks supported him throughout his career. A tireless performer, Davis was a fixture on the Chitlin’ Circuit and was enormously popular when he appeared in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. His peers recognized Davis’s genius and honored him with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1998.
Davis suffered a stroke in September 2004, slipped into a coma, and died of pneumonia on 9 February 2005. Fellow musicians staged major benefit concerts for him in both Chicago and Tunica, and Davis was lauded for having ascended from “the cotton fields of Mississippi” to become one of the iconic figures of Chicago soul music.
- Chicago Public Radio, interview with Otis Clay (10 February 2005)
- Delta Democrat-Times (10 February 2005)
- Dave Hoekstra, Chicago Sun-Times (10 February 2005)
- Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune (9 February 2005)
- Robert Pruter, Chicago Soul (1992)