Mac Davis

by Roger Catlin

Davis, who wrote "A Little Less Conversation" and "In the Ghetto," had another connection to Elvis: They both made bad movies.

Mac Davis, who died on September 29, 2020 at 78, was not just a top entertainer, with the #1 hit "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me," a summer TV variety show, and roles in movies and Broadway, he was also a noted songwriter for others, most notably Elvis Presley, who recorded Mac's "Memories," "Don't Cry Daddy" and "In the Ghetto," which single-handedly revived The King's career in 1969, bringing him back to the Top 10 for the first time in four years.

The first thing Davis wrote for Presley was "A Little Less Conversation" for the movie Live A Little, Love A Little. In 2002, a remix by the Dutch DJ Junkie XL became an international hit, topping the charts in many countries.

This interview, published here for the first time, took place on January 17, 2019 as part of promotion for the Elvis All-Star Tribute that aired on NBC a month later.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Did you first see Elvis while growing up in Lubbock, Texas?

Mac Davis: First time I saw him in person, yeah. Saw him at an outdoor venue, on the back of a flatbed truck, somewhere in the area there, and then saw him again at the county fairgrounds. I was about 13 at the time.

Oh, he changed my life. I just decided I want to be that. Between the combination of him and Buddy Holly - I used to go to the skating rink and dance to Buddy Holly's music - between the two of those, that's what I wanted to do and be, so I started writing songs right then and there. Not very good ones, but I was writing them!

Lubbock

Mac Davis was born in Lubbock, Texas, south of the panhandle in the South Plains, in 1942. The home of Texas Tech University became more famous for the string of music stars that came out of the town, which is now Texas' 11th largest. Among its leading lights was Buddy Holly, whose name is now on the plaza, the Buddy Holly Center, and the Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences.

Also from Lubbock came all three Flatlanders: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely - as well as Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, singer-songwriter Terry Allen, country producer Lloyd Maines and his daughter Natalie Maines, lead singer of The Chicks.

John Denver got his start in Lubbock, playing in the student union as a freshman at Texas Tech in 1966. And it's also the home of psychobilly pioneer Norman Carl Odam, known professionally as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Songfacts: It seems like a lot of great writers have come out of Lubbock.

Davis: I've told people for years, it's not much to look at but it's a great place to be if you get a flat tire without a spare. There's something in the wind. It's not in the water, because there's not much water around there, but there is something in the wind. A lot of good music has come out of that part of the country.

Songfacts: You didn't get to actually meet him back then, did you?

Davis: No. I was just another one of those kids that saw him one day, and the next day I started letting my ducktails grow. I started turning my collar up and learned how to shake my leg. I never saw anything like that. It was obvious what was going to happen. It was just totally obvious that he was going to be a superstar. And it lasted a long time.

I showed up at his opening in Las Vegas at the International Hotel. By that time, I had written a couple of hit records for him, but it was the same reaction even after all those years between 1954 and 1969 when he went into the International Hotel, which later became the Hilton.

The women just went insane. He crossed those boundaries. Men loved him too. Everybody just had great big grins on their faces and the women were trying to get to him, racing down to the stage. It was pretty amazing. I don't think Vegas had ever seen anything quite like that, except maybe Sinatra. I'm sure Sinatra when he was younger had that reaction.

Songfacts: By then you had written "Memories" for the comeback TV special.

Davis: Yeah, Billy Strange asked me to write a song. Billy was in charge of the music, and he was very instrumental in introducing me to Elvis and getting that connection going. The special was coming out and they were looking for a song to bookend a section of the show where he went back and did his '50s hits, the old Sun Studios things, and they wanted it to be about looking back over the years. I had a little over 24 hours to write it.

I went over to Billy's and he had an office in his garage. I went out there and sat there all night and wrote the song "Memories." We did a demo on it the next day, and they accepted it. They were actually going to sing part of the song in the first half of that segment, at the beginning of it, and another one like a bookend, but he ended up just sitting down at the edge of the stage. It was really nice, the way he did it.

But that's how it came about. I just sat up all night and I was under pressure, and sometimes that works, when you're really under the gun. I'm glad it did, because it sealed a deal with him. He started looking at my songs and wanting to record more of my stuff, which was phenomenal.

Billy Strange

Billy Strange's wide-ranging career in music began playing guitar for Spade Cooley and Tennessee Ernie Ford. After writing a #1 song for Chubby Checker, "Limbo Rock," he was part of Los Angeles' legendary Wrecking Crew of studio musicians, who played on everything from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds to Love's Forever Changes. His was the lead guitar on The Munsters TV theme song.

He's credited with a lot of orchestral arrangements, which were different simply because he wrote them on guitar rather than piano. He arranged all of Nancy Sinatra's hits including "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'," "Some Velvet Morning" and "Somethin' Stupid," her duet with Frank Sinatra. He arranged and played on Nat King Cole's huge hit "Ramblin' Rose" in 1962. It was his distinctive fuzz tone guitar that dominated the Phil Spector production of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" for Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans.

As an actor, he played guitarist Speedy West in the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter and provided the voice for Steve McQueen singing the title song in the 1965 movie Baby, The Rain Must Fall. It was Strange's work as arranger of two Elvis Presley movies, Live A Little, Love A Little and The Trouble With Girls, that got him working with Mac Davis. His first wife, Joan Marie O'Brien, was the lead in the Elvis movie It Happened At The World's Fair. Strange died in 2012 at 81.
Songfacts: He had already sung a song of yours, "A Little Less Conversation," just before that, right?

Davis: Yeah. That was the first song of mine that he did, "A Little Less Conversation." He did it for a movie. And that's why they called me in.

You know, it did OK, it didn't do great. It's a good song, it got up to the 40s I believe in the national charts [it peaked at #69 in October 1968]. At that point, he wasn't selling a lot of records. He wasn't having a lot of #1s and Top 10s, I think because it was just stuff pulled out of the movies and they didn't take advantage of his talents. But they liked that song a lot.

I was working for a publishing company called Metric Music, plugging other people's songs. Billy Strange came to the office from time to time looking for material for different artists. He said he had a chance of getting a song in an Elvis movie, and would I be interested? Duh! I was very excited about it.

I read the script, and the place where they needed a song was in a scene where he's seducing a girl at a pool and she's talking too much, and he's trying to get her to leave with him. I had this song already started that I was hoping Aretha Franklin might like, and I wrote it really with her in mind. It just fit right into that spot and they asked me to clean up the lyrics. It was a little funky, I guess, for his image at the time. So I changed his lyrics to fit the times. It's not my proudest moment, the lyrics in "A Little Less Conversation," in the verses. But how it became a hit 34 years later is just beyond belief. It was a huge, huge hit.

Songfacts: It took time for people to come around to it, right?

Davis: It took a remix is what it took. It was amazing. When I heard it, I didn't even know it had been re-released. It had become a commercial for Nike and their World Cup soccer campaign, which was huge all over the world. They had commercials made, and the demand for the song got so big, RCA released it as a single and it became a #1 in the UK the first day it was released. And I didn't even know it was out.

You know, the writer's the last guy to find out anything. We get no respect. But at any rate, this friend of mine called from Nashville and congratulated me on my #1 and I didn't know what he was talking about. Twenty-four hours later, I did. It was very exciting.

Junkie XL

Junkie XL is the stage name of the 52-year-old Dutch DJ and composer Thomas Holkenborg, who has specialized in film soundtracks, working with Hans Zimmer on scores for films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as Deadpool, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomb Raider and Sonic the Hedgehog. He was commissioned to remix Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" for a commercial Nike wanted to run during the 2002 World Cup - the first time the Presley estate had granted permission for any of The King's music to be so remixed. It paid off, hitting #1 in two dozen countries. It became the theme of the NBC series Las Vegas and has been heard in a handful of films, including Shark Tale, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and MegaMind.
Songfacts: You get royalties from that after it's #1 all over the world, right?

Davis: Well, yeah. What money they share with songwriters these days. But yeah, it did start coming in and it was a wonderful time. It was quite a blessing.

Songfacts: It was quite a big thing for the Elvis organization as well. It was his first hit of this century and the first time he'd been in the charts for a couple of decades.

Davis: Gosh, I hadn't heard it put that way before. Can I quote you on that? First hit of this century! Thank you.

My kids, they were 12 and 13, and we were having dinner at an outdoor place over in Century City. Background music was playing and on comes "A Little Less Conversation," the new version. And my wife says, "You know, your daddy wrote this." Their eyes got bigger than saucers. "Are you kidding?" "Dad, everybody's singing it at school! It's a great big hit!"

And I thought, wow, it took all this time to get street cred with my kids. But it was great, and I still get a kick out of listening to it. I like the remix. I like it a lot better than the original record, to be honest with you.

Songfacts: What did they do, beef up the drum sound and speed it up?

Davis: I don't think they speeded it up. They just made it bigger and louder and cut it up in different places and moved it around. The DJ's name was Junkie XL and the Presley Estate said we're not going to have "junkie" in conjunction with Elvis' name, so they changed it to JXL. We know where it went from there. I think it went to #1 in 25, 26 countries.

Songfacts: Did you ever meet that DJ?

Davis: I had the opportunity to, and something came up and we didn't get together. He did a great job.

Songfacts: Was the original version your first big songwriting success?

Davis: That was my first big break, Elvis cutting "A Little Less Conversation." And because it made some noise, people said, if he can get a hit with Elvis maybe we ought to relook at some of the songs he's written.

I had a hit with Kenny Rogers called "Something's Burning" when he was Kenny Rogers & The First Edition. And then Bobby Goldsboro, I got a recording contract at that point and I was writing songs for myself, one of which was about my son, called "Watching Scotty Grow." My producer didn't want to put it out. He said it didn't sound like me. So I took it to Bobby Goldsboro, who had just come off of "Honey." Bobby liked it and put it out, and it became a big hit.

But that all came after the Elvis thing. All of a sudden, I got a lot cuter, and my songs got better. They were the same songs, but that's what happens when you have a little success in the music business.

Songfacts: So after he recorded a couple of your songs, you brought Elvis a bunch of songs you'd had around?

Davis: I just brought him current songs. When they decided to do the album In Memphis at American Music, with Chips Moman, they came to me because we'd had a little bit of success. "Memories" was also a Top 10 record, and according to Priscilla, Elvis liked my writing.

He wanted to hear more of my stuff, so they asked me to send in some songs for this Memphis album. I had 19 songs. I had done a tape of them, just me and my guitar, and I sent them the whole tape of everything I had, and the first song on the tape was "In The Ghetto." I had just finished writing it. And the second song was "Don't Cry Daddy." They recorded both of them.

It was a big brouhaha of him recording "In the Ghetto." I think he had to fight to get that out as a single. RCA was afraid of it and Col. Parker was afraid of it, but Elvis believed in it and he wanted to be taken seriously. He wanted to do a song that said something.

It was one of my prideful moments, one of my most exciting moments, because I didn't know if anyone would ever cut that song. It was controversial at the time.

It was my first big #1 and a pretty exciting time in my life. I never thought I'd be involved with Elvis Presley.

From Elvis In Memphis

The 1969 album From Elvis In Memphis was a whole new independent direction for The King. After years of recording only soundtrack albums meant to promote the similarly lackluster string of movies, Elvis was buoyed by reaction to his 1968 comeback TV special to record an album concentrating entirely on music. To do so, he left the familiar confines of RCA studios to record at American Sound, a studio in his hometown of Memphis that celebrated the local soulful sound. It was a peak year for the studio, which also produced Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis that same year.

With Chips Moman producing a house band known as the Memphis Boys, which included Bobby Emmons on organ, Reggie Young on guitar, Bobby Wood on piano and Gene Chrisman on drums. Elvis recorded two Mac Davis songs in the sessions, "In The Ghetto" and "Don't Cry Daddy," though he saved the latter for a single issued in January 1970.

The well-received album also covered Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive," Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," and John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind."
Songfacts: I read it had been taken to Bill Medley and Sammy Davis Jr.

Davis: Yeah. Bill turned it down. Sammy heard it after Elvis had already cut it. We did take it to Sammy and he eventually did cut it, but not in the beginning.

Songfacts: When you became a performer, did you learn some things from watching Elvis?

Davis: I knew better than to even try that. I did do what was expected of me in the '70s: I wore tight clothes and had my shirt unbuttoned down to my navel and did my singer-songwriter thing. I used to call my jeans my "blue suit." Johnny Carson asked me on the Carson show when they had it out here. He said, "It's nice of you to dress up for our Los Angeles debut." And I said, "Well, my manager told me to wear the blue suit."

It was the biggest laugh I ever got out of him, because I had just my faded blue jeans. That's about all I did. When I went to Vegas I wore a tux sometimes, and sometimes I had special clothes made. Then later on I got to thinking, they're not coming to see that, so I went back to my jeans and I played in jeans. So I didn't try to be anybody but me. Whatever there was about me that I could sell, I did.

Acting career

After starring in his own network variety show, The Mac Davis Show, from 1974-1976, Mac Davis was tapped as a leading man, first appearing in the 1979 film North Dallas Forty with Nick Nolte. He followed with the 1981 Cheaper To Keep Her, and in 1983, The Sting II, to scathing reviews. He had better luck on Broadway, starring in a production of The Will Rogers Follies in 1992, taking over the title role originated by Keith Carradine.
Songfacts: You had a bit of a career in Hollywood too, like Elvis did.

Davis: If you're saying that I did a whole lot of bad movies like Elvis did, that's what I did.

I did North Dallas Forty and I didn't get one bad review from that. Out of nowhere I started getting offered a lot of money to do movies, and I took it. And some of those movies I shouldn't have done.

I look back on it now, and I was never an actor. It just wasn't my thing. But I did well in North Dallas Forty because I just played myself. I didn't have to think about how I sounded or changing my accent or anything. The character was just born for me really. The fact that I didn't get any bad reviews and the movie did well, I started getting offers. I should have not tried to carry a movie. I wasn't well enough known, and I wasn't a big enough star. But I had a lot of fun.

I came out of it with a lot of stories. I could sit and entertain you for a week talking about Jackie Gleason and Karl Malden and those guys when I did The Sting II. That right there should explain to you why I should have never done another movie. The Sting II, everybody had turned that down. It was ugly.

Songfacts: Are you still performing?

Davis: Once in a while. I don't do it a whole lot. It's just too damn much trouble, flying from one place to the next. But we have a home now outside of Nashville out in the woods and I'll play places if I don't have to go too far. I love playing the Franklin Theatre and places like that. I do the Bluebird Cafe and all of those local places - they're always asking me to do something. There's lots of charity things that I do. Anything that involves me not having to put on a suit, I love doing.

October 29, 2020

Further reading:
Elvis Presley Songfacts
Don McLean tells the "American Pie" story
Classic interview with Randy Newman

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