Don Davis / Detroit Free Press
Don Davis, a musician and producer who went on to helm one of the country’s biggest black-owned banks, died Thursday at 75. He led First Independence Bank in Detroit. / Marcin Szczepanski/Detroit Free Press
With a keen ear for sound and a nose for business, Don Davis carved out one of the most distinctive high-profile careers in Detroit.
Davis, a musician and producer who went on to helm one of the country’s biggest black-owned banks, died Thursday at 75. He leaves behind a litany of hits — including work with Johnnie Taylor, the Dramatics, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. — and a three-decade stint as CEO of First Independence Bank.
Lisa Wilmore, a spokesperson for the family, would say only that Davis died after a brief illness, with more details to be released later.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called Davis “one of Detroit’s great icons.”
“Don was the epitome of Detroit’s can-do spirit, having founded Michigan’s only minority-owned bank, First Independence, which he used as a vehicle to uplift countless residents of our city throughout the years,” Duggan said in a statement Friday. “His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will endure and should be celebrated by all Detroiters.”
It was a unconventional career that took him from the wild-and-woolly world of music to the buttoned-down realm of finance. Fittingly, his big break in Detroit music came with “Money,” the 1960 Barrett Strong hit that featured Davis’ guitar work. It was one of a host of sessions Davis worked in Motown’s early days.
“In my estimation, he was part of that first tier of Funk Brothers,” said Pat Cosby, widow of saxophonist-producer Hank Cosby, a close friend of Davis. “They used to joke that we need to put these instruments down and get a real job.”
Davis was a fixture on the Detroit recording scene of the 1960s, working with many of the independent labels churning out music alongside the Hitsville machine, including Ric-Tic and Golden World.
He worked with the Memphis soul label Stax Records in the late 1960s, turning out his first big production hit: Taylor’s 1968 song “Who’s Making Love,” which topped Billboard’s R&B chart.
With his producer credentials firmly established, Davis purchased United Sound in 1971, turning the vintage Detroit studio into a hit hotspot with his company Groovesville Productions and its accompanying songwriting arm, Groovesville Publishing. Under his watch, United was also teeming with rentals by artists from Aretha Franklin to Burt Bacharach, and became home to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.
“It was multifaceted,” said Brian Spears, Groovesville’s director of publishing. “It was a whole machine.”
Davis’s own Groovesville work helped define the pop landscape of the mid-’70s with chart-topping tracks like Taylor’s “Disco Lady” and the McCoo-Davis Jr. song “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show).”
One secret to the Davis sound lay hundreds of miles to the south, said Spears.
“We recorded a lot of the rhythm, the foundation, in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where there was a group of musicians who were just phenomenal,” Spears said. “Don would take Rudy Robinson, his primary rhythm arranger, go to Muscle Shoals and record rhythm tracks, bring them back, and layer them into the rest of the recording.
“So it was a combination of Muscle Shoals, Northern soul and pop. We weren’t duplicating Motown, the Philadelphia sound or the West Coast. It had its own sound to it.”
Davis eventually founded his own record label, Tortoise International, signing several rock-oriented acts, including the Rockets, First Fire and the proto-punk band Death.
“Don was an innovator, musically and business wise,” said arranger Paul Riser. “And he was a pretty fair guitar player, which a lot of people don’t know. He was just a lover of music and the people involved in it.”
By the early 1980s, Davis had purchased enough shares of Detroit’s First Independence Bank to take over the struggling institution. Bank business steadily drew him away from day-to-day music work.
“Music was changing, and he was set up in a good place,” said Cosby. “He was fortunate enough to have another feather in his cap to keep him in the lifestyle that music had gotten him accustomed to. I’m not surprised that he got himself into another business, because he always had a business mind.”
Davis eventually grew First Independence to $200 million in assets to become the 12th biggest African-American owned bank in the U.S.
“I was always trying to get him interested again in the music business. He’d say, ‘Paul, I’m making too much money at the bank,’ ” Riser said, laughing.
The First Independence name surfaced frequently during the 2012 corruption trial of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the 2010 trial of associate Bobby Ferguson. Investigators said it was the pair’s bank of choice, and First Independence was fined $250,000 last year for failing to monitor money laundering.
The funeral will be handled by Swanson Funeral Home’s northwest Detroit office, but arrangements have not been set. Davis, who lived in West Bloomfield, is survived by his wife, Kiko Davis, and three children.
Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or