Goodbye, George Davis
"Hold On, Help Is On the Way" (Davis/Tyler/Parker)
G. Davis & R. Tyler, Parlo 102, 1966
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"Hold On, Help Is On the Way" has long been on my short list of favorite instrumentals from New Orleans - not funk, just a classy, intensely hip mover and groover. I'd even venture to say it's one of the great R&B instrumentals, period. On it, George Davis gets a chance to let his guitar chops run free, at least for a little over two minutes of concentrated bliss. In the 1960s, his signature licks and solos graced a number of New Orleans records - the most well-known of which was Robert Parker's "Barefootin'". But, this virtuoso single is his only known solo outing from the old days. He shied away from being the front man, not even using his full name on the record, and giving his partner and friend, Red Tyler, co-billing on the A-side, though Red only had a supporting role on sax. Still, it was really George's show.
A month or so back, I found this 45 for sale while I was searching for something else online, and ordered it. Though I've had a CD version of the A-side for many years on a UK Northern Soul compilation, I had never run across the vinyl before, and considered it a very lucky find. The record arrived a few weeks ago; and, just after I made a digital transfer of each side for the archives, I got a call from my friend, Bill, who told me that his friend, George Davis, had died. Bill had been working with him over the past few years, preparing George's self-produced recordings for CD release (he had enough material for at least four CDs!). As we discussed the sad, surprising news and I heard more about Davis, I could still see the 45 sitting on top of my turntable cover. Synchronicity like that gets you thinking. I was further knocked back to find out that Davis passed on September 10th. That is virtually a year to the day after his longtime friends and musical collaborators, Wilson 'Willie Tee' Turbinton and jazzman Joe Zawinul, departed within a few hours of each other on different continents. While that record was in transit to me from England, Davis had slipped away to join them at the Jam Everlasting.
Call it psychic convergence or plain coincidence, but, obviously, Parlo 102 came my way at just the right moment. Though I have long been a fan of George Davis, I never met or spoke with him directly and didn't get a chance to tell him how much his music meant to me. I hope that enjoying this tasty top track is a fitting way to celebrate this multi-talented, humble gentleman, who stayed off the public radar as a name, but who made considerable contributions to music and influenced many other musicians, including Deacon John, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr. and George French, in and beyond his hometown. Read more about him in Jeff Hannusch's obituary at Offbeat and in Davis' Allmusic biography linked above.
As evidenced on this well-structured tune, Davis' guitar style displayed a combination of attacks, the most obvious being his breezy, Wes Montgomery-influenced, melodic octave playing on the main body of the song, plus intricate, stacatto soloing, and other embellishments such as his playful quoting of Steve Cropper's licks from Sam and Dave's hit of the same year, "Hold On I'm Comin'", which, I am sure, is where Davis derived the title for his tune. The other players did great work, as well. Tyler's tenor sax doubles the main melody lines; and one of New Orleans finest drummers, June Gardner is likely laying down the unrelenting, driving beat that takes no prisoners. Since Davis was also an accomplished bassist, he could very well have played on the basic rhythm track, later overdubbing his guitar. Probably the rest of the band was much the same as appeared on Parlo 101, Aaron Neville's massive hit, "Tell It Like It Is": Willie Tee on piano, Deacon John on second guitar, and Emory Thompson on trumpet. The B-side of "Hold On, Help Is On The Way" was another instrumental featuring Davis' extended riffing and sounding a lot like "Tell It Like It Is" in tempo and structure, but with a different melody line and a reconfigured bridge and ending. He called it, "Bet You're Surprised", and took the sole billing as G. Davis. But any commercial interest in this single was quickly overshadowed by the events surrounding Parlo's debut release.
"Tell It Like It Is", which Davis composed based on the title suggested by fellow tunesmith Lee Diamond, became an overwhelming hit for Neville, but ended up bankrupting Parlo Enterprises, the production company started by Davis, Alvin 'Red' Tyler, and Warren Parker, as well as their new label, and Cosimo Matassa , who owned Dover Records, which distributed the single, and the legendary studio operation where most New Orleans records were cut. With over two million copies sold on the hit, plus a quickly assembled album on Neville, and his less successful follow-up singles, the companies had shipped much of their product on credit and were not able to collect the money owned them in time to pay their mounting expenses and taxes. As told before here, the debacle changed the face of the record business in the Crescent City for years to come; and, of course, "Hold On, Help Is On the Way", became just part of the debris of that financial collapse, lending its title a sadly ironic twist.
Of course, you don't have to know any of that to enjoy this well-written and impeccably played tune. But I think it only enriches the music to know some of the back story of the people who made it. I'd like to think that Davis' compositional skills and playing technique on this rare gem speak volumes about his soaring spirit, positive energy, musical sophistication, and sense of humor. Considering how talented he was, it is shocking that he did not do more as solo artist until very late in life. But, it seems he was quite satisfied to contribute as a sideman and stay out of the spotlight. Sure, the music business taught some hard lessons; but he came out of it to create a good life for himself and his family and continued making music until his dying day, What more can you ask?
Here's what my friend, Bill Roberts, sent me about George for this piece:
I had the great fortune of working directly with George for the last several years, as we were working on a 60 song, 4 CD compilation. It will be finished in due time. George was one of those guys where, if you met him, you did not just get a glimpse into his life, you got the 'whole George'. All the man wanted to do in life was help others. He did not seek the front line stage. Always a sideman, he made a great fortune with this both spiritually and professionally. . . He meant a great deal to me and to many, many others. His music talent was just one aspect of the man. His generosity, caring nature, and wholesomeness were in my opinion, without equal.
You can hear two of the Willie Tee singles that George contributed to on YouTube.
They are also in rotation on HOTG Radio.
Goodbye, George. Wish I had known you better.
Photo by Bill Roberts
Life is too short to have sorrow.
You may be here today and gone tomorrow.
You might as well get what you want.
So go on and live, baby, go on and live.
- George Davis, "Tell It Like It Is"