Mac Davis Interview: Music Legend Discusses His Life, Music and Elvis
For over 45 years, Mac Davis has enjoyed success in virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry and has established himself as an all around entertainer: songwriter, singer, television, stage, and film actor.
Born in Lubbock, Texas on January 21, 1942, his early fame as a singer came when he was signed to Columbia Records in 1970 and two years later topped the Country and Pop charts with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.”
“Elvis had told him that he was looking for new blood in songwriters, that he didn’t want to keep on doing the same old stuff in the movies.”
As a songwriter, Davis penned many songs for Elvis Presley including “A Little Less Conversation,” which was re-released in 2002 and became a Number One hit in twenty-six countries around the world, “In the Ghetto,” which was Presley’s first Top Ten hit in the U.S. in four years,” “Memories,” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.”
Nominated three times for Grammy Awards, Davis has also written hits for Bobby Goldsboro, Dolly Parton, Lou Rawls, Kenny Rogers, and Freddie Hart, among others. He was the star of The Mac Davis Show from 1974 until 1976 and appeared in films such as North Dallas Forty, The Sting II, Cheaper to Keep Her, and Possums.
The multi-talented performer has a Star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and the National Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York City.
On March 25, 2010, Davis will be presented with the Jerry Wexler Award during an Alabama Music Hall of Fame event to be held in Montgomery, Alabama.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mac, I’ve been a fan of your music for a long time.
Mac Davis: Well, thank you so much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations on winning the Jerry Wexler award … what does that mean to you?
Mac Davis: I think it’s a great honor. Jerry Wexler was one of the real pioneers of the music business. He was a real hero of mine.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever get to work with him?
Mac Davis: One time. He actually gave me the privilege of producing a record by Solomon Burke way back in the 70s. It didn’t do anything, but he gave me the chance anyway. I produced Solomon singing “In the Ghetto.” Solomon beat it to death – he sang it great, but it didn’t happen.
At any rate, I knew him just on that level. I had been to a party with Jerry and I mentioned that I’d like to get some really great R&B entertainer to sing that song and Jerry said, “Well, we’re about to do a record with Solomon Burke. Why don’t you just produce a record with Solomon.”
I went, “Just like that?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” So it all came about but, of course, the record didn’t happen. I didn’t know what I was doing in the studio. I’d rather stick to songwriting and singing. But, anyway, it was quite an honor and so unexpected. I didn’t expect anything like that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wexler was called the “Godfather of Muscle Shoals Music” and you also recorded there at Fame Studios.
Mac Davis: Absolutely, and that’s basically the reason I’m getting an award since I wasn’t born in Alabama … because I recorded there at Fame Studios. I had a couple of hits there, guess that’s the basis behind it.
I understand the studio today is pretty much how it always was and that it hasn’t really changed much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ll also be performing at the awards ceremony in Montgomery, right?
Mad Davis: I believe so, just doing a couple of songs … songs that I recorded in Muscle Shoals. I think I’m doing “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” and “Texas in My Rearview Mirror.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you been to Montgomery before?
Mac Davis: I may have performed there at one time but you know, those years are a blur to me (laughs). I was just working all of the time. I do remember pretty much where I played, though, believe it or not, but I’m not sure about Montgomery.
I’ve been to Birmingham and to Jackson. I played in a big arena there in Jackson. They have a big place there and I played with Olivia Newton John. I remember thinking that it was a large place for such a small town.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy most, singing or songwriting?
Mac Davis: Well, they go hand in hand. All songwriters love singing their own songs. They love saying, “And I wrote this.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you always know from an early age that you wanted to be in the music business?
Mac Davis: Not really, I just knew that I could make up songs. I was blessed with a gift. Nobody knows where it came from, but I have a gift for it. It was many years later really, as a teenager, when I started putting words to it. But, I really didn’t get successful until I was 28 and got my first hit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of your uncanny knack of making up songs … I remember The Mac Davis Show and you had a segment where audience members could holler out words to you and you’d instantly turn those words into a song.
Mac Davis: Yeah, well I have to admit that we cheated a little bit. Through the miracle of television you could edit out the bad ones. We’d do probably twelve or thirteen of them and we’d cut it down to the best three or four. But, it did work and it was fun and yeah, I did write those songs there on the spot. It was a risk we took and it worked. People probably remember just that part of the show and they forget all of those terrible skits we did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What happens in your songwriting process? Do the words come to you quickly each time?
Mac Davis: I actually wrote a song once called “The Words Don’t Come Easy,” to describe the whole process. To me, melodies are easy up to a point. When you start matching them up to the lyrics it can be tough … but the words are the hard part. I used to make a joke … the words is my business, but the words is the hard part.
It’s just a process, you know, somebody will say something and it will hit a little nerve and I’ll start talking it until it sings and the melody just starts to flow around it. It’s not that difficult for me. The hard part is just making these words … finding the right words that somebody hasn’t already said. It’s all been said – you just have to find a different way to say it and make it rhyme.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about “In the Ghetto”?
Mac Davis: When I wrote it I had been trying to write a song for a long time and I called it “The Vicious Circle.” A child is born and because of his environment and everything he just turns out to be like his absentee father and basically nobody seems to do anything about it. It just keeps on like a vicious circle when the kid goes away another one is born to take his place and the same thing happens.
That was basically what I had wanted to write a song about and “circle” doesn’t rhyme with anything. So I had a hard time figuring out how to do it and then in the late 60s they started using the word “ghetto” to describe those conditions and environment in the poverty stricken areas of the cities. So I picked up on that word.
A guy named Freddy Weller was showing me a guitar lick and I really liked this guitar lick. As I was playing the lick I just heard this “In the Ghetto” and I went home that night and wrote the song. That’s a pretty simple explanation to a difficult task but that’s basically the way it happened. I know I called Freddy Weller up at four o’clock in the morning singing the song and he wasn’t real happy that I had stolen his lick. But, he was happy for me. He knew I had written a hit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that song a hard sell to Elvis Presley?
Mac Davis: No, not to Elvis. It was a hard sell, I understand to the Colonel and all of the people around him. Chips Moman, who produced the album, wanted to do it and Elvis wanted to do it. I think they were the only ones and they stuck to their guns … and it went Number One.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure his people felt like the song was not in his repertoire.
Mac Davis: Yeah, it wasn’t in his image and he had never been into social commentaries … it was all about girls. At any rate, that’s the story there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it true you first pitched the song to Sammy Davis Jr.?
Mac Davis: That’s not true. I took it to Sammy later. I was trying to get an artist of color to do the song because I thought it was an important song. Back in my little stupid head I thought that it was something an African-American artist should record. I took it to Sammy later on. but Elvis had already recorded it. 1969 was a good year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote “A Little Less Conversation” for the Elvis movie, Live a Little, Love a Little.
Mac Davis: Billy Strange came to me … he was doing the music for that movie. Elvis had told him that he was looking for new blood in songwriters, that he didn’t want to keep on doing the same old stuff in the movies. Billy knew that I had been writing some fairly good songs.
I didn’t have anything cut, but he liked the stuff I was writing and he came and gave me a script. He said, “You know, we’ve got a chance to get a song in this movie. Do you have anything?” I had been writing the song actually in the hopes that Aretha Franklin would record it. That was my idea originally but it fit smoothly into that spot in the movie.
I tweaked it a little bit and changed the words around so that the Colonel would approve of it. The original version was pretty funky. I still wish Aretha would record it but I can dream. At any rate, they liked it and put it in the movie. It got released as a single but I think it got in the 60s nationally and that was about it … and then we didn’t hear anything from it for 34 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Until a remix …
Mac Davis: Yeah, a remix … the Nike commercial is what did it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And I see that the remix is used also in the current movie, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
Mac Davis: Yeah, they use the remix in a lot of stuff. I wish they’d make a ring tone of it so I could put it on my phone (laughs). So far I don’t think they have.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I don’t know, I think you can find a ring tone for just about anything nowadays. Are you working on a new album?
Mac Davis: Yes, it’s the never-ending album. I’ve been recording new songs, and at this point we’ve got it down to 25 and counting. I don’t know quite what we’re going to do with it. I’m too old … you know, they won’t play it on the radio (laughs). So we have to find a way to market it, but I’m really more interested in getting songs out there and listened to.
I’ve been retired too long and everybody’s on my case about … I’ve got these songs and I really don’t do anything with them and they’re pretty good songs. So, if it’s not released, I’d just like to get the songs out there for other artists to listen to. But, it’s a pretty good little old album. We don’t have a title for it or anything but we have quite a few new songs.
Lari White has been producing it in Nashville – Lari was a very popular country singer for quite a while and she’s a real talented gal. Her and her husband Chuck Cannon, who wrote a lot of Toby Keith hits … they’ve been kind of putting this thing together over the last three or four years.
I just got put in the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame so I’ve got a few Halls of Fames under my belt … think what they’re trying to tell me is that I’m getting old (laughs).
Photo Credits: Front slider photo courtesy of Mac Davis
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