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How to Roast a Wild Soul Singer

Tyrone Davis's friends look back on his greatest hits and some near misses.



By Dave Hoekstra

"You know, this year I was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation hall of fame," soul singer Tyrone Davis told about a thousand of his closest friends Sunday at the East of the Ryan motel, 79th and Drexel. "I said then that nobody ever gave me anything in this business. You people have just proven that theory completely wrong."

In fact what Davis's friends--among them former mayor Eugene Sawyer, Cook County commissioner and former Impressions front man Jerry Butler, "The Duke of Earl" Gene Chandler, former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson, and Davis's longtime soul mate Otis Clay--had just given him was hell, and nearly three straight hours of it. And he was happy to be there to take it.

The buffet dinner and concert at the low-ceilinged 1960s banquet hall was a roast, nominally to celebrate Davis's three decades in show business. But between the punch lines was the grim fact of the singer's two-year battle with prostate cancer. (He's currently in remission and has gained back 45 pounds.) For $30, or $35 at the door, guests got to pile paper plates with fried chicken, gravy, green beans, and fries; listen to more than a dozen of Davis's friends and relatives gently rip him to shreds; and see performances by Cicero Blake, Clay, and Davis himself. A portion of the proceeds went to help pay Davis's medical bills.

Davis, who between 1968 and 1988 put 43 singles on the Billboard R & B charts and whose crossover successes included "Can I Change My Mind" and "Turn Back the Hands of Time," has a reputation as a hard liver. But he seems almost humbled by his recent brush with death. "I worry about it," Davis said before the roast. "Because the doctors said it takes four or five years before they know if everything is clear. The only thing I've known cancer to do to a human being is kill them. I'm 60 years old, but I don't want to leave here right now.

"I get a checkup every three months. It's been fine. I went through some changes. I learned about support. I stayed at home for five months and lying in bed alone, well, that's a hard pill to swallow. You think about this guy and you think about that guy and you wonder, 'Why won't he call me?' Then you think, OK. I don't have any animosity to anyone. But I can't remember a day Otis [Clay] didn't call me and ask what he could do."

Davis met Clay--who put together the roast along with Davis's wife, Ann, their friends Helen Wooten-Keller and Joyce Saffold, and "Mr. Ricky," the proprietor of Mr. Ricky's Note at 118 W. Cermak--in the mid-60s, when they worked side by side in the shipping department of National Castings in Cicero. Both men had been gigging on weekends around the west side, and Davis eventually left the steelworks to tour with bluesman Freddie King--as his driver and valet. A few years later R & B elder Harold Burrage heard Davis sing at a local club and brought him to the Four Brothers label; in 1968, after Four Brothers folded, Davis went to Dakar, which is where he recorded "Can I Change My Mind."

Around 1975, Davis, Clay, and producer Leo Graham (who cowrote the Manhattans' 1980 hit "Shining Star") were running their own production company, LTO, headquartered near what was left of Record Row at 22nd and Michigan. Graham stood up at the roast to recount a particularly juicy story from those days: "We were all in the office, having a good time, drinking Crown Royal. Actually we had an account up at the liquor store on State Street. We were regulars. It was around midnight and we'd been shooting dice all day. Tyrone had maybe lost $10,000. Then he won $5,000 back."

Among the revelers was R & B singer and producer Andre Williams, who Graham said "was in there neeedlin' him. Tyrone got mad, grabbed his nine millimeter, and it went off. He didn't intend to shoot him. But the hallway was kind of narrow and Andre was standing in the hallway. It shot right through his calico fur coat and into a door. You should've seen the bullet hole in the door! Tyrone had a shit fit and so did Andre. All Otis said was, 'You guys gotta cut this out.' You know Otis, he's the preacher. I asked Tyrone if he was out of his mind and grabbed the gun from him."

Davis just leaned back and laughed.

The best received speaker of the night was not one of Davis's fellow musicians but his favorite clothing designer, Barbara Bates. Davis has extravagant tastes--as anyone who saw him walk onstage at House of Blues in December 1996 in a suit that looked like a stoplight stuck on yellow--can attest. Bates has designed clothes for Michael Jordan, R. Kelly, and Sinbad, and over the past eight years she's done about 20 stage outfits a year for Davis. She told how Davis used to walk into her store at 1010 S. Wabash and rap, "'I'vegotnotime-andnomoneyIcan'tpayforthisrightnow!' And then he'd come back in two months, order some more stuff, and he'd tell me what he was going to pay for it. When my tailors would come out, they'd be trembling and shaking.

"One day my mother mentioned Tyrone to me and my aunt, saying, 'I know Tyrone from way back.' So the next time he scheduled an appointment, I told my mother to come down. And is there anybody here from the west side?"

The crowd answered with hearty cheers.

"Well, my mother walks around with a switchblade in her bra and a pistol in her boots. So I had my mother come out and she straightened him out. And now when he comes around, it's 'Hello, Miss Bates.'"

As Davis clapped his hands and doubled over in laughter, Bates's boyfriend, ex-Bear Wilson, walked to the podium and continued: "I wasn't born when Tyrone was doing all his big hits. It's funny, when he was down at the store raising all that hell, they would tell me to go out and tame him. And I'd go, 'You mean this old guy?' But Tyrone has done a lot for the black community and he has paved the way for the folks coming up. I love him, I respect him."

The pageantry in the audience was at least as much fun to watch as the parade of speakers behind the podium. Alvin Cash, who had a hit with the Andre Williams tune "Twine Time" in 1965, was there, wearing a big gold dollar sign around his neck. Legendary south-side stripper Racetrack Rosie, who opened for Davis in the late 50s at the Place, on 63rd Street, wore a homemade orange minidress and a matching wide-brim hat that trailed long foxtails. Luelissie Buchanan, who heads the Benton Harbor chapter of the Tyrone Davis Fan Club--30 members strong--drove up Sunday afternoon bearing a centerpiece she'd made out of dried dyed-purple sunflowers and a spray-painted gold record.

Not long after Graham spoke, Artie "Blues Boy" White delivered the evening's most unaffected--and affecting--testimonial. Between 1975 and 1976, he would tell me later, Davis did three things for him: got his phone turned on, bought him a 1971 white wood-paneled Ford station wagon, and had somebody make him some suits. Most of the money came from a $5,000 gig Davis played in Milwaukee, and he never asked White to repay him.

"When we were both coming up," White explained to the audience, "Tyrone said, 'If I make it before you, I'm going to reach back and get you. And if you make it before me, you reach back and get me.' I said, OK, but I was driving a truck. What was I going to do, reach back, get him, and put him in the truck?

"Sure enough, the Lord made a way. I'm going across a bridge in Maywood driving my truck and I hear the song on the radio, 'A Woman Needs to Be Loved.' I said, 'That's Tyrone!' And a few weeks later I heard [the single's flip side] 'Can I Change My Mind.' And let me tell you the truth--he reached back and did a lot for me."

Now, more than 20 years later, White was reaching back to return the favor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by David V. Kamba: Tyrone Davis, Racetrack Rosie, Davis's daughter Mildred Norals and her son Karl,.

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