"They call me a blues singer," veteran soul man Tyrone Davis declares with the resigned air of one who's had to explain this distinction too many times before. "I'm not a blues singer--I'm a rhythm and blues singer."
The 56-year-old Davis has been a local mainstay for so long that some forget how important he's been in the development of contemporary R & B. Born in Mississippi and raised in Michigan, he moved to Chicago in 1957 and did, in fact, start on the west side blues scene, trying to sound like Bobby "Blue" Bland. He toured with blues singer Freddie King as a driver and valet, and a few years later he was discovered singing in a local club by R & B artist Harold Burrage. Burrage brought Davis to the Four Brothers label, which operated out of Barney's Records on Roosevelt Road. There, under the name Tyrone the Wonder Boy, Davis had several local hits before the label folded in 1967.
In 1968 Davis moved to the Dakar label, where he recorded "Can I Change My Mind?" That song, with its jaunty feel of romantic vulnerability punctuated by an infectious guitar vamp from Mighty Joe Young, defined the Davis style and hit number one on the national R & B charts. Since then Davis has charted no fewer than 54 times. In 1988 Joel Whitburn's Top R & B Singles, which is based on Billboard charts, listed Davis as the 30th best-selling R & B artist of all time, ahead of such notables as Al Green (47th), Curtis Mayfield (70th), and Funkadelic (197th).
Although Davis continues to record--his last album, You Stay on My Mind, was released by the Ichiban label last June--he's largely unknown outside of a core group of R & B lovers. He's convinced one reason is that irritating label of "blues singer," claiming that the term is the commercial kiss of death in the mainstream music industry.
Tonight, though, Davis has more pressing concerns than genre debates. Despite a nagging cold and a temperamental PA system, he's just elevated a packed house to shouting, hand-waving ecstasy at his new club, the Tyrone Davis Entertainment Center, in a former blues venue known as the Zodiac Lounge. It's been a long time since the west side has been able to boast this kind of nightclub, promising to attract top-name artists on a regular basis. There's a definite feeling of triumph in the air, but the pragmatic and somewhat wary Davis isn't smug. "Somewhere down the line I can make a few dollars," he says flatly. "I do what I do: I sing. I've been taking what I've got coming. Soul music might be coming back strong. They keep telling me that. I hope so, because that's what I do."
Davis is all too familiar with the pitfalls of the R & B circuit, and he's determined to create an atmosphere that's relaxed and dignified for entertainers and listeners alike. While his club is far from opulent, there's a low-key sense of conviviality that puts performers and patrons at ease. Old friends come by to pay their respects--Otis Clay joins Davis on his tour bus parked in back, Artie "Blues Boy" White and Mighty Joe Young exchange pleasantries at the bar--and everyone settles into a mellow party groove. Outside, a security guard makes sure that patrons can park their cars for the evening without worrying.
Davis has been involved with the club for little more than a month but already he's convinced that he can transform this unpretentious corner tavern into a major R & B venue. Future plans include shows by Artie "Blues Boy" White and Cicero Blake and maybe a "steppers' set" with a deejay on Sunday evenings. Davis says he might even have to knock out a wall to increase the room's capacity. "Since I had this place, I found out that people will come. If I had advertised, I wouldn't have enough space--these people are hungry for entertainment!"
The Tyrone Davis Entertainment Center is at 1744 N. Central. This weekend features shows by Little Milton at 8 PM Friday and Saturday; tickets cost $15 in advance, $18 at the door. Call 637-3699 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.