Don Davis came into the world in December of 1928 in Calvert, Alabama.
Little did his parents know that one day he would become one of Nashville's
famed session musicians as a pedal steel guitar player - on over 3,000
Don wrote of some of his recollections in "The Journal" back in 19XX.
He grew up what some might consider poor back in those days, but a
child doesn't know it. His step-father was making $9 a week at the
local International Paper and the family seemed to have everything they
could want and enough to eat along with a car. He noted they spent three
dollars on groceries and would have to take the back seat out of the car
just to get them home!
Don developed a liking for the steel guitar at an early age. He got his
first one by swapping his bicycle for the guitar. But back then,
he never thought it would take him to the future he later found.
His parents (step-father, John Charles Beard and mother, Anna Belle)
got him a new electric steel guitar for all of $39.95 from
Sears Roebuck and Company.
Around the time of World War II, he could be found playing at the local
community dances on Saturday nights where the defense workers in Mobile
would hang out after work.
As a sixteen year-old teen-ager, he moved to Nashville and became a member
of Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys, playing the Grand Ole Opry.
It only took him three years working with Pee Wee to travel to the original
48 United States. And was earning $45 a week. Even then, fellow Grand Ole Opry artists saw the talent the youngster
had and was getting requests to work on their records.
Don relates where much of the money he made came from in that article. Fans will
recall those days of that early era where as part of the personal appearances, the
stars and their bands would mingle with the crowds afterwards, selling photos, and souvenir
books and giving autographs to the fans. Don noted he earned quite a bit selling those
souvenir books - getting a dime for each one he sold. He thought he was doing okay, maybe
not a millionaire, but he was always working.
But for some, the life on the road can wear a person down. Don thought it was time
to take a break from life on the road.
His distinctive sound can be heard on recordings by Pee Wee King,
Minnie Pearl, Cowboy Copas, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank WIlliams, Tennessee Ernie
Ford, Dinah Shore, Conway Twitty and many others.
Don tells readers that he was on the first recordings Hank Williams did for MGM - Wedding
Bells and Mind Your Own Business.
But country music was not his only interest. He developed an interest
in jazz music and would jam occasionally with such legendary jazz greats
as Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole and Oscar Moore.
In 1955, Don got together with Shot Jackson and Hank Garland to design and build
ten custom pedal steel guitars, one of the first pedal steels ever made. Shot
Jackson, would later team up with Buddy Emmons to begin the company that
manufactured the famed Sho-Bud Pedal Steel Guitars. Don would later
become a spokesperson for the Fender company for their line of pedal steel guitars.
Around 1957, he found work at Channel 5 in Mobile, Alabama, WKRG-TV and was
the host of an early morning show called the "Alabama Jubilee".
But he still had a bit more of Nashville in him. He returned to the Music City
and opened a publishing company and also began a career as a record producer.
Country music fans will recognize the names of the folks he worked with
as a record producer - Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Kitty Wells, Waylon Jennings,
Connie Cato and others.
He produced the first contemporary gospel record to reach the Pop charts with a
tune called, "Jesus Is A Soul Man".
Don had a knack for finding songs as well. He produced three records with Johnny Cash.
One day a songwriter dropped by Don's office and pitched a song to him. Don heard it,
liked it, and then got a hold of Johnny and told him he had his next hit song.
This was around the time Johnny was getting ready to go to San Quentin prison in California
and do a live album. Johnny noted in his autobiography, "The Man In Black" that after
he heard the song title, he thought to himself, well, this time Don missed it and it sounded
like something he knew he wouldn't like. But after he heard it, his mind changed. It almost
didn't get recorded but thankfully, his wife June Carter reminded him to take the song with
him. He barely had time to get to learn it while doing the record - he had the lyrics in front
of him on the floor on the stage, thus, we can appreciate a bit of the ad-lib type of style
he seemed to do that song with. The song that became a monster hit for Johnny? It was
"A Boy Named Sue".
Johnny thanked Don by presenting him with a big black-on-black Cadillac that Don said was
not exactly the nicest thing to be seen in but he did at least keep it for about six months.
But that would not be the last thanks he got for that recording.
Red O'Donnell wrote another anecdote about that song in his Nashville Banner column
in 1973. At the time, Don was managing a song publishing company called Wilderness Music that
was owned by songwriter Harlan Howard. Around 1970 was when Shel Silverstein walked
into Don's office. At the time, he was more known as a cartoonist for Playboy magazine
than as a songwriter. So, if Don thought the cadillac Johnny got him wasn't to his liking,
Shel sat down and wrote out a check to Don and told him to go out and buy a new
cadillac. It was his way of thanking Don for his help in getting him established
as a songwriter. And we know there's some truth to that one - Don sent us a copy of that
check that Shel wrote on February 1, 1973.
The year of 1969 was one interesting year for Johnny Cash. He had a hit television show, he was on top of the entertainment
world. He won Male Vocalist of the Year, "A Boy Named Sue" won Single Record of the Year",
the San Quentin live album won Best Album. He won Group of the Year with his wife. And to top
it off, he won CMA's Entertainer of the Year. During his acceptance speeches, Johnny
thanked his brother-in-law (Don was married to June's sister, Anita Carter), Don, for finding
him the song.
Don was an Adjutant General in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1951. He also did classified work
on warships with Gulf Shipbuilding in Mobile in 1943.
As we might expect, Don shows up in various articles in the 1950s. Glen Campbell (not the latter
day singer) and Tex Clark wrote in their "Letter to the Home Folks" column in December 1953
that Don and Anita Carter were to be married on March 1, 1954. At that time, Anita's sister, June
Carter had just celebrated her first anniversary with then husband, Carl Smith. But that gets
confusing because in the previous issue in an article about the Carter Sisters,
they note that Anita had just recently became Mrs. Don Davis. At that time, Don
was playing steel guitar for Opry star, George Morgan.
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Don Davis and his wife, Serilda
for sending us several articles and notes about Don's musical career.
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Lorrie Davis Bennett, daughter
of Anita Carter and Don Davis for providing biographical information on both of her parents.
- Cowboy Songs; No. 29; November 1953; American Folk Publications;
- Cowboy Songs; No. 30; December 1953; American Folk Publications;
- Singer Johnny Cash Makes Sweep of Country Music Awards; By Nancy Shipley, Associated Press;
Mobile Press; October 16, 1969; Mobile, Alabama (copy provided by Don & Serilda Davis)
- Recollections: He Won Fame on Both Sides of the Studio;
By Don Davis; The Journal; Issue No. 20; April 1994; Country Music Magazine and Country
Music Society of America; Silver Eagle Publishers, Westport, CT (copy provided by Don & Serilda Davis)
- Don Davis' Tune Tip Remembered; Red O'Donnell; The Nashville Banner;
February 27, 1973; Nashville, Tennessee (copy provided by Don & Serilda Davis)
- Copy of Check Made Out to Don Davis By Shel Silverstein
of Evil Eye Music Inc.; February 1, 1973 (copy provided by Don & Serilda Davis)
- Frankie "Peewee" King Grand Ole Opry Deluxe Songbook; Publication Date
Unknown; Frank and King Publications, Goodlettsville, Tennessee