It was the late 1960s and America was tearing itself apart. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, but there was rioting in the streets and John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all dead by the time a young songwriter called Mac Davis met Sammy Davis Jr and played them his latest song.
Mac Davis was the only white man in a room full of African-Americans. But his new song, inspired by a childhood friendship with a young black boy in Texas, was all about the urban black experience in contemporary America.
The song’s protagonist is born into a poor household, he needs “a helping hand”, but in desperation turns to violence and crime, “tries to run, but he don’t get far… and his mamma cries.” The song reduced the company, which also included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, to tears.
Davis had hoped his namesake would record In the Ghetto, which dramatised a cycle of urban poverty, crime and death.
But Sammy Davis thought it would be even more powerful if a white man sang it and it was Elvis Presley who took it to No 1 around the world, though ironically it stalled at No 3 in the US.
Mac Davis had already written several other songs for Presley, including A Little Less Conversation, which although it was not a hit on initial release, was a posthumous No 1 in the UK. As well as raising Davis’s profile, In the Ghetto helped revive Elvis’s career. Davis would write several more songs for him, including the hit Don’t Cry Daddy.
Around the same time Kenny Rogers and the First Edition had a UK Top Ten hit with Davis’s sexy, smouldering song Something’s Burning, while I Believe in Music was recorded by a host of artists. The original was by Helen Reddy, who died on the same day as Davis.
Davis was still enjoying success in his seventies. He co-wrote Addicted to You, which appeared on Avicii’s debut album and made it into the UK Top 20 in 2014, though music had changed dramatically. “He can make a whole orchestra from out of his computer. It’s amazing,” Davis said.
The 1960s and 1970s was the era of the singer-songwriter and Davis became a big star in the US, with his own tv show. He never had quite the same success as a singer in the UK, scraping into the UK Top 30 with a couple of songs.
He also had a successful career in films and TV. He was a guest star on The Muppet Show and had a lead role in the sequel to The Sting. He was in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, had a star on Hollywood Boulevard and a street named after him in Lubbock, Texas, the same city where Buddy Holly was born.
Morris Mac Davis was born in Lubbock in 1942. His parents split up when he was young and he was brought up by a strict, religious father, who ran a local building business.
Davis became very friendly with the son of one of his father’s black labourers, but was struck by the inequality of their lifestyles. “They lived in a really funky dirt street ghetto,” he said. “I was wondering why they had to live that way and I lived another way.”
Buddy Holly was six years ahead of Davis at Lubbock High. “I used to go to the dances at Lawson’s skating rink and see him play on weekends,” he said.
“I remember sitting on my front porch and seeing Buddy Holly purposefully drive by at 25 miles an hour in his brand new Pontiac Catalina with these good-looking girls in the car … If Buddy Holly could make it that far, I could too.”
Davis married for the first time, aged 21, and had one son Scott, who would feature in his song Watching Scotty Grow, a US hit for Bobby Goldsboro. It was the first of three marriages, the first two of which ended in divorce.
He worked as a regional manager with the Vee-Jay and Liberty record companies, while also trying to develop a career as a singer and songwriter. In the second half of the 1960s he worked with Nancy Sinatra as a songwriter and guitarist.
In partnership with Billy Strange, he wrote songs for Elvis’s 1968 comeback television special and his films Live a Little, Love a Little and the western Charro! So Presley was an obvious choice for In the Ghetto, even though it was a departure for him in terms of content and style.
Although many of Davis’s songs are melancholy, some downright maudlin, others are light and witty and occasionally cringey. He topped the US charts in 1972 with Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me, helped by publicity generated by angry feminists. It was a minor hit in the UK. His other UK was It’s Hard to Be Humble in 1980 – next line “when you’re perfect in every way”.
The critics were less keen than the public. Rolling Stone magazine reckoned he did “more to set back the cause of popular music in the 70s than any other figure”.
Although Elvis’s recording of In the Ghetto is the definitive one, the song was recorded by many other singers including Davis himself, Dolly Parton and Sammy Davis – an excruciating version in which he speaks the words, backed by a chorus of female singers, and proves most definitely that his original decision to let someone else record it first was the correct one.
Mac Davis’s second, brief marriage was to Sarah Barg, a teenager who left him for Glen Campbell. He is survived by his third wife Lise and three sons.