Carl Davis, legendary producer behind the 'Chicago sound' | WBEZ
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Carl Davis, architect of the Chicago sound

The Chicago Sound is southern soul with an urban edge and Carl Davis was one of its main architects. One of his biggest hits was "Oh Girl," by Chicago band The Chi-Lites.

Marshall Thompson, an original member of the group, didn’t think it was a hit at first. He told Davis: "Carl that ain’t no hit record! And he said 'trust me, Marshall.' And we did, and it debuted at number one when it was over with."

Davis produced 20 top ten albums for The Chi-Lites.

Davis developed his knack for picking hits in the mid-fifties, when he created playlists for a popular Chicago radio DJ.

In the early '60s he joined local label Okeh Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. There he discovered Gene Chandler and produced “Duke of Earl” for him, a song by Curtis Mayfield. Thompson says that was a another near miss. "Curtis threw it in the garbage can and Carl Davis went in and pulled it out of there and said this is a smash record!"  

But Thompson says Davis' biggest legacy was his contribution to Chicago's overall music scene. "Chess Records created the blues side mostly. And Carl Davis created the R+ B side. You know he had the biggest acts of all time."

Tom Tom Washington, another revered music producer and arranger, who also gets credit for the "Chicago sound," says Davis helped many young artists develop their sound. My colleague Richard Steele concurs, saying the true sound consisted of people like Davis pulling the very best performance out of each individual artist.

Davis worked with numerous artists, including Jackie Wilson, Mary Wells and Tyrone Davis. In 1976 he formed his own label, Chi-Sound Records, which after a long dormant period, re-opened five years ago.

Davis was born in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood in 1934. After stints in the Air Force and then business school, he started working as an A + R director, one of the first African Americans to do so. 

Last year, the City declared July 20th Carl Davis Day.

Carl Davis died this week, at the age of 77.

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