Mac Davis’s name will always be associated with Elvis Presley, since Davis wrote Presley’s dramatic and politically charged 1969 comeback hit In the Ghetto, as well as A Little Less Conversation (a hit in 1968, and then a much bigger hit in a remixed version more than 30 years later). Davis’s compositions Memories and Don’t Cry Daddy would become regular staples of Presley’s concert performances in the 1970s.
But Davis, who has died aged 78, was also a noteworthy artist in his own right. He racked up a string of big hits on the US pop and country charts, including the chart-topper Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me (1972), Stop and Smell the Roses (1974), It’s Hard to Be Humble (1980) and Hooked on Music (1981), and was able to diversify into a successful acting career in television and films. Among his long list of screen credits, Davis fans especially treasure his performance as a football quarterback (alongside Nick Nolte) in the movie North Dallas Forty (1979), and his role in the ABC sitcom Rodney (2004-06).
Born in Lubbock, Texas, he was the son of Edith (nee Lankford) and Thomas “TJ” Davis. His father, a builder, owned an apartment complex called the College Courts, where Davis lived with his parents and sister, Linda. He described his father as “very religious, very strict and very stubborn”. A keen football player, he often found himself involved in fist fights. He graduated from Lubbock high school aged 16, and left the city to move in with his mother in Atlanta, she having divorced and remarried.
Inspired by the example of Lubbock’s most famous son, Buddy Holly, whom he recalled seeing driving through Lubbock in a brand new black and pink Pontiac convertible, Davis angled to break into the music business and, after dabbling with a local Atlanta band, the Zots, he joined the Vee-Jay record company in 1961 before being hired as a regional manager for Liberty Records in 1965.
In 1966 he became a plugger for Liberty’s music publishing division in Hollywood, trying to sell other writers’ songs while also slipping in demo recordings of his own material. He was subsequently hired as a staff writer by Nancy Sinatra’s fledgling publishing company B-n-B Music and was able to place his material with artists including Bobby Goldsboro, Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, OC Smith and Sinatra herself. He also performed frequently in her stage shows.
He received a priceless boost when Presley, who had already hailed Davis as “one hell of a songwriter”, recorded A Little Less Conversation (a song Davis had originally intended for Aretha Franklin), which was included in the 1968 film Live a Little, Love a Little. Decades later it enjoyed a second life after a remixed version featured in the movie Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and went on to top the singles charts in nine countries. “It shows you two things: the power of music and the power of Elvis,” Davis said.
Elvis liked the song so much that he asked Davis to write another for his 1968 comeback special on NBC TV. Presley’s version of the resulting song, Memories, gave Davis his first Top 40 credit as a songwriter.
Presley took In the Ghetto to No 3 on the US chart in 1969, with Don’t Cry Daddy reaching No 6 later the same year. Both songs reflected Davis’s personal experiences. Don’t Cry Daddy recalled the breakup of his parents’ marriage, while In the Ghetto was based on memories of his Lubbock childhood, when he used to play with a young black boy and gained an early inkling of the social ills of poverty and racism.
“It’s a good feeling to know I wrote a song that touched somebody and maybe in some small way changed their life,” he said. In the Ghetto triggered a major comeback for Presley after several fallow years, and has since been recorded by more than 170 artists, including Dolly Parton, Solomon Burke, Sammy Davis Jr and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds.
In 1970 Davis wrote I Believe in Music while at a party at Lulu and Maurice Gibb’s home in London, the title prompted when he declined to participate in a seance and was asked if he believed in the occult. Gallery had a US Top 30 hit with the song in 1972.
Two years later Davis was named Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. His solo musical career saw him charting 30 times on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs between 1970 and 1986. In 1989 he duetted with Parton on the track Wait ’Til I Get You Home from her hit album White Limozeen, for which he also co-wrote the title song.
After a period of alcoholism and rehab, he made a breakthrough on Broadway when he took over the title role in the musical The Will Rogers Follies in 1992, an event he described as “the biggest turnaround in my life”. In 1994 he released his final album of original material, Will Write Songs for Food.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 and was still able to inspire younger artists well into his eighth decade. He co-wrote the song Young Girls for Bruno Mars’s album Unorthodox Jukebox (2012), and reached the top of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs in 2014 as co-writer of Avicii’s Addicted to You. “It made me feel like I’m still viable at the ripe old age of 73,” he said. The droll Davis always liked to keep it simple and claimed that his songwriting secret was: “I try to tell the truth and hope it rhymes.”
He was twice divorced and is survived by his third wife, Lise Gerard, and their children, Noah and Cody, and a son, Scott, from his first marriage, to Fran Cook.
• Scott Mac Davis, singer, songwriter and actor, born 21 January 1942; died 29 September 2020