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by Mary Bentley

“I love communicating to the spirit of the listener and getting a response.  There’s nothing better.  I think success is being able to communicate through music, and touch, and affect lives.  I think you have to be really passionate about it in order to be successful in this business.”

Melvin Lee Davis knows of what he speaks.  For just about 35 years, he has been a professional musician, playing with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Queen Latifah, Prince, Chaka Khan, The Pointer Sisters, Larry Graham, Brenda Russell, Stevie Wonder, Gerald Albright, Larry Carlton, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight, Kirk Whalum, Eric Marienthal, Chuck Loeb, George Duke, Patrice Rushen, Jeff Kashiwa, the Braxton Brothers, Euge Groove, and Lee Ritenour, who he is about to go on tour with again by the time this story runs in April.  This is just a sample, but this impressive list goes on and on.  Melvin is a true professional who is as comfortable playing on stage live as he is playing for recordings in a studio.  His instrument is the bass, and he is very much in demand.

Though he does not come from a background where his family members played musical instruments, music was always a part of this California native’s life.  “I come from a family of music lovers.  In our house, in most houses back then, you were bound to hear blues, jazz, or something going on.  I had music all around me.”  Melvin’s musical aspirations began with the violin.  “I happened to have a teacher that just loved the violin.  He stuck violins in all the kids’ hands.  Needless to say we were a big class of out of tune playing violin kids.  There’s nothing worse than hearing violins played out of tune. (Laugh)” In his junior year of high school, Melvin traded his violin for a saxophone.  He then began to dabble in the guitar and the bass, finally settling on the bass in his junior year of high school.  There are many musicians who influenced the young Melvin.  As a saxophone player, he listened and learned from the recordings of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.  Melvin remains a huge Louis Armstrong fan to this day.  R&B music brought different influences to his life including Larry Graham, Sly & the Family Stone, and EWF.  When he discovered electric music, he was exposed to talent like the Brecker Brothers, Return to Forever, Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, and Stanley Clarke.  “I grew up in a time where there was a lot of experimental music going on.  I dabbled in a bunch of it.” 

Melvin fell into his first professional gig when he was 16 years old.  He replaced the bass player in rock drummer Buddy Miles’ gig because the original bass player missed the flight.  A friend of his sister’s boyfriend, a baritone sax player who played for both Buddy Miles and the group LTD, knew he played bass from seeing him perform in the local talent shows.  He called him at the last minute and asked if he could make it to the airport in time.  He could, and he did.  “I guess I looked older than 16, so we’d get into the clubs.  There was a lot of exposure.”  It was then that Melvin began playing professionally; making money for doing something he loved to do.  “I was probably super cheap.  I’m sure that was a huge part of why I was getting called for gigs. (Laugh) When you’re that age, you’re playing for the love of the instrument.”  Melvin caught a big break when he hooked up with the legendary host of Soul Train, Mr. Don Cornelius.  “I stayed with his company for eight years.  He really introduced me to a lot of people in the industry.”

As a professional musician, Melvin is called upon to tour with various artists for live shows, and to do recording sessions in the studio.  There are advantages to both, and, he enjoys playing in both musical environments.  “It’s good to get those accolades because when you go out on tour, and you play for that moment and that time, you’re getting a reaction from that audience.  That’s always a great thing.  You’re speaking emotionally to them through your instrument, and they’re responding in kind.  I always like sharing music.  But, in a studio, those are things that last a lifetime.  Twenty or thirty years down the road, somebody can hear the music that you played on.  I’m still listening to Louie Armstrong, who passed away years ago, and his music still affects me.”   
There are not many people in a 35 year career that he hasn’t played with, but when called upon, he could still name a few.  Like most musicians, he would have loved an opportunity to play with Miles Davis.  Melvin is drawn to songwriters “who really have something to say lyrically and musically,” like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Lauren Hill and India Arie, “deep, deep sisters who can really sing and are really talented.”  Or, someone like Curtis Mayfield, “another person who I would have loved to play with; people who are socially in tune, or do things that will make you think, or write common sense lyrics.  Stevie [Wonder] could take a few words and turn them into sheer poetry.  The names I gave are musicians who really have command of their words.”

Melvin is currently working on his 5th recording, called Genre Music, which he is hoping to have completed before he leaves for his European tour in June.“It’s not any one particular style.  I don’t operate that way musically.  I write what I feel, what feels good to me. It’s sort of organic.  I’m going through a lot of different styles.  I don’t want to categorize it.  It’s not one genre, it’s everything.  There’s unplugged music, acoustic piano music, some funky music, just a mix of everything.”  Melvin admits that not having his music in a specific category makes it harder domestically, to sell records, but, not on the international level. 
A professional working musician’s life is constantly in motion.  You’re always, practicing, playing, recording, writing, producing, touring, and then looking for that next gig.  So, when Melvin has some downtime, he likes to play basketball, take long walks, spend time with his family, and practice his craft.  “I love to practice.  There are still things that I’m learning, so, the journey continues.”  (I even tried to tell him about some walks to take when he comes to Blues Alley with Lee Ritenour in April, but this veteran musician, who has played Blues Alley many times over the years, has already been there and done that.)

Someone who has been in the business as long as Melvin Lee Davis has can offer a unique perspective to anyone looking to get into this business today.  Melvin suggests that they use the available digital media and create their own business.  They can control their own success if they have the passion.  “Keep the passion and stay focused.  The sky’s the limit.  Know that you’re worthy of whatever it is you want to do.  For me, it’s about having passion, and the rest usually takes care of itself.  What are you saying that really speaks to the person’s spirit, their heart?  There are a lot of storytellers in the world.  That’s what we are, we’re storytellers.  There will be someone out there who will identify with your story.” 

He practices what he preaches.  Passion is the driving force for bass player Melvin Lee Davis.  It’s is as strong now as it was when he began playing professionally 35 years ago.  “The saying is true; if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Beginning early April, Melvin Lee Davis will be having fun doing his job with Lee Ritenour.  Please visit Melvin’s website or Facebook page for more information.