By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist


I first met George Davidson when I was a baby girl, not quite twenty-one, and using fake identification to go hear Aretha Franklin at the Twenty-Grand nightclub in Detroit, Michigan.  I was there with my close friend, Marthea Hicks, who hosted a radio show locally, and we went backstage to say ‘hi’ to Ms. Franklin.  Marthea’s father was a popular minister in the Detroit area and he and C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) were good friends.  Marthea and Aretha knew each other and I remember being star-struck just to meet the great Queen of Soul.  George Davidson was playing drums for her that fateful evening and he was amazing!  The video below is a recorded concert performed in 1968 with George accompanying Aretha Franklin in Amsterdam, Holland.

George didn’t start out being a drummer.  His dream was to be a great tap dancer, inspired by the inimitable Sammy Davis Jr. or the iconic Nicholas Brothers. He and his family were living on the East side of Detroit, when he began studying tap at the Sophie Wright Settlement House, on Mitchell Avenue, under the tutelage of Clara Wilson.

“I was born on the East side of Detroit, in a Polish neighborhood, right across from where Mr. Kelly’s was located on Chene Street.  It was the Garfield Bowling Alley at that time.   Next, we moved right across the street from Sophie Wright Settlement,” George recalled. 

At Greusel Middle School, Davidson auditioned to be in the band.  He had developed an interest in drumming and Fred Paxton, a pianist, became his first music teacher.  At North Eastern High School, he was tutored by the unforgettable Mr. Rex T. Hall, a percussionist and music educator.

“A lot of folks who became stars attended North Eastern High with me.  Alice Coltrane went to school there, but she graduated before I did.  Barry Harris went to school there too. A couple of the Supremes went there; Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.  Martha Reeves from Martha and the Vandellas was a student and so was Willie Tyler, the popular ventriloquist.  When I was touring with the Four Tops, Willie used to open for us. I also got to play his show a few times.  He appreciated background music, just like a lot of the comedians I used to play behind,” George shared memories from his early days in music.

Like many Detroit artists and musicians, George Davidson wet his feet, bathing in the recording waters of Johnnie Mae Matthews. In 1958, Johnnie Mae Matthews was the first African American woman to establish a record company.  She set up business at 2608 Blaine Street in Detroit, Michigan.  It was known as Northern Recording Company and Davidson became the ‘on-call’ drummer for most of her sessions.  Known fondly as the ‘Godmother of Detroit Soul,’ Johnnie Mae recorded several artists destined to become super stars like David Ruffin, who would become a lead singer for the Temptation group and his talented brother, Jimmy Ruffin.  She originally primed the group called “The Distants” featuring Richard Street.  Most of the members of that group later changed their name to the Temptations and signed with Motown.  Berry Gordy credits Johnnie Mae Matthews for teaching him the record business and she helped get Smokey Robinson and The Miracles get airplay and a distribution deal with Chess Records for their first 1959 hit record, “Bad Girl.” George remembers some of the sessions he played on for Johnnie Mae Matthews.

“I was the session drummer who recorded on most of the Johnnie Mae Matthews projects that she produced.  She had acts like, Timmy Shaw, T.P., the lead singer with the Originals; Bettye LaVette and Bobby St. Thomas. I played on all those sessions and more. I remember when Bettye LaVette was an underaged teenager hanging out at Phelps Lounge with me and Ms. Cubie. The police would come in there and Bettye, me and Ms. Cubie (another Detroit vocalist whose real name is Betsy Barron) would run and hide in the back room ‘cause we were all under the legal age. We were chasing the music.”

George Davidson recalled his international tour with the Four Tops.  “I enjoyed working with the Four Tops.  They were really cool.  We were in Europe at that time with the first African American brother that modelled for the J. L Hudson Company, he was an icon and he was also our Road Manager.  So, one pay day, Motown didn’t send me all my money.  They shorted me. That was the first part of 1970.  We were in Europe, so I told the road manager to give me my airplane ticket, because I was going home.  I’m outta here, I told him angrily. 

“The morning I arrived back in Detroit, I got a call from Paul Butterfield.  He wanted me to come on the road with them, ‘cause Phillip Wilson (their drummer) had went nuts on them.  I told him I had just got back in town that morning.  I needed a couple of days rest.  That was Monday morning.  He said, he’d have the plane ticket for me at the airport on Wednesday.  So, I went out there and rehearsed with them in San Francisco.  I remember that Tower of Power was rehearsing right down the hall from us.  They came strolling down the hallway to hear us play. We recorded for Elektra, The Butterfield Blues Band ‘Live.’  We recorded it at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. That was in 1970.  I also played on their album, Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’. That was in 1971. I may be on one of his compilation albums; Golden Butter/The Best of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Around this same time, I cut the Little Sonny album, “New King of the Blues harmonica.”

Although in the early years, George Davidson cut his teeth on R&B music and the Blues, he has also played jazz with some of the best in the business.  In 1974, he recorded with jazz trombonist, Phil Ranelin on an album called “The Time Is Now.”  This was followed up by a 1976 recording with the Tribe group that included Ranelin, Wendell Harrison, Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney and Rod Hicks. They recorded “Vibes from the Tribe.”  His early influences were great jazz drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Elvin Jones. 

“I remember I used to sit at the side of Elvin Jones when he was with Trane. I was sitting by his drums saying, oh my goodness, look at that.  Will I ever be able to do that stuff?” George smiles remembering.

He applied himself, practiced, took all the gigs that came his way and soon, he found himself playing with many of the masters he admired.  Not only did he go to school with Kenny Cox, he played many gigs with the Detroit-based pianist and composer.  He worked with renowned trumpeter, Dr. Donald Byrd and pianist, arranger, Teddy Harris.  George was the drummer with Teddy’s Be Bop Orchestra group.  Donald Harrison came and sat in with the orchestra one day.  Harrison labeled George ‘The Groove Meister.’

“That’s the first thing I teach my students, you know.  How to groove.  Karrim Riggins is one of my students.  One of the leading drummers in Las Vegas, he’s one of my former students; Angelo Stokes. I taught Shawn Dobbins, and another one is Gayelynn McKinney.  She’s got a very nice, new CD out. The first thing I teach them is how to set the mood, by laying the swing out properly.  Anchor first, before you go anyplace, and don’t play behind the beat.  Play on top of the beat,” George shares some technique advice.

George Davidson, Teddy Harris and Don Mayberry were the house trio at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge for years. Rooted in Detroit, Baker’s is celebrated as the oldest jazz club in the country.  The list of people George has worked with could fill a book.  I asked him about his time working with iconic jazz pianist, Dorothy Donagan.

 “Dorothy Donagan was a sweetheart.  She’d look over at me and say, hey, give me some of that Papa Jo (talking about Jo Jones) cause she liked to play really fast.  Her little body would get to twitching and moving.  I worked with her so much, that when she would do her little body movements, I would catch each one with my drum licks. Oh, she loved that!”

He and vocalist Leon Thomas were ace buddies.  George toured with Thomas for two years.  He also performed with saxophone masters Teddy Edwards and the late, great Eddie Harris.

“The last time I worked with Eddie Harris he gave me a great compliment.  He said, hey, you’re playing your butt off man.  One time we were down in Ohio and he spent 2-1/2 hours on stage.  Eddie could play the piano, he could sing, he would yodel, he’d play the saxophone and turn those machines on and sound like a whole band.  That’s when Claude Black was on piano,” George reminisced.

“My good friend, Claude Black, called me a few days before he passed and told me what the doctor had told him.  They said he didn’t have but a few days before he would die.  He passed away three days later,” George paused and the silence fell like an invisible tear across the phone line. 

NOTE: Claude Black (1933 – January 17, 2013) was an American jazz pianist who performed with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery and Aretha Franklin. Black was born in Detroit. He began his jazz career in 1948 but his big success was in 1965 when he began his tour with Aretha Franklin.[1]

The now defunct, Bird of Paradise, was a popular club in Ann Arbor. George Davidson played with Kenny Burrell at that club, among other great jazz artists.  He worked with amazing vocalists like Sheila Jordan, Marlena Shaw, Ernestine Anderson, Barbara Morrison, Mary Wells, Spanky Wilson, The Sweet Inspiration with Whitney Houston’s mother, of course Aretha Franklin and her sister, Carolyn and Roseanna Vitro to name just a few.  Davidson is a sensitive player on his trap drums.  He knows just when to embellish the music and just how to lay back behind a vocalist, and compliment the vocals without being too loud or overbearing.   Just ask folks like Award winning vocalist Jerri Brown based in Montreal, Canada.  He also accompanied the legendary Jon Hendricks.  Davidson played with Kevin Mahogany, Edwin Starr and Johnny Nash, who had that big hit record, “I Can See Clearly Now.”  Davidson toured with Mary Wilson for years and was the drummer of choice to tour with the Supremes including Mary Wilson, Sherri Payne and Susaye Green, who he complimented saying they were the hottest of all the Supreme groups.  He played with all the other Supreme groups that followed that powerhouse vocal trio.  Davidson was also part of the Michigan Jazz Masters and he recorded “Urban Griots” with that group.

In 1980 and 1985, George recorded with Wendell Harrison on “Dreams of A Love Supreme” and “Reawakening,” and on the “Fish Feet” album with guitarist Ron English, In 2009.

In the early 60s, George Davidson recorded with Melvin Davis.  You can hear his driving drums on a 7” single with “I Won’t Come Crawling Back To You” and “I Don’t Want You” on the flip side.

George told me a funny story about recording with the late Bill Doggett, famous for his hit record, “Honky Tonk.”

“I was with Bill Doggett when he re-recorded Honky Tonk for the second time. that was the last time I saw Bill before he passed.  How I got that gig was Edwin Starr called me from the studio.  Bill Doggett was having problems with his drummer, so Edwin called me and asked me to come over to the studio.  I went over and set my drums up next to his drummer.  They told his drummer to just follow me and we recorded a second version of Honky Tonk.  Edwin Starr opened for us when I was in the UK touring with the Supremes. We were longtime friends.”

I think the funniest stories that George Davidson shared with me were about playing with comedians. I had forgotten that comedians often had musicians play to open their shows or actually play throughout their performances.  George told me he played with the historic Redd Foxx at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. He worked with Professor Irwin Corey, Flip Wilson, Slappy White, Phyllis Diller and even Moms Mabley.

“I worked with Moms Mabley out there in California.  All the ladies would follow around after Moms like little puppies.  When moms came off the stage and put on her regular clothes, you’d never know it was her.  She would be so sharp and she had soft hair.  She didn’t have to straighten her hair.  Moms was put together and looked like a business lady.  She looked like corporate America.  Oh, you would not know it was her once Moms Mabley came out of her costume.

“We would play comedians on and off the stage.  But you know the one that made me laugh the hardest, so hard in fact, she made me leave the stage?  It was Phyllis Diller.  I was crying I was laughing so hard.  I mean I had to leave the stage and get myself together.  Oh, she was hilarious.  And you had to play her music exactly the way it was written on the paper.  Some of the comedians had charts and some didn’t. But she was serious about us playing her charts,” he told me.

The George Davidson legacy has made its way around the world.  He has toured on almost every continent and with a variety of entertainers.  In August of 2017, George found himself lying in a hospital bed.  A huge fan base and a long list of Detroit musicians turned out to celebrate his lifelong musical contributions.  Diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) George has been recuperating at his home in the Motor City and had to momentarily step away from his drums.  However, his rhythmic skills and percussive excellence will live on for years to come, perpetuated by his many successful students and the historic recordings that spotlight his performances.

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  1. Chris Codish Says:

    Great article about George, Dee Dee! Thanks for sharing, it’s always great to learn more about our hometown legends! Hope you are well!

    • musicalmemoirs Says:

      Hey Chris, Always good to hear from you. Pray you are staying safe during these terrible pandemic-times. Yes, we need more written about our music history and our icons. I’m happy to do it! I’m still in Cally and miss coming home. What are you up to? keep me apprised.

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