BREAKING: “Song Painter” Mac Davis Dies At 78

Mac Davis

American music icon Mac Davis passed away in Nashville on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at age 78, following open-heart surgery.

During a five-decade career, Davis made his mark as a songwriter, recording artist, film actor, Vegas headliner, Broadway musical star, television personality and music publisher.

Among his classic songs are “In the Ghetto,” “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” “Stop and Smell the Roses,” “A Little Less Conversation,” “I Believe in Music,” “Something’s Burning” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble.”

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Bruno Mars, Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell, Avicii, Andy Williams, Conway Twitty, Tom Jones, Bobby Blue Bland, Tammy Wynette, Weezer and Merle Haggard are just a few of the many stars who have recorded Mac Davis songs.

As a recording artist, Davis issued 20 albums and charted more than 40 singles. He earned five Gold Record awards and two Platinum sales honors. Between 1970 and 1990, he consistently sang top-10 hits in the pop, country and adult-contemporary formats.

He was a 2006 inductee into the national Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998. He has been a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 2000 and is also in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. He is among the handful of songwriters who have been honored with a BMI Icon award.

Mac Davis performs during the CMA Songwriters Series at the Library of Congress in Washington on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. Photo by Lisa Nipp for CMA

Davis was born Morris Mac Davis on Jan. 21, 1942 in Lubbock, TX. He was raised there by his strict, religious father. As soon as he graduated from Lubbock High at age 16, he moved to Atlanta, where his mother was living. He attended Emory University and worked as a clerk in the state probation department.

While in Georgia, he formed a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Zots. A series of solo singles for a variety of labels in 1962-65 went nowhere. These early efforts — “A Little Dutch Town,” “Honey Love,” “Hey Monkey” – were repeatedly reissued on budget albums after he became a hit-making star.

Despite striking out at first as a recording artist, Mac Davis was determined to remain in the music industry. He became a promotion man for Vee Jay Records and worked in the publishing division of Liberty Records.The Liberty job brought him to Los Angeles. He continued to record sporadically and was signed as a staff songwriter by Nancy Sinatra’s publishing company.

In 1966-67, Davis songs were recorded by Campbell, Sinatra, Lou Rawls and Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, among others. His most notable copyrights during this period included “Hello L.A. Bye-Bye Birmingham,” “God Knows I Love You” and “Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife.”

In 1968, Presley recorded “A Little Less Conversation.” Although only a modest hit at the time, the song became an international success following the superstar’s death in 1977. It has now been recorded by more than 30 other artists and is the songwriter’s most licensed TV-soundtrack song.

Presley followed that by recording the Mac Davis songs “Memories,” “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” in 1968-70. All of them became pop hits, and the latter two each sold a million.

Mac Davis on stage at “The 11th Annual CMA Awards” on Oct. 10, 1977, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Courtesy CMA

Parton covered “In the Ghetto” for the country market, and 170 other acts also recorded it. “Don’t Cry Daddy” had more than 30 other recordings, as did “Memories.”

In 1969, O.C. Smith had a top-10 R&B hit with the Mac Davis song “Daddy’s Little Man.”

In 1970-71, Glen Campbell had a country hit with “Everything a Man Could Ever Need,” while Kenny Rogers & The First Edition hit the pop charts with “Something’s Burning,” and Bobby Goldsboro succeeded on both hit parades with Davis’ “Watching Scotty Grow.”

Mac Davis signed with Columbia Records in 1970. His recording career took off with his self-penned 1972 No. 1 pop hit “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.” It earned him a Grammy Award nomination. The singing group Gallery had a hit with his “I Believe in Music” that same year, and that song was covered by more than 60 others. Davis titled his debut LP Song Painter, which became his moniker.

Pop success continued in 1974-75 with “One Hell of a Woman,” “Stop and Smell the Roses” and “Rock N Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life).” Meanwhile on the country charts, Campbell scored with his song “Oklahoma Sunday Morning” and Ray Price hit the top-10 with “Lonesomest Lonesome.”

Davis was named the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year in 1974. His genial personality, just-folks charm and big pop hits led to starring in his 1974-76 NBC-TV variety series. This was followed by numerous television specials.

Co-hosts Barbara Mandrell and Mac Davis speak at the The 14th Annual CMA Awards on Oct. 13, 1980, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Courtesy CMA

He became a Las Vegas headliner with perennial residencies at the MGM Grand during this era. Davis also became a top touring concert star.

The Texas native had always maintained a presence on the country charts. In 1976, Davis had his first top-20 country success, “Forever Lovers.”

In 1979, Mac Davis starred in his first movie, North Dallas Forty. This was followed by roles in Cheaper to Keep Her (1981) and The Sting II (1983). Since then, he has appeared in more than a dozen TV movies, including serving as the narrator for The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood (2000).

Because he was a country-music person succeeding in L.A., Dolly Parton sought his advice regarding her career. He introduced her to his managers, facilitating her transition from country headliner to pop-culture superstar.

Davis signed with Casablanca/PolyGram Records in 1979. This coincided with his emergence as a chart-topping country star. His major country hits included “It’s Hard to Be Humble” (1980), “Let’s Keep It That Way” (1980, written by Curly Putman & Rafe Van Hoy), “Texas in My Rear View Mirror” (1980), “Hooked on Music” (1981), “You’re My Bestest Friend” (1982) and “I Never Made Love (‘Til I Made It With You)” (1985, penned by Bob McDill).

His prominence on the country charts led to Mac Davis co-hosting the CMA Awards Show with Barbara Mandrell in 1980, 1981 and 1982.

Mac Davis speaks at The 16th Annual CMA Awards on Oct. 11, 1982, at the Grand Ole Opry House, live telecast on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Courtesy CMA

Davis and Parton co-wrote her 1990 hit “White Limozeen,” as well as several other songs she recorded during the 1990s.

His other songwriting partners over the years included Doc Severinsen, Billy Strange, Walt Aldridge, Mark James, Barbara Wyrick and Delaney Bramlett. He and Shel Silverstein collaborated on the 1980 Bobby Bare hit “Tequila Sheila.” But the majority of his best-known songs were solo written.

In 1992-93, Davis starred on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies and toured with the musical.

The Davis-penned Presley oldie “A Little Less Conversation” surged back into prominence in 2002-03 when it became an omnipresent Nike commercial, appeared on the soundtrack of the hit movie Ocean’s Eleven and was remixed to become a No. 1 international hit.

In 2010, Davis collaborated with Rivers Cuomo of the alt-rock band Weezer. Their song “Time Flies” appeared on the band’s album Hurley. In 2013, Davis was a co-writer with the late Swedish electronic dance artist Avicii on the international million seller “Addicted to You.” The following year, he reappeared on the pop charts as a co-writer of the Bruno Mars tune “Young Girls.”

Mac Davis guest-starred on such TV hits as Murder She Wrote, The Muppets, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, The Client, Webster, Oswald (voice over), Johnny Bravo, King of the Hill (voice over), Rodney, Freaks and Geeks and Fargo.

His last appearance as an actor was portraying a preacher in the “J.J. Sneed” episode of the 2019 Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings Netflix series of mini movies.

In recent years, Mac Davis and his family had been dividing their time between Tennessee and California. After undergoing a heart bypass operation at Vanderbilt Hospital, he suffered a heart attack there on Monday, Sept. 28.

Mac Davis is survived by his wife of 38 years, Lise, and by sons Scott, Noah and Cody, daughters-in-law, Tammy, Amy, Cassia, granddaughter Lindsey, mother Edith and sister Linda. Mac will be buried in his hometown of Lubbock, TX and in a nod to his song “Texas In My Rear View Mirror,”  he will be wearing his jeans.


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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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