Smitty: Joining me at JazzMonthly.com is someone that I think is just truly inspirational from every aspect of life, from the music business to his personal life. He is one of the greatest examples of the true rehabilitative powers of music in every way, and I’m just so excited to have this young man here at JazzMonthly.com. He’s got a great new record out. It’s called It’s About Time. Please welcome the inspirational and amazing Mr. Mel Davis. Mel, how ya doin’, my friend?
Mel Davis (MD): Very, very good, Smitty. Very blessed, I should say. We are really jumping leaps and bounds over this new CD. I’ve always had a chance to say things I like, but this album gave me a lot more freedom because I produced this one basically by myself whereas my last one, Revealed, was produced predominantly by Ronny Jordan, which also, to me, was a great CD, but this one I think gives me a little more variety and I did a couple of dedications, one to a great friend of mine named Billy Preston, who died this year, and another great friend of mine, Jimmy McGriff, and I tried to cover both those guys to the best of my ability because there’s really no copying those kinds of legends. All you can do is emulate them and hopefully get their forgiveness if you messed up. (Laughs.)
Smitty: It’s great that you got to meet Billy before he passed.
MD: Yes, I was very fortunately to meet him. Billy heard me do his song a couple of times before he got sick and he was so encouraging to me when he said “Why don’t you do that song, man? You should record that.” And he said “We really like the way you do it,” so I was telling him “I would like for you to do it with me, Bill,” and then he got sick and same thing with Jimmy McGriff. I wanted to do his song “Heavyweight” that was on The Worm album. Jimmy had a CD back in the day by the name of The Worm and that album featured that song, “Heavyweight,” and I told Jimmy a long time ago I would like to do this song and Jimmy said “You got my blessings, man.” So with those two songs on the CD, I felt free to go even further and do my rendition of Frank Sinatra's song “It Was A Very Good Year” unlike the way Lou Rawls did it or Frank did it. Where they did it kinda in a ballad tempo, I wanted to do it more in a pop funky-orientated way and to my surprise, the people were asking us to do it over and over in Italy last month. They were just “Please do it again! Do it again!” So we ended up doing that song three times in Italy on one set, so Ronny Jordan said “You know, you better include that on your next record, man.”
Smitty: I’m so glad you listened to Ronny, what a great musician! Talk to me about your relationship with George Benson and how you met him.
MD: George Benson, like I said to you before this interview, has been a major inspiration in my life since I was 17, and I met GB when I was 15 years old….I got to hear him play with Larry Young and Dexter Gordon at The Key Club in Newark, New Jersey, and I told him I would love to play with him one day and he said “Well, it could happen.” I didn’t see him anymore for about 15 years and I was playing at the Newark Jazz Festival in 1995 with Charles Earland, Joey DeFrancesco, Rhoda Scott, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, myself, and George Benson, and that’s when I got to really talk to him and he heard me open for these guys, and George started telling me the same thing. “Well, why don’t you record something with me?” He said “I want you to come over to my house.” So one thing led to another and like four CDs later now….it really kinda propelled me forward real fast because all the guitar players on the planet wanted to know this organ player he was playing with, whereas he could’ve used Lonnie Smith, who he used before, he could’ve used anybody, and he chose me and I was really thanking God the whole time because I had lost two fingers that were amputated and they were put back on with microsurgery by one of George’s friends who is a surgeon.
It took seven operations and ten years for me to come back and I did the albums MDRC and Mel Lennium , which were both produced by George Benson and another friend of mine named Tom Papa, and then that led to the Revealed record when George introduced me to Ronny Jordan. I had never heard of Ronny Jordan until this song “After Hours” was being played every day on all the Smooth Jazz and jazz stations across America. Ronny happened to be staying with George for a whole week and that’s how we hooked up and Ronny and I started recording together, and Ronny said “Well, man, to have your hand destroyed like that, for you to still play like that is a miracle, man!”
Smitty: That’s truly inspirational! Mel, talk about some of the things that you went through during those ten years of rehab and not being able to play because it’s obvious you really enjoyed playing music before all of this happened.
MD: Oh yeah.
Smitty: And then to have that taken away had to be hard to deal with….
MD: Oh yeah, it was so hard. And then on top of it, my wife died of cancer. After 26 years of being married, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she was one of my main forces of telling me “You can do it! You can do it! You can come back!” ‘Cause I was so depressed about being hurt and I really don’t have to tell you how the music industry is. Before I got hurt, it had slowed up so bad for the jazz musicians that I started R&B with different local bands and I didn’t really like that position. So I went and got a day gig operating a press and that’s how I got my hand messed up. In the whole ten years that I was trying to recover, I just ignored everybody. People were saying “Mel, why don’t you just give it up? We know you like to play, we know this is all about you, but you only got one hand now. How are you gonna play with one hand? You sing good, man, but we love you on the organ, man. We wanna hear you on the organ more.” And I said “Well, you know what?” I said “None of us are perfect.” I said “Maybe God wants me just to sing. I don’t know. I just know that I can’t play right now.” And my Uncle John told me to take the word “can’t” out of my vocabulary.
Smitty: Good for him!