The photo that peeks out from the top of the obituary could be anyone’s grandfather. Further reading shows that he was, actually, a grandfather to four. Their names are Jordin, Ryan, John and Brooke.
And without a guiding hand you would have never guessed this jolly-looking, gray-haired man whose passing was missed by almost everyone was also a legend of the disco era, a man who wrote arranged or played on some of the most devastatingly funky tracks ever made.
DJs and dancers know John Davis mostly for “Bourgie Bourgie,” an electrifying track that is in the first chapter of the Bible of dance music classics. It is a track he did not write. It’s been covered or remixed seemingly dozens of times, from Louie Vega to Gladys Knight and Catz ‘n Dogz as well as the actual writers, Ashford & Simpson. But it’s the John Davis version that’s the best. His records have been reintroduced into the bloodstream of popular music again and again, seeding movements in house and hip hop with his beats, horns and his famous strings.
Pop culture will immortalize John Davis for something much more prosaic: the theme song to the TV show Beverly Hills 90210. It was a tune which he did write, among hundreds of other bits for TV. These are mostly forgotten now. It’s one of the great cosmic jokes of time that his songs that date from the earliest days of Philly disco, through the era of his outrageous Monster Orchestra, are the ones that have lasted.
John Davis’ career is impossible to describe in a succinct sentence, because it mirrored the rise and fall of disco almost precisely. He was there pretty close to the start of it and saw it through to the end. He was a Baby Boom kid born in Philadelphia in 1947 and graduated from Frankford High in Northeast Philly. His obituary mentions a stint in the Navy, and graduating from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts (now the University of the Arts) in 1973.
If the dates are correct, that means John Davis was already deep in the Philly disco scene by the time he graduated. He was a member of MFSB, the band of musicians from Sigma Sound Studios. (Confusingly, there were two members of MFSB named John Davis. They also both played saxophone. And in sessions for The Stylistics’ Rockin’ Roll Baby album, the two John Davises even appeared together.)
Still in his twenties, Davis became one of the most prominent and in-demand producers in Philadelphia as disco began to break through into the popular consciousness. He produced records on TSOP, Midland, Philadelphia International, Fantasy Records, Casablanca — basically every top notch East Coast disco label you can name. He produced artists ranging from First Choice to John Travolta, Lucy Hawkins to one of my favorite disco one-off projects, Universe City. For Roxbury, he co-produced and arranged William DeVaughn’s 1974 R&B grinder “Be Thankful for What You Got” which featured MFSB in the recording sessions. The single went on to sell two million copies and reached #1 on the R&B charts and #4 on the pop charts.
5 Mag Issue 208
Out July 2023
WE STILL CALL IT HOUSE: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #208 featuring the story of Chicago house music collective 3 Degrees Global, a tribute to DJ Deeon, a cover mix by and profile of Gratts, Detroit vocalist Diviniti, John Davis of disco’s scariest orchestra, the great vanishing of pirate sites more. Help keep our vibe alive by becoming a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!
Davis’ star turn came after longtime record man Sam Weiss dove into disco with the formation of SAM Records. For Sam (and SAM), Davis would form John Davis & The Monster Orchestra, an outfit featuring some of the best musicians in Philadelphia. Some like Don Renaldo were also members of the “rival” Salsoul Orchestra — all of them were seasoned musicians, crowned by the vocalists known as “The Sigma Sweethearts.”
The Monster Orchestra released the first 12″ in SAM’s discography — a format which had quickly become a fixture in the disco scene after Tom Moulton began mixing extended edits scarcely two years earlier. “I Can’t Stop” was a seminal release, particularly the 12″ which had a break that was frequently sampled by hip hop producers. The early sound of The Monster Orchestra as heard on “I Can’t Stop” and “Up Jumped The Devil” was early Philly disco in its purest, most concentrated form — a rowdy, rude riot of hard grooves and stomping percussion.
The Monster Orchestra would release four albums over the next four years for SAM. Most people focus on the singles and those are the high points, but the albums show a fascinating evolution as disco burned across pop culture in the late 1970s. The first album, Night & Day, is mostly made up of Cole Porter standards — here’s where the “orchestra” concept was at its most obvious — plus “I Can’t Stop” and another John Davis composition. Up Jumped The Devil featured the title track, plus “The Magic Is You” and “You’re The One.” The b-side of the album is a “disco medley” of the sort that were becoming popular at the time, both for home play and at discotheques.
While working on the Monster Orchestra albums and singles, Davis was still one of the most in-demand producers in America. Later he would note how much of a blur this period was. His exhaustion, he said, was reflected in the title of the Monster Orchestra’s third album, Ain’t That Enough For You. Davis had established himself as one of the most creative and inventive disco producers in the world, and his sound as represented on the Orchestra’s albums was beginning to change. That raw, jabby edge present on the first two albums had begun to soften, developing into a smooth, funk-laden sound. Though only four years had gone by, the Monster Orchestra’s fourth album shows a dramatic progression from its first. The Monster Strikes Again was released in 1979 and contained just six tracks. Among them are “Love Magic” and “Holler,” and a track written by collaborators Ashford & Simpson. “Bourgie Bourgie” was an instrumental that the duo released on their album Send It; the lyrics were written especially for this recording. Though the sound had softened, The Monster Strikes Again would probably measure up as the best of the Monster Orchestra albums on the strength of these tracks.
It’s hard to say where John Davis & The Monster Orchestra figure in disco history (which means music history). Davis’ genius is unquestionable, as is the musicianship performed by some of the greatest session players in the world. Yet there’s often a feeling that the group was riding a wave, attempting to keep up with the frantic fads emerging and racing through disco’s peak period. The medley on Up Jumped The Devil was the first sign; a disco version of the theme song from Kojak on Ain’t That Enough For You was another. This is the kind of thing that Nicky Siano would later say was part of the reason for disco’s demise — the sheer number of attempted crossovers, novelty songs and gimmicks was drowning out the truly great and inventive music percolating in places like Sigma Sound.
Davis didn’t invent the “soul with strings” sound but he might have done it best, heard on his arrangements of brass and strings on recordings from 1979’s Ashford & Simpson album Stay Free to Diana Ross’ The Boss. It’s hard to even pick a best selection of John Davis productions — there are entirely too many, you step into his discography and walk out hours later, exhausted from plunging down rabbit holes and still suspect you haven’t scratched the surface of it.
It’s tempting to fit everything into the timeline which suggests that the ’70s ended and disco immediately rolled over and died (or was exploded in Comiskey Park). It didn’t quite happen that way — Davis himself would attribute the lack of heat around The Monster Strikes Again to SAM Records’ deal with Columbia, which he said failed to push the album with the public.
Disco’s “death” was as much a pop culture phenomenon as “disco lives” had been just a few years earlier. For performers like Loleatta Holloway and Gloria Gaynor — who were closely identified with the music — the end of disco’s reign on the pop charts was devastating. Many producers, on the other hand, were able to change up their game and survive and even thrive. Figures like Dan Hartman were able to retreat behind the mixing console and totally reinvent themselves as performers when the opportunity arose.
In the early 1980s, with the Orchestra’s demise, John Davis went to Hollywood. He began working for television as early as 1981, often for Aaron Spelling, and his IMDB credits read like a late night syndication schedule of the era’s most popular shows: Hart to Hart, The Love Boat, TJ Hooker, Dynasty, MacGyver, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210. Probably more people have heard his theme song for 90210 than have heard all of his disco tracks combined.
John Davis passed away on Friday, January 27, 2023 near Youngstown, Ohio. Surprisingly for someone who had both commercial and critical acclaim in his life, as well as working with a number of legendary artists on many significant hits, he passed almost without notice by the music industry press, other than a couple of (top notch) soul-oriented music blogs. Not for nothing were his complaints of exhaustion at the height of the disco era: the amount of music he left behind is truly staggering, hundreds of credits for his writing, production and arrangement in addition to the diamond-cut gems released under his own name.
Despite being on the commercial edge of disco, albums and singles from John Davis & The Monster Orchestra fell out of print for a long while. Despite this, they have probably become one of disco’s most remixed acts thanks to Michael Weiss, son of Sam Weiss and founder of Nervous Records. Weiss has always showed a fondness for the SAM Records catalog, and thanks in large part to Nervous’ efforts but also those of many other remixers, hardly a year goes by without a new issue or new take on a classic John Davis track.
There’s more inside 5 Mag’s member’s section — get first access to each issue for a few bucks a month.