By Marquita Fikes Edwards
As director and co-founder for more than 10 years of the King Drive Commons Gallery and Studio, a major responsibility is to organize, produce and direct a series of opportunities for artists to display and promote their work. Through “Art of Health Program,” which I developed, these opportunities include visual, performing, literacy arts along with educational presentations. It is sponsored largely through MLKEDC, Inc. and the Bader Philanthropies.
The gallery experience allows for emerging and professional artists to have a venue to take classes, prepare art work, exhibits and/or perform their work. It also allows the community to gain a deeper appreciation of the arts while encouraging positive community engagement.
It is through these efforts, that Mary Davis and I crossed paths. I was very much impressed with her. Not only her outstanding ability to perform on the keyboards, but also her personality. I found her to not only be intelligent but also very personable.
I did not know at the time of her legendary and God-blessed talent as a musician. What a fantastic performer. I now know how much she was appreciated and adored not only by the community but by her fellow musicians. When she made a commitment, I could always depend on her to follow thorough.
Gallery visitors always commented on their appreciation of her involvement in the gallery.
Throughout my career in arts, I’ve met many legendry musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria and Count Basie. It didn’t take long to find out that Mary was considered a trophy in the Milwaukee community. Yes, I consider Mary legendary too!
She was truly one of Milwaukee’s musical treasures. Mary Davis was so talented on the keyboards and could play a large repertoire of music. From jazz and blues to rhythm/soul and gospel. She was so versatile, could she sing and play several instruments with expertise and soooo much soul.
Alvin Turner, a powerful saxophonist, who played the in Mary’s Davis Trio for many years, referred to her as a great musician and bandleader.
“Because she could play such a wide variety of instruments and had an ear for music, she could bring out the best out from you. She often recognized the potential you didn’t know you had,” Turner said.
I can recall the time she even encouraged me to one sing my favorite songs called, “A Train”, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. She could pick up your voice, just by you singing a few notes and she could tell you what key you were in and then she could accompany you. She played so well, it made me think I was a great singer, but nobody offered to buy my record!
Believe it or not, when we couldn’t afford to pay musicians, Mary offered to perform anyway and that’s the kind of person I found her to be. Not only did Mary provide her music during those Gallery Nights, she brought in a group of her friends who were singers, and performers, such as Tina Moore, Jimmy, Richard Tate, Victor Sword, Barbra Christen, Dr. Cecil Austin (who said he was jealous of Mary’s musicianship because she was so blessed) and several others. They were all in support of the Gallery and donated their time and talent. We even enjoyed an invited tap dancer who performed to the song Mr. Bojangles sung by the late Mr. Floyd Dorsey. I looked around and thought wow, right here, in the Harambee community are all these top performers pulling together to perform in their community and exhibiting their wonderful talents in a positive environment for all age groups to see.
This was history in making. Here were all these great Milwaukee entertainers performing because Mary had invited them.
Over the years Mary became my good friend. She provided solid advice and taught me a lot about the music business and working with musicians.
I recall the tune her trio always played, New Year’s Eve, at the Packinghouse, called “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”. We couldn’t help but get up and dance to her powerful blues singing style. I remember Mary on the keyboards, Lyn Banks singing, Alvin Turner on saxophone, and Omar on the drums.
The place was full of hand clapping, foot stomping, fingers popping, dancing, smiling people enjoying the music. She was truly amazing!
Mary would also play in rural communities too, often with Billy Flynn on the guitar, James Davis on drums, Cozy on bass guitar and the place would be just as exciting.
Mary was also known to perform with Mr. Richard Tate, Harvey Scales and other recording artists.
I always told Mary, “You know you need to be on the national chart.” She said she was almost there at one time in her life except she stepped back to stay in Milwaukee and raise her children. Even when she went to Europe, she declined invitations to go on an extended tour while there. She also told me of the time she played during rehearsals for The Temptations at Motown, and they wanted her to go on tour, but she didn’t want the heavy travel schedule, so she turned that offer down too.
Mary could also play the guitar, saxophone, clarinet and a few other instruments. Her brother James recalled the time when in her teens, she went for an audition on a show called “Amateur Hour”. After the audition she did not qualify to get on the show and when she asked the interviewer why, he said “You are not an amateur you are definitely a professional.”
We had many conversations about her life and she always spoke of God and the importance of people being righteous to one another. She was knowledgeable on many subjects regarding entertainment, and because she appreciated the work l was doing for the community at the Gallery, she was always encouraging. I would go to see her perform as often as possible. She would smile when I entered the room and would always send a shout-out about my Gallery work.
According to a recent comment made by local jazz artist Adekola Adedapo,”The only other thing as big as Davis’ knowledge of music was her heart. She was just one of the most generous musicians I ever knew. Always wanting to help other people”.
Born in Memphis Tennessee on March 16, 1946, Mary, before moving to Milwaukee with her family in the 50s. She was best known for her vocals and her expertise on the keyboard, both organ and piano.
Mary was from a line of talented musical family members, including her Brother Ralph Davis who was a well-respected guitarist here and in Memphis. The story has it that her family bought Mary a baby piano when she was a little girl and she learned to played it so well, she could play alongside her mentoring brother. She always noted appreciation for Ralph who she credited for inspiring her.
During Summerfest a few years back, her cousin and songstress, India Arie, invited her to come on stage and perform a song or two. Mary declined, but was ever so proud to have been invited. Mary often spoke about another cousin, renowned blues singer Koko Taylor, and how they would visit with family and have Sunday dinners together. Mary played for elected officials and social elites like Mayor Henry Maier, Mayor Tom Barrett, Gov. Scott Walker, Atty. John Daniels and many others.
Over the last 50 years Mary would play at the “reputable” clubs in Milwaukee, performing at the Pabst and Riverside theaters or at Summerfest. She would tour the country playing gigs in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and most recently, she and a group of performers were flown out to play at an event in Connecticut, and then over to New York City to play on stage for the first time at the historic Apollo Theatre. She reported being thrilled. After that trip she started talking about getting in shape to do future tours.
The last show I saw Mary perform was in Waukesha, with her brother James Davis and Alvin Turner.
This was at the Friday Street Festival, during the summer of 2018. I sensed something a little different then. After she played there, she got excited about being scheduled and headlined to appear at Summerfest. But, after that show, she told me she was going back into retirement. I thought to myself, she’s just tired. After all, it had been a long year of playing weekly at the Sliver Spring House and many summer events. Believe it or not, she meant it. She did play once again though, at her rehabilitation center, and the residents and staff loved it.
Considering her passing, I feel blessed that I was able visit and converse with her on Thanksgiving Day.
Mary Davis is survived by her daughter, Crystal, two sons, Tracy and Gabrielle, two grandchildren; a great grandchild and brother James Davis.
Services for Mary will take place at the Grace Fellowship Church, 3879 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee on Saturday, Dec. 28. Visitation will be at 11 a.m., followed by the service at noon. The repast will be at The African American Women’s Center, 3020 W. Vliet St., from 2 p.m. until 7pm.
It is an honor for me to not only have known Mary Davis, but to have this opportunity to share my experiences with her. She was a special musician and a special person.