Mac Davis, renowned for writing such hits as “In the Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation” for Elvis Presley, as well as commanding his own five-decade career that spanned the stage and big and small screen, died Tuesday night (Sept. 29) following heart surgery. He was 78.
“Mac Davis has been my client for over 40 years, and, more importantly, my best friend,” Davis’ longtime manager Jim Morey said, in announcing his death. “He was a music legend, but his most important work was that as a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend. I will miss laughing about our misadventures on the road and his insightful sense of humor.
In addition to Presley, among the artists who recorded Davis’ compositions were Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Tom Jones and Johnny Cash. But the Grammy nominee saved some of his best work for himself, scoring hits with the Grammy-nominated “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” which he took to No. 1 in 1972, as well as “Stop and Smell the Roses” and “Rock N Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life).” His success, and general affability and charisma, led to his own NBC variety series in 1974, the same year the Academy of Country Music named him entertainer of the year.
Born Morris Mac Davis on Jan. 21, 1942 in Lubbock, Texas, Davis was a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. After his first attempts as a songwriter and an artist in the early ’60s failed, he worked as a promotion executive for Vee Jay and Liberty labels. But he didn’t abandon his artistic dreams. After relocating to Los Angeles for Liberty, he became a staff writer for Nancy Sinatra’s publishing company. He began to get cuts for a number of artists, including “Watching Scotty Grow” for Bobby Goldsboro and “Something’s Burning’” for Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, as well as a spate of Presley records, including “A Little Less Conversation,” “Memories,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “In The Ghetto,” which Presley took to No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart. The song has been recorded by more than 170 artists, including Parton, whose version reached No. 50 on Hot Country Songs.
As Davis told Billboard’s Chuck Dauphin in 2015, “Memories” helped set him on his path. “That was the first real hit I had,” he said. “I wrote for Elvis’ comeback special. They had asked for a song about looking back over the years, and oddly enough, I had to write it in one night. I stayed up all night at Billy Strange’s house in Los Angeles. He had a little office set up in his garage. I wrote it right there.”
He found inspiration everywhere. While in the U.K. taping a show for the BBC, he attended a party thrown by Lulu and her then husband Maurice Gibb. ” They asked me if I wanted to join them in a séance,” he told Billboard. “This was back in 1970 or 1971, and I said no. They said, ‘You don’t believe in the occult?’ I said, ‘No, I believe in music.’ There was Maurice’s guitar sitting there, and when I got back to the hotel, I finished it up. I still have the original paper from the hotel. I’ve got it framed. I did use that line in there: ‘Lift your voices to the sky, God loves you when you sing.’ That epitomized the whole song. That’s what music is about.” “I Believe in Music” became one of Davis’s first hits in 1970, with Gallery taking its remake to No. 12 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart two years later. (In a sad note, Helen Reddy, who also died Sept. 29, recorded “I Believe in Music” as the B-side of her breakthrough American hit, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” released in 1971).
Davis scored 30 hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart as an artist, including six top 10s. He landed four albums in the top 10 on Top Country Albums charts. Additionally, the crossover artists landed 15 hits on the billboard Hot 100 and 17 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Whether penning songs for himself or others, Davis seemed effortlessly able to write music addressing any topic from the scourge of racial inequity in “In the Ghetto” and the pitfalls of fame in the humorous “It’s Hard to Be Humble” to the confessional “Texas In My Rearview Mirror.” His lyrics were often as poignant as they were tongue-in-cheek, but always right on point.
Davis’s musical and TV success catapulted him to movies, including 1979’s North Dallas Forty with Nick Nolte, 1981’s Cheaper to Keep Her and The Sting II with Jackie Gleason in 1983.
He also starred on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies, and guested on numerous TV shows, including Murder She Wrote, The Muppets, Webster, King of tHe Hill, Freaks & Geeks and Fargo. His last acting appearance was as a preacher on an episode of Parton’s 2019 Heartstrings series on Netflix.
New generations continued to discover Davis. He co-wrote “Young Girls,” from Bruno Mars’ sophomore set Unorthodox Jukebox, with Mars, Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Jeff Bhasker and Emilie Haynie. Mars took the song to No. 17 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. In 2013, he scored a No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart as co-writer on Avicii’s “Addicted to You.” “It was a big international hit and got me hungry again,” Davis told Billboard in 2015 of his Avicii success. “It made me feel like I’m still viable at the ripe old age of 73. I can still move around and sing on key.
A number of artists hailed Davis’s towering talent and friendly demeanor. “I met Mac as a young artist just starting out on my journey, when he was already a legend and a songwriting hero to me,” said Kenny Chesney in a statement. “He welcomed me into his home, and turned that tremendous creative light on me. Even though he’d written ‘In The Ghetto’ for Elvis and had so many incredible hits of his own, he made me feel like what I was doing mattered.A small town boy who’d achieved the greatest kinds of fame, he remained a good guy, a family man. That was Mac: a giant heart, quick to laugh and a bigger creative spirit. I was blessed to have it shine on me.”
“Thank you, dear Lord Jesus, for letting us know the man to whom you gave the most incredible talent,” said Reba McEntire. “He entertained and spread joy to so many people. What a wonderful legacy he left all of us with his music. Mac was one of a kind.”
Davis is survived by his wife of 38 years, Lise, and sons Scott, Noah and Cody, along with a number of other relatives, including his mother, Edith. He will be buried in Lubbock, befittingly, given the memorable line from “Texas in My Rearview Mirror”: “And when I die, you can bury me in Lubbock, Texas in my jeans.”