The McCann Time Capsule: Billy Davis’s Influence on Advertising Music
When Phil Chess died last week, his obit cataloged the enormous influence his family’s Chess Records label had on the world of music, including the recordings of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner, among others. What might also have been mentioned was the influence Chess Records had on changing the sound of advertising music, thanks to McCann’s 1968 hiring of the record company’s A&R Director, Roquel “Billy” Davis, as the agency’s Music Director.
In the 1950s, Billy Davis had been a founder of the group that became The Four Tops; co-wrote with Berry Gordy, Jr., such top hits as “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson; and then joined Gordy in co-founding the Motown Records concept. In the early 1960s he was hired at Chess Records as head of A&R, where he most famously became the producer of the 1965 hit ''Rescue Me,'' sung by Fontella Bass (#1 R&B, #4 pop). In 1968 he was hired by McCann as Music Director because, as agency president Paul Foley announced at the time, “To stay on top of today’s lyrics and sounds, we feel an agency must have the full-time services of a major talent from the recording industry.”
Davis, who spent almost two decades at McCann, became famous for Coca-Cola’s leading role in changing how music was used in commercials, including his work on the “Hilltop” song “"I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" as well as Coke’s "It's the Real Thing" and "Have a Coke and a Smile." As he explained in an early 1980s oral history of the agency, “The concept was to speak to young people in their language, which means you had to do something other than a jingle.” Instead of jingles, he said, “We were doing songs, where the product was included in the theme of the song, what we now call song-form commercials. Musically, it was as sophisticated as contemporary pop, rock, and rhythm and blues music. Lyrically they were song stories that Coke could naturally fit into.”
Davis’s influence was significant. As the New York Times said in his 2004 obit, “In hiring Mr. Davis, McCann-Erickson was one of the first agencies to take pop music seriously as a way to sell consumer goods.” Billy Davis himself was elected posthumously into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2007.