He doesn't often do interviews, but Basement Boys co-founder Thommy Davis has just released his first ever solo album – at the age of 62. And THAT's something to talk about…
There are house legends, and there are house legends. On the one hand, you've got your household names, your chart-botherers, your festival bill-topping superstar DJs – your Sashas, Basement Jaxxes and Daft Punks, the DJs and producers even your Mum has heard of. And on the other hand, you've got the likes of, say, Ron Trent or Victor Simonelli or DJ Disciple or Farley & Heller – names that might not mean much to the man (or woman) in the street, but that are uttered in reverent tones in house circles.
Another name for that latter list would be Thommy Davis. Along with Jay Steinhour and Teddy Douglas, Davis co-founded the legendary Basement Boys back in 1986; the trio would go on to put Baltimore well and truly on the house map, as they carved out a gospel-tinged soulful house sound all of their own, both through their own work and through their productions for the likes of Ultra Nate and Crystal Waters.
That was a long time ago, though, and Davis officially left the group in 1989, though he would carry on working with them until 1994. After that, he seemed to fade into obscurity somewhat, only to re-emerge with a series of solo releases on DJ Spen's Code Red in the mid-00s. He and Spen would go on to set up Quantize Recordings, which remains one of the soulful house scene's most essential labels.
But after nearly 35 years in the game, there's never been a Thommy Davis album. Or rather there hadn't been, until last Friday, when Quantize released Mr Davis – his first solo full-length, and an album comprised entirely of cover versions of disco, funk and soul classics.
Well, there aren't many artists who release their debut solo album at the age of 62, and even fewer who choose to come with a covers set when they do! So naturally we were intrigued… and naturally we were delighted when the normally publicity-shy Mr Davis agreed to talk to us about it.
So here's what we found out…
Let's start with Mr Davis. Why did you decide to do a covers album, especially as it's your first long-player under your own name?
"Well, it was Spen's idea that it was about time I did a solo album. Now, I have several things I do in the music industry: I do stuff which is Afro-tribal, Spen and I do things that are a little bit more straight disco-y, and then we do our anthem things. But I thought well, it'd be too much to put all of that in one body of work, so I stuck to the stuff that had a soulful house edge to it.
"And then I asked my friends to spend a day singing these covers, because with me being as old as I am, it seemed appropriate for me to kind of go back, and give respect to what I thought was some great music from a period of time that is gone, and the new generations have no idea what these records are.
So it's a tribute to your own musical influences and heritage?
"Yes, but also some more daring stuff, like taking ballads and making them into great dance songs."
How did you go about choosing who sang what track?
"Well, over the years I've worked with so many great musicians, so with each one, as I went along, I'd work on sessions with them and listen to their vocals and I started to figure out which voice went with which song. And then I'd ask if they'd be happy to try singing it, and all of them said yes!
"For instance, Jomanda Make My Body Rock… that's a track from Jersey and I thought Dana Weaver had the right art and technique for the song. So I asked Neal Conway and he recreated the music. We put a little twist on it, modernised it, and then Dana sang the vocal."
And did that work out first time every time, or have you got multiple takes of each track by various different vocalists?
"Well, let me put it this way, a better title for the album would be Me & My Friends, because I only worked with people I know I can work with and whose voices I know well.
"For instance, I did a session with Barbara and that's how Think came about, at the end of the session. Randy Roberts had done stuff with Soulphonix and Jasper Street, so it was easy to find a strong male voice that would fit on certain tracks – he did Try Jah Love and some other things. And Richard Burton goes back several years with me, so when I needed someone to try to beat out Jeffrey Osborne… well, you CAN'T really beat out Jeffrey Osborne, but Richard Burton has that classic Philly sound to his voice."
So you were looking for vocalists that were as close a match as possible to the original singer?
"Not really, it was more about respecting and matching the melody of the writer. Because that's a little personal, they might take it like, 'You're trying to change my song'. So the vocals do stay with their own style, but not too far from the original melody that the writer wrote."
And how did you go about choosing the 16 tracks in the first place?
"Oh, picking 'em was easy, but then we had to cut 'em down from 30! Just over the past two years alone there's been quite a lot of Thommy Davis stuff, so when the idea came to do the album, Spen and I had a conversation about what it should be. I've done stuff with Code Red, I've done stuff with Quantize, I've done stuff with Basement Boys, so we could have just licensed old stuff, or stuff from the past four or five years. But I wanted it to have that soulful sound that I love.
"I wanted this record to sound like a classic for a new generation that doesn't know that era at all. And it's appropriate for me to do it because I'm 62 years old… I remember that era! Plus, I DJ, and I look at the people and it seems to me they're starving for really great songs that make you lift your feet up and make you sing along with them. So that's how I chose the songs."
Let's talk about a couple of tracks specifically… the first one being the John Morales collab on Was That All It Was. I've got the Jean Carn original of that plus half a dozen different covers… was that why you decided to flip it and have a male voice on it?
"Yeah, that was just an idea I had. Jean Carn is one of my favourite vocalists, and to cover Jean Carn with a female vocalist you'd need someone who was dynamic but not too dynamic. So then I thought, maybe if I did it with a male vocalist, then it wouldn't be trying to compete with Jean Carn, it would be like an alternate version. And I tried to get the music as close to the original as possible, with hired-in session musicians and stuff, to make it sound like a record of that era."
And how was that track put together? Were you and John physically in a studio together or was it all done remotely?
"Well, John, Spen and I have worked together several times – Quantize is a close-knit label and John's a friend, so when he heard I was doing this album he said he wanted to get involved. And you don't tell John Morales no! I mean we're talking M&M… to me he's an icon and I was honoured that he wanted to get involved. Very flattered."
I'm not quite sure what the relationship is there, age-wise… would John be someone you looked up to as a young man, or do you see him more as a contemporary of yours?
"I'd say John is my older brother. I don't know exactly what age he is but I was buying his records when I was 17, 18, 19, so he has to be at least a little bit older than that. I had all the M&M and John Morales mixes back in the day, back in the late 70s and early 80s, so he'll always be like a much-respected older brother to me!
"That said, John's very youthful in spirit. Actually, a lot of producers and singers and people in dance music kind of seem to defeat time: there's something about the music and the love of it that doesn't allow you to progress to the porch and the rocking chair. It's a vibrant life style, so you tend to meet a lot of people in dance music who don't look or act anything like their age!"
The other track I wanted to talk about specifically was Barbara Tucker's take on Think (About It)…
"Okay, well how that came about was, I love Barbara and I had the privilege of working on one or two tracks on her album, and on Breathe Love Breathe Life for Quantize. We were working on one of those tracks in the studio, and at the end of the session I asked her, 'Do you think you could do the Lyn Collins/James Brown song Think?' And she said, 'That's fine', and she did it almost better than the original.
"She worked it out really, really well, but then we sat on it for a while, because Barbara was doing her own projects, and we try never to go against the artist, so we waited for her album to happen. But then the album didn't happen, so eventually we just went ahead with it, about a year and a half later."
Okay, let's backtrack a bit now… except that's quite hard to do, in a way, because looking around online, I couldn't find any previous interviews at all. You really don't speak to the press very often, do you?
"They don't talk to me! [laughs] But you know, with Quantize… Thommy Davis might be on a lot of stuff but it's DJ Spen that's the well-known, well-recognised commodity worldwide, so it makes sense to put him at the front. I've always been an AKA man… a Basement Boy, or one of 33 1/3 Queen, or Soulphonix or many, many AKAs. But now, for the first time, I'm doing a solo project. It's not the first album I've worked on, not by a long way. It's just the first where I'm not hidden behind a group moniker."
And how does it feel, stepping out into the limelight after all these years?
"Well, it was Spen's idea! I'm usually that guy who's quiet in the background. That's okay, because I've seen people become successful, I've seen what power and success look like, and it's not that attractive to me. What I do I love to do, and what's supposed to happen for me will happen for me. That way I can keep this personal affair with music going."
Speaking of which… there's quite a long gap in your discography between leaving Basement Boys in 1989, and releases on Code Red in the mid-00s. So what happened there?
"Well, a lot of things were going on. Back then, in those early Basement Boys days, we were on four majors at once. That took up some incredible man-hours, plus the labels wanted us to go a little bit outside of dance. And I'm a dance purist: I don't want to do anything but dance. My two partners, Jay and Teddy, they'd go away and do R&B and ballads and those kind of things, but I have no interest in that: I'm a dance head from head to toe. And that kind of drove a wedge in-between us, and then you add in some other personality clashes and it was better that we separated, because we were becoming major label artists and I've always loved the underground.
"I worked in record retail for 20 years, and a big reason there's a Baltimore sound at all is down to the records we stocked in our store – records from Chicago and Detroit and New York and New Jersey. Back then all this was a new trend, so knowing where to go out and get those house or hip-hop records that only had a distribution of 500 was vitally important – and we knew how to do that. That store used to be like a party from 10am till 9pm every night! And Basement Boys was basically born in that store: we didn't own it but Teddy worked there and I both worked there, because it was a way to feed our hunger for new music.
"Remember, in those days, if you didn't get a record when it came out, you didn't get it! So having a 9-to-5 in a record store gave you that access. And that was our life back then: work in the record store during the day, go into the studio in the evening, and then nightclubs at night. That's very little sleep, but I loved it!"
So how come the releases dried up in the 90s?
"Well, the last thing I did with them was 100% Pure Love [Crystal Waters, 1994]. Then we broke up, and it wasn't a friendly break-up. See, I was always fond of the nightlife, and they weren't so much. There was a lot of recreational drugs, playing in afterhours… Teddy didn't really do that, he liked the more intimate spots, but I was playing the big warehouses, the dangerous ones where you had to go in the back door… so between that and a whole bunch of mood changes from living that lifestyle, we spent a lot of time fighting about music, because all I wanted to do was make dance music. And CBS and Mercury were telling us not to only do dance, and that wasn't for me.
"I didn't want to do music that wasn't me, that didn't bring me joy, that didn't fulfill me. I have no relationship with hip-hop – well, maybe some early hip-hop but I have no relationship with modern hip-hop, with R&B, with ballads… so I separated. To me it made no sense, anyway. Because these labels had come to us for our sound, but then when they had us they wanted to change that sound! And I wasn't prepared to do that.
"So I left. And then for a little while I had enough royalties coming in from the Basement Boys stuff, so I took a little time out. Then I got into some trouble, like a bad boy… then I got myself together, got myself clean, got three degrees and I was working on my doctorate, but then Spen called up and asked if I wanted to make some music again.
"See, Spen and I had always been in contact… it took a few years for me and the rest of the boys but me and Spen go way back, so he asked me if I wanted to do something for Code Red and I did. Then he made me A&R for Code Red, and eventually when we moved on to Quantize we partnered up."
What were you studying during those years, then?
"I majored in Psychology, with a minor in Art. I'm glad I did it, because when you travel the world and tell people you're a musician… sometimes they look at you like, oh, you don't have a degree? And that left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted that piece of paper to say I was something more than just a dance music producer.
"And I got that, but then music wouldn't let me go, I guess. Especially because what I really wanted to do was get out there on the street helping people, but the kind of jobs I could get in that field were mostly a lot of paperwork and data-crunching, which wasn't me.
"So when Spen called me up about Code Red, the doctorate went on hold. But believe it or not, my studies did prove useful in the music industry – because most music people are crazy! [laughs] You spend a lot of time dealing with difficult personalities, attention-seekers and egomaniacs. So understanding those people and knowing what makes them tick, knowing how to talk to them, that can be a very useful skill. Understanding music and A&R is one thing, but understanding people is another!"
So to recap… you co-founded one of the most important production teams in house music history, you left, got in trouble with the law, got yourself sorted out, got a degree in psychology, then got back into music and now you've just released your debut solo album at the age of 62. The obvious question is, where the hell do you go from there?
"Just to keep doing it, really. Right now my social media is off the chain. A friend suggested I should do some livestreams during the pandemic, and it's been almost doubling every week, because I'm a real performer behind the decks. During those years in college I studied theatre and musical theatre, so I brought some of that back into my DJing. I'm more theatrical with it than I used to be, because that's more interesting for people to watch.
"So what's next is I'm starting to get offers of management and stuff – and if people are going to allow me not to just be a DJ, but to be a performer, that's what I'll do. More of an act, but an act that's a DJ."
I was just wondering if – given that you've lived quite the life! – there might be a book on the horizon at any point?
"There's actually a film in the works. You see, I'm the president of a festival here in Baltimore, and that allows me to create a musical space around me that's pure Baltimore. Baltimore has a very specific sound: it's very pounding, very uplifting. Not to say it's BETTER than the new laidback, druggy vocal, New York Afro soul stuff, but in Baltimore they're more energetic, they want more quick mixes, you get more immediate crowd reactions and stuff.
"So this event we put on draws in people from all over the world, and now someone at Morgan State University in Baltimore wants to do a documentary about my life and my journey through the culture. Obviously I'm very flattered! They've been working on the film for about two years and I think it should be completed in about another year. I told them I'd do it as long as it wasn't just about me, as long as it told the story of Baltimore and how we've put the city on the map. It used to be a small city near Washington DC, but now everyone in dance music knows where Baltimore is.
"So for the future it's just about pushing that as far as I can, doing more shows and developing more on the performance side. I never thought the pandemic would be the catalyst for anything good in my career but the feedback I've had on my livestreams has been amazing: people love the energy I put into my performance and that spurs me on to do more.
"Because I'm that guy. I'm David Bowie, Grace Jones and Prince rolled into one… and a DJ as well! I spend a lot of time on choosing my outfits, I keep myself healthy, I don't drink or do drugs any more – I've got 19 years clean now, which is an achievement in itself."
Overall, then, it sounds like you're full of the joys of spring right now…
"Yes, I am. I think this is my mission: I love doing it, I love people, and I understand them… but I think the point about me going to school wasn't to understand them, it was to understand me. And now I'm here, I'm a little bit more well-oiled, I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, and I keep my focus on God. And it's been working."
Anything else iDJ readers need to know about, before you go?
"Well, I joined the Recording Academy a couple of years ago. That's the GRAMMYs. They wanted to increase their focus on soulful dance music, so they brought me in and I'm now a governor, and I'm also on various committees that fight legislation on Capitol Hill – we're there to make sure the artists get taken care of when new laws are made about streaming and things like that.
"So I'm moving up in the Recording Academy, which gives me more interaction with the movers and shakers, so hopefully one day soulful dance music can get its own category at the GRAMMYs. Because at the moment, thousands of people can be hearing your record but because they're hearing it in a club, it doesn't get the recognition that other genres do. So hopefully we can change that."
Words: Russell Deeks
Mr Davis is out now on Quantize Recordings