Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some Notes About Whitey Davis

(A late 1966 poster from the Caffe Espresso in Portland, OR, when Whitey Davis was booking the venue. h/t Ross for the scan)

Coleman "Whitey" Davis was an important figure in West Coast psychedelic rock music in the 1960s, but he has been largely forgotten today. As I have begun working on the history of the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, and Oregon psychedelic venues in the 1960s in general, I thought a brief overview of what is known about Davis's fascinating career would be useful, as he will keep re-appearing at a variety of interesting junctures.

Whitey Davis had been the Assistant Manager at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966. He then moved to Portland, where he owned a coffee shop with music called The Folksinger, at 409 SW 13th Ave (at Burnside Street). Thanks to Valerie’s Brown exceptional research, the confusing timeline of Portland coffee house music venues can be clarified. There had been an earlier coffee shop named Caffé Espresso, at SW 6th and Harrison, and it was a famous Portland beatnik hangout, but it had closed in 1965, its owner bought out of his lease for an urban renewal. A popular folk music club called The Folksinger had moved from its original site on SW 10th (across from the Country Library) to 409 SW 13th at W. Burnside.

The Folksinger had a capacity of about 100, and in 1966 manager Whitey Davis began to experiment with blues, jazz and rock bookings as well as folk. Since Davis had worked with Chet Helms and The Family Dog in San Francisco, he was connected to the underground music scene. At some point in late 1966, the Folksinger changed its name to Caffé Espresso, in part probably to avoid the by-then somewhat stale “folk” association.

By early 1967, Davis was promoting rock bands, complete with light shows, on weekends at the Caffé Espresso. Weekdays still featured local folk performers, in a variety of styles. In Portland, somewhat uniquely, clubs that served alcohol were effectively barred from hiring bands (until 1973), so coffee houses did not face competition from conventional rock clubs. The small capacity of Caffé Espresso was frustrating, however, and in January 1967, Whitey Davis found a partner and started to book shows around the corner at the much larger Crystal Ballroom. The booking for the Caffe Espresso was taken over by Larry Howard, but given the close proximity to the Crystal, it is likely that there were at least social connections to Whitey Davis.

In 1967, Davis was also became the manager of a rock band called The Weeds, who had literally run out of gas in Portland (on their way to Vancouver), and played the Folksinger to earn money to travel on. The group ended up staying in Portland. By 1968, however the Weeds had gone to Los Angeles to record, and a new manager changed their name to The Lollipop Shoppe.

Davis and partner Jim Magaurn took over the Crystal Ballroom in January 1967 and managed it through early 1968. In the beginning of 1968, there was an effort to merge the Crystal with Chet Helms’ Family Dog operation, and around that time both partners left the Crystal, albeit on friendly terms. Davis returned to San Francisco to manage the Avalon Ballroom, with a particular emphasis on booking groups throughout the West Coast, at the Crystal Dog in Portland as well as the Avalon. While a Family Dog 'circuit' was an excellent idea, Helms and Davis were about a year too late, and more powerful associations (such as between Bill Graham and Frank Barsalona's Premier Talent Agency) were able to outbid the Dog. Davis left the Family Dog around June 1968.

(the first known poster from The Sound Factory, 1817 Alhambra, Sacramento, June 28-29, 1968. h/t Ross for the scan)

Davis went to Sacramento, California, where he ran a ballroom called The Sound Factory (at 1817 Alhambra). The Sound Factory opened in June, 1968, with great bands and great posters. In return for advertisements on the local underground rock station, KZAP-fm, Davis was a Saturday afternoon dj on the station, so he is fondly remembered in the Sacramento area. However, the Sacramento area was not really big enough to support an ongoing venue, and the Sound Factory was always on shaky financial footing. After various fits and starts, it closed in Spring 1969.

Whitey Davis appears to have become Miles Davis’s road manager from about 1970-72. The surreality of Miles Davis having a white road manager named Whitey Davis can hardly be imagined, and I find it unlikely that it was a different Whitey Davis. However, Whitey Davis died prematurely—I think in  the late 1970s—but he seems to be fondly remembered by those that worked with him. The West Coast 60s rock underground was a considerably smaller universe than it might appear, and Whitey Davis seems to have been a surprisingly important figure. Its unfortunate that there is so little information about him.

12 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I knew Whitey. OMG. Has it been that long. I was 15 years old when I started hanging out at his club. I was a regular 60's street urchin. So many memories.

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  3. Jammer, Whitey Davis was a pretty interesting character, and I now have learned some more twists and turns to his extremely interesting story. Which club where you hanging out in--there were several?

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  4. I worked for Whitey Davis in NY in the 71-72 time frame. Whitey owned a sound reinforcement company called Megaphone Co. located at 39 Crosby Street in Manhattan. He never once mentioned his west coast roots, in fact, at the time ( I was 20), he rarely spoke! I remember him as a no nonsense business dude. I went out on the road w him and the Miles Davis Band ( Bitches Brew ) and I recall Miles, in his gruff voice saying upon checking into hotels, " I'm Blacky Davis and he's Whitey Davis, I get the suite, he gets the single".

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    1. hi eric

      see my post above - i worked with whitey and your mom at t he megaphone company. remember fred the cat? email me at laura16502004@yahoo.com.....

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    2. hi scott
      i worked for whitey at the megaphone company in 70-71...
      i was laura with the long hair....... did we overlap?

      what was the name of the chinese guy who was a genius at fixing the sound equipment?

      etc etc..... those were the days. if you feel like it my email is laura16502004@yahoo.com.

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    3. hi laura, my name is Kelly and it must have been me rather than my brother eric that you remember from the megaphone co. my mom was patty. i was 2ish at the time just having been born in 69. I'm sorry i don't remember you but i was just a wee lad at the time ;) Eric is a few years older than I and was in california in those days. Its possible you might be thinking of our other brother mike. he is a bit older than eric and i. all together there are 7 of us that we know of (boys and girls) that whitey had with 5 different women. me being the youngest.

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  5. Scott, thanks for the interesting insights. Whitey Davis is one of those interesting guys who kept turning up in interesting places. In the Summer of '67 he skipped out of Portland and showed up in North Lake Tahoe, whereafter he took a band to New York City. When that venture didn't pan out, he returned to Portland in the Fall of '67.

    Subsequently he seems to have gone from Portland to San Francisco to Sacramento in 1968, and ends up in New York by 1970. Truthfully, I haven't yet received 100% confirmation that the "Whitey Davis" who was Miles's road manager was the same one in Portland. I think it's highly likely, but he's a mysterious guy to trace.

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    1. Yep my dad was indeed miles road manager at the time scott mentions but had to leave the tour and come back to the US because of some financial issues that whiteys brother gayland got into while running the megaphone company for whitey while he, my mother and i were on tour with miles. After dealing with the megaphone company fallout in NY whitey went back to the west coast where eventually, he lost his hearing in an industrial accident which in turn led/contributed to his suicide in oakland.

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  6. Brian Knaff told me Whitey booked IS at the Pinwinnie Iron Foundry in Sacto with Steppenwolf. "Whitey Davis saw us at either the Fillmore or Fillmore West and he also told me one time that Bill Graham had given us a good reference."

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  7. yes,the contents of this excerpt are for the most part accurate and true to facts, he was my dad. Dad died in oakland ca in 1975. he was not in good humor at the end of his life,he suffered severe hearing loss from an accident, it took his music away from him, keep in mind our info is limited as well,on several fronts. would love to speak with some of you who knew him.. Eric

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  8. Eric, can you email me at corrarnold at gmail.com? I can put you in touch with some Sacramento people who knew Whitey who would be very imterested in sharing information.

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