Despite having two singles reach #1 on the R&B charts in the late ‘60s, Tyrone Davis is not acknowledged as one of soul’s major figures. He did play a large part in the smooth, orchestrated soul movement of the late ‘70s that rode alongside disco, loosely bookmarked between the end of Stevie Wonder’s golden period and Thriller. Like fellow soul brother Barry White, Davis was, first and foremost, a vocalist whose delivery was all about seduction and sensual dominance: the hunter who smelled its easy prey a mile off and cut a slow, confident path to victory.
Following three huge hits for the Dakar label—“Can I Change My Mind” (1968), “Is It Something You’ve Got?” (1969), and “Turn Back the Hands of Time” (1970)—Davis ensconced himself in a style that’s best described as “Bob Guccione soul”: Al Green with Vaseline on the lens. Davis was no Green; nor was he Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, or Michael Jackson, though he incorporated elements of them all into his spongy style. Legacy Recordings’ Give It Up (Turn It Loose): The Very Best of the Columbia Years represents this problematic period in American pop music (1976-1981) when string and horn arrangements were full-blown and unrelenting, wah-wah guitars took the place of percussion, and the record became more about the layers of glossy finish than the actual emotional center. Like Davis’s lyrical come-ons, his arrangements left very little to the imagination.
The songs’ self-indulgent presentation, so apt for the time but painfully dated some 30 years later, may be the main reason why Davis’s later work isn’t routinely called upon by memory. The strain of soul documented on Give It Up is now regarded as hokey and decadent, ridiculed by everyone from Mr. Show to South Park. This is soul music with sparkling sequins, towering hair, and sexually suggestive accoutrements; string flourishes and submissive female backup singers summon the light-up dance floor. Even taking into account all of the music’s strengths (of which Davis’s voice is the primary one), it simply doesn’t hold up today. It doesn’t help that the songs can come off like a collection of really clichéd pick-up lines. A modern society built on satire will never be kind to lines like “Just like ice cream and honey / My love’s gonna make you melt” or “Come here baby / Girl, I wanna make sweet love to you”.
Give It Up is heavy on the pre-coitus ballads (which get tiresome, especially in the compilation’s final third), so it’s not surprising that when it does connect, it’s with the up-tempo songs; something like “Get on Up (Disco)” recalls an Off the Wall-cum-James Brown workout that gyrates with ease. (Yet the tempo of the songs can only do so much, because even then, Davis still sings like he’s somewhere else entirely, zeroing in on a complicated slow-motion seduction.) The in-between numbers, like the robo-space funk “Ain’t Nothing I Can Do”, work as archaic templates tailor-made for the early morning comedown of the hard-partying disco crowd. But the collection relies too heavily, at least on a cerebral level, on a sort of identification-by-association. Davis’s song titles alone—“Let’s Be Closer Together”, “In the Mood”, “Close to You”, “Give It Up (Turn It Loose)”—suggest (either intentionally or subconsciously) more popular tunes by Al Green, Bacharach, and James Brown. The songs here aren’t nearly as memorable as their implied inspirations, which can damage their longevity when a listener relies on name recognition.
Davis, who passed away in February of this year after suffering a stroke, was, indisputably, a soul man of his time and for his time, as Give It Up makes no attempt to deny. If it’s not exactly timeless, that’s only because time has a way of being fickle and unforgiving.