A blockbuster tune that’s resonated with generations of soul and R&B fans has a new life with its original creator, vocalist and composer Clifton Davis. “Never Can Say Goodbye” is Davis’ jazz debut in a sizzling new collab with pianist Beegie Adair backed up by vocal group Take 6 and singer Monica Ramey. Singing the title song with pain and wisdom, Davis’s rich voice continues to be enduring, unwavering and expressive, and also suits songs like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” (showcasing Adair’s flawless chops on piano) and “Somewhere in the Hills” (Davis spins a tale like no other) to a T. The backing vocals and instrumentation make this CD the complete picture-perfect package.
How did you first meet Beegie Adair and why did you decide to collaborate on this project with her?
I became a fan of Beegie Adair while listening to one of her Christmas albums. My wife, Monica, knowing I was a fan, gifted me tickets to see Beegie live at Birdland in New York. We absolutely loved the show and introduced ourselves afterwards. Beegie was so gracious and shared that she was a fan of my composition “Never Can Say Goodbye”. It was there that we struck up a friendship with Beegie and her manager/singer Monica Ramey.
At the time, I was appearing on Broadway in Disney’s “Aladdin” and invited Beegie to our show. Then, while chatting over dinner, we decided it would be a pleasure to collaborate on a project. It took several years, but it finally came to fruition.
Why did you choose to work with Take 6?
Take 6 is magnificent. They are among the most beloved jazz vocal groups in the world today. I have had the pleasure of knowing these gentlemen since the start of their career. We have interacted multiple times over the past 30 plus years.
In greeting them after their show at The Blue Note in New York, I shared with them the plan to work with Beegie and I asked if they would be my guests on the project. Claude McKnight spoke up and said the answer is yes if they could join us on “Never Can Say Goodbye”. I was thrilled. Choosing 11-time Grammy winners to be a part of the project was a privilege and an honor. Mark Kibble’s brilliant background vocals elevate the entire project.
Have you always loved jazz? What do you recall as your first public performance?
I have always loved music and harmony. At the age of 5, I realized I was singing a song in church differently from others, but in tune. I asked my mother who listened and said, “Clifton, that’s called harmony.” So, all music appealed to me.
At the age of 9, I began learning popular songs I heard on the radio, listening to Sinatra and Ella and loving the Great American Songbook, and singing in assembly at school. The rock and roll era had me singing along with Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and many others.
Jazz entered my sphere of influence at the age of 20 through the music of Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn and Wes Montgomery. It was also around that time (1966) that I made an effort to cut a demo record. And, although I had sung in church and publicly in school, my first paid public jazz performance came at a private party in a ballroom at the Holiday Inn in Plainview, NY.
How has your Broadway and TV work informed your music today as a recording and performing artist?
Broadway was my training ground. Although I was first hired as an ensemble singer, I soon discovered a passion for acting.
Performing in musicals naturally developed a love for Broadway show tunes in my spirit, especially those that became popular hit songs. So, beginning in 1967, I slowly developed my internal library. Then, starring in a TV variety show in 1972, I got to try my hand on a mix of popular tunes week after week.
I still listen for wonderful performances of great tunes that I can cover. This album comprises a collection of songs that are informed by my experiences performing and the years I spent as a composer at Motown.
Creatives especially have had to pivot in these challenging times. How have you turned this into a positive and gotten you music to be heard?
Clearly, this Covid-19 world is not the climate into which one prefers to launch a recording. Yet, having nearly completed the project in February 2020, I decided to press forward.
I reminded myself that the original objective was to create a work that would contribute to the anthology of the jazz, entertain the listeners, and pursue artistic excellence. I wanted to produce a recording that would make Beegie Adair pleased that she agreed to be a part of the project.
I believe we achieved our goal with this recording. Beegie loves our work and so do I. Sales and listenership are also desirable outcomes. I had the good fortune of being introduced to a wonderful publicist, Holly Cooper and an excellent radio promoter, Michael Carlson, both of whom have been extremely valuable in getting my music heard. To me, this project is a gift God has given me, and I hope it brings joy and pleasure to a global audience.
What is your favorite ballad or torch song to sing?
I love so many of the songs on this album, there is no way to choose one over the other.
My favorite ballads to sing, ironically, are not on this recording project, but they will be on my next recording. They are “Being Alive” from the Broadway musical “Company” and the classic by Shirley Horn, “Here’s to Life”. I was a huge fan and had the privilege of meeting Ms. Horn, then learning that she and her husband Sheppard were Clifton Davis fans from my TV show “Amen”.
Do you prefer smaller ensembles or big bands, or going solo?
I suppose I prefer smaller ensembles for my performances. There’s something tender and warm about intimate settings. Singing on television feels intimate despite the reality of perhaps millions of viewers. Musical communication is more effective in the smaller venues with fewer guys (or gals) backing you. However, having said that, there’s something about big bands that kicks the singer up to another level.
Did you know “Never Can Say Goodbye” was going to be such an iconic mega-hit? How can artists replicate that – or is it pure magic?
I had no idea that my song would succeed as it has. I was surprised and honored to get the Jackson 5 to record it in the first place. In my view, it was a gift of divine intervention.
Isaac Hayes told me he heard the song on the radio, bought the record, wrote the lyrics on a piece of paper and sang it that night onstage at Basin Street East holding that piece of paper. A few years later I was filming “That’s My Mama” as ABC-TV and a young lady stopped in to take promotions photos with me for her new recording of my song. Her name was Gloria Gaynor; her version was a smash. It is a gift from God. I cannot even attempt to say how to replicate it. Search deep within and trust God.
Highlights of production for the new “Never Can Say Goodbye”? What has been the most challenging?
The biggest challenge for me was to determine the style and approach to this interpretation. Having heard so many great artists’ versions of the song, how should I do it? So, I decided to invoke a mature man wrestling with a decision who comes to an awareness that he cannot leave her.
Beegie Adair had loved “Never Can Say Goodbye” for many years. She brought a hauntingly romantic mood to the rendition. Then, the spirited and tuneful addition of Take 6 lifted the recording. Add in the string sweetening and we knew we had something unique.
Hopes for the music industry as we look at year-end 2020 into 2021?
My hope is that live performances return soon. My prayer is that an effective vaccine for COVID-19 emerges and is so well embraced that we get back to some semblance of normality.
The music industry will always survive and progress because the entire world loves music. If everyone wants it, they will find a way to get it. To those of us who create music, I pray we will continue to be inspired and innovative, listening to and transcribing the melodies waiting in the ether.
For more information, visit www.cliftondavis.com/home.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Clifton Davis.
© Debbie Burke 2020