Wild Bill Davis (November 24, 1918 – August 17, 1995) was the stage name of American jazz pianist, organist, and arranger William Strethen Davis.
Davis was born in Glasgow, Missouri but the Davis family moved to Parsons, Kansas, while Bill was still a baby. His mother was a piano teacher and she taught her son intermittently - he was never very interested - until an orphaned relative came to live with the Davises and brought a Victrola with him, along with some Fats Waller records.
In 1937 Davis won a music scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, after two years transferring to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Davis originally played guitar and wrote arrangements for Milt Larkin's Texas-based big band during 1939–1942, a band which included Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and Tom Archia on horns. After leaving the Larkin orchestra, Davis worked in Chicago as a pianist, recording with Buster Bennett in 1945. He also he wrote arrangements for Earl Hines and for Sarah Vaughan.
He played a crucial role as the pianist-arranger in Jordan's Tympany Five (1945–1947) at the peak of their success. After leaving Jordan, he returned to Chicago for a time, recording again with Buster Bennett and working with Claude McLin. After switching from piano to organ, Davis moved to the East Coast. In 1950, he began leading an influential trio of organ, guitar, and drums, which recorded for OKeh Records.
Davis led the way for Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith and the multitude of pianists who switched allegiance. In the early days Davis suffered criticism from churchgoers who considered the instrument had sacred connections. "Who wants a church organist in a night club?" But the church organ is a mere wind instrument and the Hammond could achieve all-pervading power through the use of electricity.
Bill Davis, paradoxically, was a quiet and gentle person who completely belied his nickname "Wild Bill". But when it came to music Davis was transformed. He will best be remembered for his foundation- shattering arrangement of "April In Paris", written for and recorded by the Count Basie band of the Fifties. The arrangement alone forced the band to swing, not that it needed any coercion, and the recording was probably Basie's biggest ever hit, copied to this day by big bands across the world.
But Davis was best known for his friendship with and employment by Duke Ellington. Davis's first records under his own name were made in 1951 for Ellington's own record label Mercer and, uniquely for a non-Ellington musician; he had Ellington to accompany him on piano. British fans were dismayed when the Ellington band of 1969 arrived with Wild Bill added to its ranks.
In Britain the organ was regarded as vulgar, and potentially destructive of the fine-tuned sound of the world's greatest jazz orchestra. They need not have worried. Davis's was a token role and in fact Ellington had employed him mainly for his company, for his writing abilities (he wrote arrangements for the band) and to be the pianist when Ellington, as sometimes happened, failed to arrive in time for the beginning of a concert.
Since the organ was such a brute to transport, Bill Davis owned several of them, keeping one in California, one in New York and another for when he had to take it by road.
As the leading player of the Hammond, Davis became much in demand in the recording studios and made fine albums with Ella Fitzgerald (1963) and with another long-time friend, the Ellington alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, with whom he worked often during the Sixties. Hodges liked the freedom of working with the Davis trio as opposed to the more demanding surroundings of the Ellington orchestra. Davis made several albums with his friend Johnny Hodges, leading to tours during 1969–1971 with Duke Ellington.
In the 1970s he recorded for the Black & Blue Records label with a variety of swing all-stars, and he also played with Lionel Hampton, appearing at festivals through the early 1990s. Davis died in Moorestown, New Jersey, August 17, 1995. (Info mainly from a Steve Voce article for the Independent)