Critic Roger Ebert once called the ending of the film The Third Man “a great elegiac sigh.” So might be termed the life and career of Geater Davis.
Vernon “Geater” Davis was born in Kountze, Texas, on Jan. 29, 1946. Most music critics refer to Geater (pronounced JEE-tur) as one of the greatest “lost soul singers” of all time. “Lost” may not be the correct word, because we still have a fine legacy of music he left behind. It might be better to call Davis an undiscovered genius of deep soul — the crying soul of a broken heart … the inner sounds of a man emotionally wounded by failed love.
Geater’s voice was like that of his friend, Bobby “Blue” Bland, but riddled with grit and a deeper baritone than that of Jerry Butler. His music, once you hear it, is unforgettable. When he was in the groove, Davis would exclaim, “I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it.” With his voice and talent, the question is: why didn’t he become a major star? It was a missed opportunity for soul fans.
Davis was the fifth child of DeWitt and Cornella Davis. His mother played piano at church, but Geater didn’t officially sing in church — he enjoyed singing on street corners. His mother bought him a cheap electric guitar from Sears, using the money she received from Social Security when his father suddenly died. “I dreamed of owning one,” Davis said in a 1981 interview. “It was the happiest day of my life.”
After the family moved to Conroe, Davis carried the instruments for Edward and Clement Scott. Both men tutored him, as did the great T-Bone Walker. T-Bone often visited a cousin who owned a grill joint next to the Davis house. “I was afraid to approach him,” Davis recalled, “but he heard me playing and came over, teaching me for free the entire summer.” Davis learned the instrument inside and out, becoming an accomplished guitarist, while at the same time learning to write his own songs.
He served a hitch in the Army where he acquired his nickname “Geater.” After his discharge from the Army, Geater focused on music. “I don’t believe he ever had another ambition,” recalled Lula Davis Toliver, Geater’s second wife. “He wanted to play music for a living,” Geater had married young, and the first marriage didn’t work out. He had a son, Myron, and a daughter, Verna Jean, from the first marriage. After serving in the Army at Bossier City, Geater settled near Shreveport to try to get into music. He found work with Elgie Brown and the Soul Searchers. In 1968 he was recruited to go out on the road with the legendary Ted Taylor for seven months.
Taylor had once been part of the famous doo-wop group the Cadets, but he left the group before they scored a monster hit with “Stranded in Jungle” in 1956. Austin Taylor was from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and he had a decent career as a solo singer. It didn’t hurt Taylor’s career being an associate of the famous disk jockey, “John R.” on WLAC in Nashville. John Richbourg was a historical groundbreaker in the history of the blues. Although he was white, his rapid delivery and huckster style on the radio would be copied by Wolfman Jack and others for decades.
Richbourg’s radio show at 11 p.m. was listened to by thousands of white kids in the South and introduced the blues to generations. Taylor taught Davis the art of performing on the road, how to captivate the audience at a noisy, crowded club. Back in Shreveport, Davis began performing with Eddie Giles and the Jive Five on the Bossier strip. He also toured Texas with the group.
About this time, he met another up-and-coming singer, Reuben Bell. Bell was performing with the Beltones at Kim’s on the strip. Davis, with his deep baritone, which sounded like sandpaper made of silk, and Bell with his sobbing, emotional tenor became standard-bearers for an era of rebirth of classic Southern soul. The duo would become fast friends, at times songwriting partners, and they started performing together.
Allen Orange came to Shreveport about 1970, searching for new talent for a record label he wanted to start. Orange was a protégé of the great Allen Toussaint — they once performed as Allen and Allen. Davis and Reuben were performing a song, “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” written by guitarist Jerry Beach, The performance so mesmerized Orange that he signed both men on the spot to become artists for his new House of Orange record label. “I’ll Play the Blues for You” would later be reworked at Stax studios in Memphis and become the theme song for Albert King.
Allen Orange asked Davis for original material and booked a session at Boutwell Studios in Birmingham, Alabama. The first single, “Sweet Woman’s Love,” released in 1970 was promoted by John R. on WLAC. The song became a huge regional hit, reaching No. 45 on the national R&B charts. Unfortunately, Orange hadn’t yet figured out how to handle distribution properly.
At one time Orange was selling single records out of his car. It was a bitter pill for Davis the rest of his life; “Sweet Woman’s Love” would be his high-water mark on the charts. The B-side, “Don’t Marry a Fool” (both sides co-written with Reuben Bell), highlights Davis’ great guitar. Allen arranged for an album, and Davis recorded Sweet Woman’s Love at San American studio in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was released in 1971 and contained what would become Davis’ best-known song, his cover of Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love.”
Many fans of deep soul have called “For Your Precious Love” the greatest soul recording of the genre. Davis’ emotional reading of the lyrics and his scratchy, crying/screeching baritone has been termed a tour de force. The eight-minute song is a favorite of fans of Carolina Shag music and of British soul music collectors.
Despite being mixed by Scotty Moore, the famous guitarist with Elvis Presley, and with national distribution by Jamie/Guyden out of Philadelphia, the album didn’t sell well. Davis wrote or co-wrote eight of the songs on the album. He released two more singles on House of Orange in 1972, but by this time the label was on the verge of collapse. Davis left the label, saying later, “It was like I was on a falling bridge.” He’d thought he was on a rocket to stardom only to crash. It was a short story repeated throughout Davis’ life. He released a couple of records on John R.’s Luna label and on Ace Records, but Davis’ recording career was in free fall.
John R. would catch him before he hit rock bottom. The disk jockey wanted his own independent label, and he started Seventy Seven Records. Allen Orange went to work for John R. as a promo man. The company was distributed by Monument Records, which had a solid reputation. Davis finally had some decent help, and his tortured vocals on “Long Cold Winter,” “Your Heart is So Cold” and “A Sad Shade of Blue” were recorded at FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “Your Heart is so Cold” reached number No. 64 on the R&B charts but despite heavy touring, the records didn’t sell. Once again, Davis needed a good promotion group. Music writer Sir Shambling reviewed “A Whole Lot of Man” and said, “with the greatest guitar fills ever from Muscle Shoals (this record) has Davis singing his heart out. It is a masterpiece.” But another disaster struck when John R. lost his longtime radio show at WLAC. The station switched formats in 1973. The loss of free advertising caused Seventy Seven Records to go bankrupt. “John R. was a good man,” Davis said, “a good man to me.”
Davis and John R. would talk once a month for years. Davis would bounce from small label to small label, cutting records for Ace, Sunbelt and Odds and Ends Records. He never gave a bad effort, but he never received decent airplay, and funk and disco soul were now in vogue. During this time, he was constantly touring, but when he came home to Shreveport he met Lula Darby, a divorcee from Columbus, Georgia, who’d settled in Bossier City. Lulu had a daughter, Sandra Darby, from a marriage to a man in the Air Force. That marriage didn’t work out, but she and Davis seemed to mix like peanut butter and jelly. He called her “Baby.” After a four-year courtship they married and had two daughters of their own, Vernicia M. and Laquita. “Geater was a good father and a good husband,” Lulu said.
The couple struggled with Geater on the road. They lived in Little Rock, Jackson, Mississippi, Columbus, Georgia, and then settled in Dallas.” Davis wanted to make it. He took jobs working in a transmission shop, a nursing home and a factory to make ends meet. The miles on the road were boring and tedious. He and Lula often took naps in roadside parks. David toured some with Charlie Roberson and Reuben Bell, playing smaller venues in Tyler, Shreveport, San Antonio and Waco. It was nearing the end of the Chitlin Circuit of small black clubs in the South and Southeast. The music and artists, mostly regional talent, were excellent musicians.
Davis also toured with Johnny Taylor, a huge R&B star who had million-selling records on the Malaco label with “Who’s Making Love” and “Disco Lady.” Lula said “when Geater toured with Johnny Taylor, Johnny had the ladies lined up to go backstage. I was proud that Geater had me stand up and said, “Here is my beautiful wife.” Davis was also a straight shooter who avoided drugs and hard liquor. “Being a Texan,” he once said, “I have to drink beer.” He recorded several singles with Ace and a revived House of Orange label. But nothing sold. The small independent labels were vanishing fast, either bought up by the big corporations or out of business when radio changed to a national format. The days of disk jockeys influencing local buying were ending. Davis made a trip to Jackson, Mississippi, to record a new album. He wanted to sign with the larger, better known Malaco label in Jackson, but he ended up signing with James Bennett’s MT label (also in Jackson) in 1981.
Bennett created several small labels, but he was best known for his eccentric record store, B.I.P. Records, in the older area of Jackson. Right after moving to Dallas, Davis had a heart spell in 1982— it wasn’t considered serious, and he seemed to recover. The stress of being so close to fame and the road had taken its toll. He cut several singles for Bennett and MT, but once again his record sales weren’t good, mostly due to poor distribution and promotion. Bennett and MT put out an album in 1983 called Better Days, but the album, recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, was under-produced and didn’t sell. Bennett later said, “Geater didn’t sell 300 records.”
Davis had to take a job in Dallas while he thought about his next career move. He was working for a company making doors and cabinets and working nights. He’d been writing songs — “feeling it,” recalled Lula. It was Sept. 29, 1984. “I called my girl Laquita and said ‘Wake your Daddy.’ She said, ‘He won’t wake up.’ I said, ‘Laquita, shake him!’ When he still didn’t wake up, I called a neighbor.” “Lula, he’s gone,” the neighbor said. “I just hit the ground screaming.” After going to the hospital, Lulu asked to see Geater. “I said, ‘Oh, Geater, I will never forgive you for leaving me with these three girls.’” Leaving the room, Lula said she heard a voice, a very calming voice say, “He couldn’t help it.” It gave her peace.
The stress of the road, trying to become a star, the endless one-nighters and worrying had taken one of the greatest voices in deep soul music history. Geater Davis was just 38. His funeral was held on Oct. 3,1984, the day he was to record a new album. He’s buried in Rosewood Cemetery in Conroe, Texas.
Davis is seen today as a cult favorite, one of the greatest singers of deep soul. The anguished despair and tortured loneliness in his voice cuts straight to the heart. It’s music to listen to in the dark, on a rainy night. Lula Davis and her daughters, like many families of Southern soul or blues artists, are being denied proper royalties. They haven’t received a dime in decades for Davis’ many reprints or records that have sold well in Europe.
Davis gave his all to his family, to his fans and to his music. Living Blues reviewer Jim DeKoster once pronounced Geater “One of the finest blues-oriented soul singers of the 1970s.” He is held in esteem and high regard by all fans of deep soul.