MEL DAVIS is a Dorchester lifer and a man of many talents. An enthusiastic music lover from his earliest years, by the 1970s he was flying up and down the Eastern Seaboard to go and see concerts by his favorite R & B artists, especially Atlanta and New York City.
By the late 1970s he realized that there were many talented groups who never played in Boston, and he set out to fix that. With very little promotion experience, he set up Coffy Produtions (aka C.O.F.F.Y.), based on his nickname.
Starting in around 1979 he promoted R & B groups ranging from The Dells, The Dynamic Superiors, Peabo Bryson and the Dramatics, as well as many smaller shows and events, many of these at the Denison House on Columbia Road in Dorchester, where he worked part-time. He co-promoted many of these show with Allen Day of Cheapo Records – as you can see at the top or bottom of many of the flyers below.
Along the way he also started a transportation company, Coffy (of course). This company, which still exists today, would shuttle Bostonians to larger R & B shows among other ventures, many of these in Providence (Funkadelic, The Jacksons, Marvin Gaye).
Mel was all set to have one of his biggest shows yet, “Soul 35,” when Covid hit. But as soon as we can all gather safely again, you can bet he’ll be planning it in grand style. For news, follow https://coffyproductionsent.com/.
This interview was conducted by Brian Coleman at Mel Davis’s home in Dorchester in late September 2020.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP? WERE YOU ALWAYS IN DORCHESTER?
My parents were from South Carolina. I was born in Roxbury and when my father made enough money we rented a space on Howard Avenue [in Dorchester], five blocks from here. The only black family.
Until I was a teenager, I didn't know (that there were majority black schools).
DID YOU HAVE ANY ISSUES IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, AS THE ONLY BLACK FAMILY?
I had problems with some teenagers. The older kids were the ones that basically let us know that we weren't white. Other than that, everything was great. We went to almost all white dances at Catholic schools. I even went to Catholic mass. We did everything that all the white kids did. Baseball, Dorchester All Stars, I was the captain.
I left Patrick T Campbell Junior High and I wanted to go to a trade school. So, I went to Charlestown High School, which is for electronics, they teach electricians. The problem was that me and my brother, out of 2,000 students, there were only three other black kids. Charlestown wasn't great.
We were kind of a novelty since there were so few of us, so they didn't bother us too much.
HOW WAS THE COMMUTE?
One bus and then the train from Dudley Station. Me and my brothers went there. I ran cross country, I was a regular high school kid. I got a scholarship to a prestigious draftsman's corporation. I found out I could draw.
WHERE DID COFFY COME FROM?
I was in a group called The Soul Impression [late ‘60s / early ‘70s]. They were friends of mine and they needed work. Being a little bit in the business, I said I could be the manager and get them gigs. I got them gigs outside of Boston. They weren't really that good of a band [laughs]. Outside of Boston that didn't matter as much. I also got them all the colleges -- BC, Northeastern. Much better money than in a club.
When one of the guys got drafted, they needed a background singer. But remember, I can't sing [laughs]. But I can do, "Doo Wop, Doo Wop." So, I was manager, agent and background singer, all for the same price [laughs].
I started touring with them. Their big thing was to do two slow songs, and then the band would come on and play faster stuff. During the slow songs me and the dancers would go out into the audience, and dance with the girls. The lead singer would say, "By the way, down there that's Coffy. We call him Coffy because he grinds so fine!" And that nickname stuck [laughs]. That was the early 70s.
HOW DID YOU GET TO THE POINT OF BOOKING AND PROMOTING SHOWS?
Basically, I got into the music business because at the time there was no entertainment... in Boston. The only person who was bringing in any entertainment was Mr. Al Haymon. And he was having problems with the major promoters, to the point where he finally beat them in a lawsuit.
It was a big deal. Don Law, Russ [interviewer’s note: he most likely means Frank] Russo, they split up the different regions. So other promoters couldn't do any shows.
THEY DIDN'T WANT ANY COMPETITION... BUT DID DON LAW WANT TO DO R & B ACTS?
He only dealt with the big, major acts. As Al Haymon got bigger, he wanted to do the white acts, and that's where it became a problem.
A TURF WAR
Right... So Al sued them. He went to Harvard Law School. I've got a copy of the lawsuit.
WHEN WAS THIS? LATE 70s?
Yeah that sounds right. Late '70s. He beat them at their own game. They got so big that they weren't even hiding it... [laughs].
I was told when I got into the business that if I really wanted to do that, I'd meet some pretty unsavory characters. And I said it's not worth it. I didn't have to be on that high echelon, where I'd have to deal with those people. I was OK being on the next tier down from that.
YOU CAN STILL MAKE A LIVING ON THAT TIER
It wasn't about making a living... it was more about having fun [laughs].
ON YOUR WEBSITE BIO IT SAID YOU ONLY BOOKED ACTS YOU HAD ALREADY SEEN PERSONALLY
There was an airline in the ‘70s, Continental Airlines. For $100 you could fly anywhere in the country where they flew. Every weekend I'd jump on a plane [laughs], go to the West Coast. I went to Atlanta a lot, and a lot of time in New York.
At the time, music went from the West Coast to Atlanta and from there up to New York. And it would stop in New York. It would never get to Boston. I would see acts that I had only heard about, or heard their records, or music that I had never even heard about, even from New York.
New York was the mecca of entertainment and even as close as we were, we weren't getting a lot of great music. So, in my travels, especially in Atlanta, I started to see some major black entertainment. At the time Atlanta was the mecca of Black citizenship, so the entertainment was great down there. This was the 1970s.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN THE '60s?
In the '60s I was a dancer, for a group called The Gentells. I couldn't sing [laughs], so we basically went to clubs to be opening acts. We'd do choreography and dancing, like the Temptations, but we couldn't sing. None of us could sing! But that's the way it started.
HOW ACTIVE WAS THAT GROUP?
Anything that was going on locally, when they needed an act to entertain before the small act came on, that was us. Like if the Drifters were playing.
WHAT KINDS OF VENUES?
Very small, we're talking about 100 capacity, if that. Estelle's, places in Roxbury. Small, little places.
OK, BACK TO YOUR PROMOTING…
The first artist I was interested in was Millie Jackson. Her material was different than anyone else. She was singing about Black life and love in a way that really hit home. And she was the only one doing it. I really wanted to do her as my first show in Boston, but I couldn't get her. I would see her in Atlanta.
SHE HADN'T EVER PERFORMED IN BOSTON THROUGH THE '70s?
No, never. No promoters would bring her here.
EVEN A SPOT LIKE THE SUGAR SHACK?
There were places she could have played, but no one booked her. No promoters thought the type of music she was doing was mainstream enough. The Sugar Shack had great Black acts, but they couldn't cover everything.
I wanted to fill in that part that was missing. I knew people would enjoy an act like Millie but no one else was doing.
The first time I went to the Sugar Shack I saw the Unifics (Interviewer’s note: pretty sure this is the group he mentioned). I saw Funkadelic there, Teddy Pendergrass. The Sugar Shack was the only place in Boston you could see acts like that.
There was a place on Boylston Street.... you went downstairs... Paul's Mall. That place was really small, it was maybe twice as big as this room (his living room).
I wanted to bring in the type of acts that women would enjoy.
SO, YOU BASICALLY LOOKED FOR VOIDS AND TRIED TO FILL THEM?
Exactly. So, my first show ended up being The Dells at the Bradford Hotel, in 1980. It's not called the Bradford anymore. I had seen them at a dinky dive in Atlanta. One of the greatest R & B groups, but with the new wave of entertainment all the older groups like them went by the wayside, they didn't have a lot of work. If they didn't have a hit song in 10 years, they were just gone.
AND DISCO CAME IN, WHICH HURT A LOT OF CLASSIC SOUL GROUPS
Right. They wouldn't convert. And those types of groups, who were great, dropped off the face of the Earth.
With that Dells show, we did two shows [8 pm and 11:30 pm]. One thing I learned from being at the Strand Theater, before I got into promotion -- you have to know every aspect of producing a show and promoting a show. Producing and promoting are two different things and you'd better be able to do both. It's not as effective if you have different people doing those. If you do it all, you have complete control.
That's why I used two names. They would say Mel Davis and Coffy Productions and sometimes Cheapo Records when Allen would partner with me. Mel Davis and Coffy were one in the same, but people did not know that unless they knew me personally. And that got me out of a lot of sticky situations [laughs]. "Mr Mel Davis told me...." and I was talking to them as Coffy.
... INTERVIEW CONTINUES BELOW, AFTER FIRST SLIDESHOW ...
... MEL DAVIS INTERVIEW - PART 2 ...
YOU DID SHOWS IN THE '80s, BUT MOST OF YOUR WORK WITH SHOWS WAS IN THE 90s.
In the 80s I had Coffy's Place, at the Denison House [584 Columbia Road in Dorchester]. I was the Director over there, I was there for over 25 years. We had a third floor that was empty and we needed some additional income. We were connected with the Federated Dorchester Houses, but we were considered a stepchild. So we got very little money to run the Agency.
There were four Neighborhood Houses in Dorchester, and Denison House was one of them. I was Director there going back to the '60s.
YOU WERE A BUSY GUY, WITH ALL THE JET-SETTING
It was easy to do on the weekends.
I was very civic-minded, I was going to run for City Councilor. But I was just doing too many things to be set on that course. With the Denison House I was helping the community. I could open the third floor, there was a stage up there. It was a place for people to dance and drink.
What was unique was that I could open at 10 pm or 11. It was only a late night spot and I only did it once a month. Remember now, it's illegal to run a club like that.
AND YOU HAD MENTIONED IT WAS KIND OF A COP BAR?
Police could go there, sure. That I guess was my insurance policy. I never had a problem, except for one Valentine's Day, up and down Columbia Road at 2 or 3 in the morning, in the business district where everything was closed, and cars were parked all up and down the street [laughs]. That was a very popular night.
IF IT WAS ONLY ONCE A MONTH I ASSUME YOU BOOKED ENTERTAINMENT?
We did little shows, yes. It wasn't just a bar. I would go to New York to the Apollo and I would book the act that didn't win the whole show but who I thought sounded good and might have a future... I'd have them drive to Boston and perform and get some experience. The major act like that I booked was called Passion. They did one album and it didn't go anywhere.
I always tried to book acts before they became major hits. A lot of times the booking agencies made it difficult. With Al Haymon, they cut him off. After he sued them and won and could get acts, he would make it harder for me. But what he did wasn't illegal.
IT SOUNDS LIKE DON LAW MESSED WITH ALAN [HAYMON] AND THEN HE TURNED AROUND AND MESSED WITH YOU, AND KEPT THE CHAIN GOING.
Right. But he did it legally.
The big agencies were William Morris, Norby Walters, in New York... The best way to book a new act that nobody knows is to go to the act directly, don't go to the booking agency.
Peabo Bryson, when he started out, nobody knew him on the East Coast. He was going to UMass [Boston] at the time and so was I. I studied Community Relations, that helped me with what I was doing at Denison House. I went to Northeastern for a year, Wentworth for seven months. I went to ITT Tech learning about computers for seven months. I did all the things they tell you to do when you're growing up, to live a successful life.
I found out real quickly that unless I did something for myself, I was just going to be another worker bee in a beehive. I found out there was only so far how I could go, being a Black man in that era. I was going to be a worker, unless I got lucky. Not too many Black people in that era were lucky.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BUS COMPANY
When I was at Denison House, they would need buses for summer camp programs. At the time I knew someone in Boston who was running the bus company for schools during the school year, but in the summer the buses would just sit there. So I made a deal with him to use his buses for our camp and other camps for the Federation.
Then when there was a concert out of town, like an Alan Haymon show, I would rent the buses to bring people to those shows. Ten to twelve buses, fifteen people on a bus. Alan would book a lot of shows down there, but I would also go to Connecticut.
We left from Dudley Station, where people could get a bus or the T or park their cars. I had monitors on each bus collecting money. We'd park and the promoters knew I was coming in Providence, they'd make a place for me to park my buses there. It worked out perfectly and I made a lot of money with that.
This was in the early '80s. I couldn't beat him so I figured out a way to still make money.
WHEN DID YOU STOP DOING SHOWS IN THE 80s? AND WHY DID YOU RESTART?
My last show was at the Strand, New Birth and Lakeside. [FLIPS THROUGH FLYERS] It wasn't fun for me any more, and I wanted to get into real estate. There were other promoters trying to do stuff so it wasn't worth it.
The big shows I did were in the 90s. The 80s shows were smaller and I only did a couple.
In the 80s I was still dealing with Alan Haymon. And he left Boston at some point, but not 100%. When he found out that another promoter was doing stuff....
WHEN YOU WOULD HAVE A SHOW, WAS WILD 1090 AM THE MAIN MEDIA OUTLET?
They were the *only* outlet. For radio. Some college stations but they were on late at night and had limited range.
BUT WILD WAS OFF THE AIR AT NIGHT....
Yes, but they had a much larger listenership. They were the only show in town.
Bay State Banner would cover us. Some other places. But the main thing was the radio and that was WILD.
IN THE 90s WHEN YOU GOT BACK INTO PRODUCING SHOWS, WHAT WAS THE FIRST SHOW?
(He goes over to look at his flyers on the wall) 1996 - "That was my biggest show," Alan (Haymon) was gone now.
In the ‘80s I wasn't dealing with Allen at Cheapo at all. He heard good things about me. This is a small town.
I designed all my posters and I wrote (the scripts) for all my commercials. Designed all my flyers...
DID YOU HAVE A FAVORITE VENUE?
My favorite was The Strand because it had 1,400 seats and it was in the neighborhood. I also had a personal relationship with the person who ran it. The Denison House was pretty much right across the street from the Strand, and we'd bring our kids there for Arts - dance and plays. The director was a person of the community.
John Hancock was a beautiful place. It was a Union hall, though. The Strand wasn't.... so, I got a taste in how that works. I never had to deal with Union stuff even in the transportation.
We'd also use Reed Auditorium.
[Flipping through his stacks of flyers and posters….] I saved so much stuff. It started with my mother making me throw away my old comic books. "You can't have your clothes and your comic books, so one of them has to go."
I had a cousin in Atlanta, so I had a place to stay there. I was a bodybuilder and I did some bodybuilding shows, under Coffy. I have those flyers and pictures.
I got out of the business because I missed out on major acts for a variety of reasons. Whitney Houston, Peabo Bryson. They would have made me tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe it was a blessing [laughs], who knows.
WAS “THE BUSINESS” HARDER FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU WEREN'T A FULL-TIME PROMOTER?
I think it was better for me. When I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, for whatever reason, it basically made me stronger and taught me more about the game.
Eventually I became a manager, I went directly to the groups, I didn't go to the agents.
One person I wanted to see the most before I got out was Isaac Hayes. He had been out of the business for 20 years. That was one show that slipped by me, and I would have put all my resources into it. He got back to doing performances and I pulled all my favors. He was my idol. They told me he was going to be at Mohegan Sun at the Casino. [2007 or 2008]
I went there, met him, talked to him for 20 minutes, about music and the business. For me this is like talking to the Pope [laughs]. And he said to me, "I'll gladly perform for you." Six months later he dies of a heart attack. [sighs, sad remembering it].
That was the first time I had ever met him. It was fantastic.
Even after you get out, you can't get it out of your system. You see some entertainment that no one else knows about and you just want to show people.
The best thing about working with older groups - they are old-school. They don't want the dancing girls, they don't want the green M & Ms (laughs). Give us a nice place to stay and something to eat, and we're good. That's why I enjoyed working with the second tier groups so much.
[Gives Brian his business card, points out all his family members on there] It's a family-oriented company! Angela is my wife. My son lives across the street. My brothers Mars and Kevin. Jennifer is my cousin. It's all family.