S.O.S. Band vocalist Mary Davis' entire musical life has been about timing -- good times, bad times, taking the time to do things right, and watching the hit songs she recorded continue to stand the test of time.
Davis and her band rose quickly to the top, dropped just as fast after a good eight-year run, and has now risen back up and re-established its legacy as one of the best R&B bands of a generation.
The S.O.S. Band will share the Celebrity Theatre stage Friday, April 10, as a part of UrbanAZ Funk Fest with fellow '80s R&B hit-makers Cameo ("Attack Me with your Love", "Word Up"); Zapp Band ("More Bounce to the Ounce"); Con Funk Shun ("Ffun" and "Shake and Dance With Me") and Lakeside ("Fantastic Voyage").
In 1980, "Take Your Time (Do It Right)," written for the band by Sigidi Abdullah and recorded in one take, sold two million copies and went platinum, reaching number one on the pop and R&B charts. Their eponymous debut album would go on to sell 800,000 copies.
The timing was right for Davis, back in 1977, after seeking fame and fortune in the Big Apple, she came back home to Georgia. She began performing at Milton Lamar's legendary Regal Room in Atlanta. It was there that time and fate were on her side. At the same time, accomplished keyboard player Jason TC Bryant had just moved from Japan to Atlanta, and in just weeks, their two musical worlds collided.
Regal owner Milton Lamar told the two promising musicians to combine their talents and form a group. What came from that was the original S.O.S. Band, originally named Santa Monica. The lineup would include Willie "Sonny" Killebrew (saxophone), the late Billy Ellis (flute), Bruno Speight (guitar), John Simpson (bass), James Earl Jones III (drums), Bryant, and Davis.
The band's manager Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, a successful local Atlanta business woman who would go onto manage SOS and then Cameo, sent a demo to Tabu Records owner Clarence Avant and the rest was history, not only for the band, but for David as a female bandleader.
Davis had to earn the respect of the fledgling band and its male members. There was no template at the time which produced many female-led groups. The scene was dominated by the likes of male groups such as Parliament-Funkadelic, Brothers Johnson, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, and many more. The key for Davis was her versatility and talent.
"It was a combination of both [being a singer and songwriter]," she acknowledges. "I was the only singer in the group for a while, so they had to come over to that [having her as a leader]. We were able to talk about it, and make it happen."
And, as much as her rise-and-fall-and-rise-again success has come via her singing, it has been her unwavering dedication to her faith stepped in Southern gospel that has sustained her -- that and a tireless passion for living the rest of her musical dream.
"I am a Christian and I believe in God," Davis offers up counting Shirley Caesar, James Cleveland and later Aretha Franklin as her main influences. "And my God said, 'Anything you ask for, and long as you are patient, it will come true.'"
After its initial success, the band would recruit accomplished songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (formerly of The Time and producers of Janet Jackson early hits), who would write multiple S.O.S. Band hits over the course of the group's next four albums -- III, On the Rise, Just the Way You Like It, and Sands of Time. They also introduced the Roland TR808 synthesizer drum machine, which would become part of the band's and R&B genre's signature sound.
With success comes greater expectations and the pressure to keep churning out hit after hit, and time would be something Davis had very little of for herself. Sands of Time would be Davis' last album with the band, as she would be forced to leave the band in 1987 due to exhaustion. The breakneck pace of touring and recording broke Davis down.
"I couldn't maintain the rigorous schedule that we had, and I had to take a break, ' Davis recalls. But there was a silver lining for her. "In my recovery I worked on a solo album; it was something I always wanted to do and so I did it."
The band would go forward with singer Chandra Currelley and record its final two albums between 1989 and 1991. Meanwhile, Davis convalesced and then released a single on her own called "Steppin' Out" but the adjoining album "Separate Ways" would remain shelved for 27 years until it was reworked by producer Bernard Terry with the help of L.A. Reid and Babyface.
Now, the band is back on the road, having just released its first single released in nearly a quarter-century in "Just Get Ready."
"We wanted to see what kind of response we would get, and it went to number one [on the UK's Sweet Rhythm Chart category], and we were nominated for best song of the year [ in the 2014 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards]."
As for sharing the stage with the other bands at UrbanAz Funk Fest, Davis takes a "more the merrier" attitude.
"It's pleasure and its really almost like a reunion to get together. We travelled back in the day quite a bit [with the other bands]," she says. "When you do those shows there are people there who like you because it's you, like Cameo because it's Cameo, and so on. So when you get all these bands together, you get to see everybody in their element."
At the end of the day it's all about energy and time with her fans that motivates the veteran singer.
"I like all kinds of music. It's a universal language. But I mostly listen to gospel because it moves me and gives me the energy that lets me do what I need to do," she says.
As for the fans:
"It's a lot of people, a lot of my fans, some that have been so supportive for 36 or 37 years. We are grateful that they have stayed with us all these years," Davis says.
And while so many veteran R&B performers seemingly try to regain the glory of past fame, Davis is simply enjoying every minute of her rekindled career, and father time can't help but dance to her timeless beat.
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.