Carl Davis, a record producer and music impresario who helped shape the sound of Chicago soul on classics like "Duke of Earl" and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," died on Aug. 9 at his home in Summerville, S.C. He was 77.
The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said Gus Redmond, a longtime associate.
Though Chicago's soul scene was less celebrated than those of Detroit or Memphis, it was rich with talent, and Mr. Davis was at the center of it through the 1960s and '70s. He worked with Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis, the Chi-Lites and many others in a number of capacities, including producer, scout, manager and record company boss.
"Like Berry Gordy, he understood the modern recording industry of the '60s and '70s, and really understood how to make hit records," said Robert Pruter, who has written several books about soul and R&B music in Chicago.
Carl Henry Davis was born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1934, to a family full of musicians. But Mr. Davis himself "couldn't play a note," his brother George said in a recent interview.
Instead, his talent was recognizing hits, which he refined while working for the popular disc jockey Al Benson in the mid-1950s. Mr. Davis got the job because he knew how to use a typesetting machine. But with a reputation as a hit-spotter, he entered the record business and rose quickly.
In Mr. Pruter's book "Doowop: The Chicago Scene," Mr. Davis explains how a half-formed vocal riff he heard during a 1961 rehearsal with a minor group, the Dukays, resulted in one of the biggest songs of the era, "Duke of Earl."
"Through the door I kept hearing... I thought they were saying, 'do cover,' " he recalled. "They said, 'We're just rehearsing our next session. We haven't even written all the lyrics to the song yet.' And I said, 'Run it down, let's hear it.' They started, and the song just knocked me. I said, 'Let me tell you something. If you don't cut this song tomorrow, there ain't no session.' "
Credited to the group's lead singer, Gene Chandler, and produced by Mr. Davis, "Duke of Earl" was released on the Vee-Jay label in late 1961. It stayed at No. 1 for five weeks in early 1962 and was Vee-Jay's first million seller.
In 1962, Mr. Davis was hired by the Columbia subsidiary Okeh as director of A&R, or artists and repertory. His productions there, particularly upbeat tunes by Major Lance like "The Monkey Time," "Hey Little Girl" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" - most written by Mr. Mayfield and arranged by Johnny Pate - crystallized a new Chicago sound. With punchy brass, Latin-tinged percussion and elegant arrangements, it was sweeter than Motown and cooler than Stax.
After leaving Okeh in 1965, Mr. Davis worked at the Brunswick label, where he recorded Mr. Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and songs by Barbara Acklin and Mr. Chandler. He also released numerous songs by the Chi-Lites, including "Oh Girl," a No. 1 hit in 1972, and "Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)," which was prominently sampled in Beyonce's 2003 hit "Crazy in Love."
He also founded the labels Dakar, home to Tyrone Davis (no relation), and Chi-Sound, whose acts included the Chi-Lites and Manchild, where the R&B singer and producer Kenneth Edmonds (a k a Babyface) got his start.
By the early 1980s, with soul music long out of fashion, Mr. Davis closed Chi-Sound, his last label. His autobiography, "The Man Behind the Music: The Legendary Carl Davis," published in 2011, gives details of his later jobs as a security guard and a chauffeur. But in 2007 he revived the label, and Mr. Redmond said it is still active.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Davis's survivors include his wife, Dedra; his children, Pamela, Carl Jr., Tre, Julio, Carleen and Jaime Davis and Kelli Morris; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In a 1982 interview with the music journalist Dave Hoekstra, Mr. Davis gave his view on the difference between the Motown and Chicago soul sounds.
"Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame," he said. "We in Chicago tend to start with the artist, put him there and frame everything around him."