THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES
Born in Sault St. Marie, Michigan, he was one of four children. His mother Bernice was a music teacher and his father Roy was a farmer.
They grew up on a farm at Branch near Grand Rapids. He sang in the local church choir with his sisters Judith and Julie, whilst his brother Dean played the saxophone. David also played cornet in the school band.
David and Julie created the Capella group The Utopias in their teens and performed around Detroit. They recorded three singles and one of them, ‘Welcome, Baby, To My Heart’ was a hit in Michigan only in 1966.
They were regularly on the radio, were booked in clubs and performed for 40 successive Sunday nights at the famous Detroit nightclub ’20 Grand’.
They took up song writing too. The first song he wrote to be recorded was ‘Just Give Me One Reason’ by Maxine Brown.
One of his early songs (‘I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again’) was later made famous when Bonnie Raitt recorded it for her 1989 Grammy winning ‘Nick of Time’ album.
In 1970, David joined the cast of ‘Hair’ for two years before moving to New York to perform as the lead in the Broadway musical ‘Dude’.
Simultaneously he founded the pop group ‘Rosie’ with two former colleagues from Hair. They released LPs but had no commercial success.
In 1973 his single, a cover of The Chiffon’s ‘One Fine Day’, was Billboard’s record of the week. But it still failed.
David had a four-octave range voice with a distinctive falsetto. He kept song writing but realised his singing was not earning him enough to make a living. So, he moved into the lucrative world of recording adverts and jingles and his reputation grew. Very quickly, other musicians were asking him to be their backing singer.
James Taylor was the first and they grew to have a very close friendship. David became part of Taylor’s band. He would introduce David on stage as, “a great singer and songwriter in his own right.”
David sang on Odyssey’s hit single ‘Native New Yorker’.
Then he joined Chic as one of their four-part singers, two male, two female. The other male was a then unknown Luther Vandross.
When Vandross became a star he took David with him as his backing singer. They remained close friends.
David did not lead the rock and roll lifestyle. “I don’t go to industry parties. I like to keep myself to myself – I’m really blessed because I’m doing what I love.”
Then writer and producer Desmond Child picked him up. He worked with Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Todd Rundgren, Herb Alpert and Boz Scaggs – all the while continuing to work with Chic. He also played with many more household names.
He also sang on Sister Sledge’s hit ‘We Are Family’.
He was an uncredited singer on two of The Ramones’ LPs.
At one point he appeared on thirteen of the Billboard’s Top 25 hit singles.
And he wrote songs with Kiki Dee and Boz Scaggs.
He kept trying to have a successful solo career. In 1980 he joined Geffen Records as a recording artist. It was not a happy relationship. He quickly realised they wanted to control his output and make him copy more established stars. He bought himself out of the contract – at great expense.
From there he became the staff songwriter at Irving Almo. They allowed him to put out an LP of his own demos. It was a flop.
However, his second album ‘Missin’ 20 Grand’ was critically acclaimed and much more successful. Both Pete Townshend and James Taylor played on it.
The music press labelled him, “The next Bob Dylan” – but it never happened. He had 8 solo albums, some of which are still regarded well, but only one hit single (in the USA only), ‘If I Had My Wish Tonight’ (which reached number 36 in the top 40).
Meanwhile he was still writing for Meat Loaf, Cher and Aerosmith.
In his autobiography, Lenny Kravitz remembered David’s kindness to him when he was an unknown musician. He put Lenny up on his couch and provided him with many introductions in the music business – which paved his way to success.
David starred in the 2013 documentary ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’, about the lives of backing singers. It won an Oscar.
He was suddenly diagnosed with aggressive cancer and an emergency operation left him an amputee, needing a wheelchair. His house needed drastic adaptation – which was not completed when he died.
Both his sisters predeceased him. He is survived by Dean, his sax-playing brother.
The night after he died, Jackson Browne was playing a concert at Grand Rapids. James Taylor was invited on stage and told the audience, “We lost a really close friend last night.” Taylor and Browne then sang ‘Shower the People (you love with love)’ as a tribute to David.
Desmond Child said of him, “He sang and wrote on many of the classic records across the last five decades that have become the soundtrack of our lives.”
He was also called, “One of the most heard, least known figures in pop.”
RIP – Recording Innumerable Pop (hits)