Billie Davis was among the pioneers of Britain’s emerging beat sound. With her distinctive vocals, her records were instantly recognisable, and her bobbed hair, long boots and leather skirts encapsulated the mood of the moment. However, the singer’s career was blighted by bad luck, preventing her from achieving the kind of success she deserved.
She was born Carol Hedges on 22 December 1945 in Woking, Surrey.
After leaving school, she worked briefly as a secretary for an engineering firm until a win at a talent contest provided the springboard to a career in pop. Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers had been the backing group at the contest and Bennett suggested that Billie should contact producer Joe Meek.
Meek liked the unique qualities of Billie’s voice and had her record a few songs, including Merry go round and Mister Right. During her time at his studios, Billie also met Robert Stigwood, who managed another Meek act, the chart-topping John Leyton. When Stigwood poached Billie, Meek wiped her vocals from the recordings they had made. (He would later replace them with those of Gunilla Thorn and Kim Roberts.)
Stigwood gave the singer the stage name Billie Davis (as a kind of tribute to singer Billie Holiday and entertainer Sammy Davis Jnr) and set about grooming her for stardom.
He teamed her initially with another of his acts, Mike Sarne. She enjoyed success with the comic duet Will I what?, a UK top 20 hit in September 1962. On it, she played the foil to Sarne, much as future TV actress Wendy Richard had on Come outside, a number one hit earlier that year.
However, Billie wasn’t keen on performing novelty records and, with a freshly signed contract from Decca, she urged him to come up with something better for her debut solo release.
He planned to have her cover Little Eva’s The locomotion, but on a trip to the US he heard The Exciters’ Tell him.
On his return, he dispatched Billie into the studio and rush-released the song in order to gain an advantage over Alma Cogan, who had also recorded it. The ploy worked, and Billie’s version made the UK top ten in February 1963.
She gained experience of performing live after standing in on a couple of gigs for Helen Shapiro, who was supporting The Beatles on their national tour.
This exposure should have helped Billie score another big hit, but the choice of second-rate soundalike He’s the one put paid to that. Although it had been penned by Charles Blackwell – the man behind great songs for Samantha Jones and Françoise Hardy – it was not one of his finest works and the single stalled at number 40 several months later.
At this point, Billie quit Decca to join Columbia.
However, her career came to a standstill in September 1963, when she and former Shadows guitarist Jet Harris were involved in a car crash on the way back from a concert in Evesham, in the West Midlands. Billie’s jaw was broken and Harris received serious head injuries.
Her condition left Billie unable to promote her first release on the new label, Bedtime stories, and it disappeared without trace. The bigger problem she faced, however, was her demonisation by the tabloid press over her relationship with Harris, who, though separated from his wife, was technically still married.
Further 45s – a version of The Raindrop’s That boy John and yé-yé girl Sheila’s French million seller L’école est finie, retitled School is over – also failed to shift.
The pounding Whatcha gonna do, issued in September 1964, proved a much more suitable vehicle. Credited to Billie Davis and the Leroys, it recaptured the vitality of Tell him and Billie performed it in the film Pop gear. Inexplicably, however, it also bombed.
A change of management prompted a switch of label, to Pye’s Piccadilly subsidiary.
Her debut release for the new label was an excellent version of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned The last one to be loved, in March 1965. Sadly, this and its follow up, the terrific staccato balled No other baby, still couldn’t propel Billie back up the charts.
At this point, she also began working with Keith Powell, and the pair issued several duets, including When you move, you lose and You don’t know like I know.
On the solo front, Heart and soul, issued in April 1966, proved disappointing. However, Just walk in my shoes, a storming version of a Gladys Knight and the Pips single for Motown, was first class, but it, too, failed to sell. (It has since gone on to fill the dance floors of Britain’s northern soul clubs.)
It wasn’t until she rejoined Decca in 1967 that her career began to pick up again, under the guidance of Michael Aldred. Billie had made it a condition of her return that the Ready, steady, go! presenter should produce her.
Her first single for the label, a poignant take on the Carole King-penned Wasn’t it you (originally an album track for Petula Clark) was a gem but didn’t chart.
Later that year, Aldred had Billie record Angel of the morning, with Kiki Dee, Madeline Bell and PP Arnold on backing vocals. Arnold also recorded her own version and it was this that became the UK hit. Billie enjoyed greater success in other parts of Europe with the song.
She went on to release the highly danceable I want you to be my baby, a cover of a Louis Jordan song from 1952 that Ellie Greenwich had recorded and released in the US. Billie describes it as her favourite of her own recordings and it showed all the signs of becoming a huge success. However, a strike at the record plant affected its availability and the single stalled at number 33 in the UK charts in November 1968. It has since become another favourite on the northern soul dance scene.
It fared better in Spain and heralded the release of a clutch of singles for the Spanish market.
Further UK 45s, the first-rate Make the feeling go away, issued in January 1969, and the melancholy I can remember (with the equally good, if not better, Nobody’s home to go home to on the B-side) in May, followed.
A version of Nights in white satin rounded off the decade. Again, the song proved more popular in Spain and prompted the recording of a single in Spanish, Venid conmigo, with soul singer Doris Troy supplying backing vocals.
Back at home, she released one further single for Decca, the Joe Cocker composition There must be a reason, in 1970. After eight years on the music scene, she also came to issue her debut album, highlights of which include It’s over (originally recorded in the US by Terry Lindsay) and Billy sunshine (a single she had issued in Spain).
Her popularity overseas saw her quit Decca – and the UK – for Spain. Based in Barcelona, she would record off and on during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Releases included I tried in 1972, I’ve been loving someone else in 1976, I’ll dance the ants back into your pants in 1977 and the Spanish 45 Chico, dame más amor in 1980.
In the late 1990s, she rejoined former beau Jet Harris for a series of concerts.
Follow the links to hear other singers' versions of Billie Davis songs
Angel of the morning
Liliane Saint-Pierre: Au revoir et à demain
PP Arnold: Angel of the morning
Liz Brady: Bas les pattes
Alma Cogan: Schneller
Our pick of the pops
Make the feeling go away
Whatcha gonna do
I want you to be my baby
No other baby
Just walk in my shoes
Nobody's home to go home to
Wasn't it you
Billie Davis online
Tell him: The Decca years
Whatcha gonna do? Complete singles 1963-1966
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