Maureen Davis of Maureen & the Mercury 5
When Maureen O’Hara Lana Turner Davis was born, just her name alone suggested this was going to be a fun ride for her and for the rest of us. Actually, the singer, songwriter, actress, music director of a late night talk show and once upon a time comedian’s birth certificate reads Maureen Lana Davis, but her mother, a former big band singer and lover of the films of the golden era named her daughter after two of her favorite actresses. The little girl born in Detroit and who as a child moved with her family several times to new homes in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois would go on to share the stage with Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production of the Tony Award winning play Into The Woods, she toured worldwide as a singer and now fronts her Rockabilly band Maureen & the Mercury 5 and she is the first woman to act as the musical director for a late night show that is currently being developed for television by Second City Hollywood, After Dark with Julian Clark.
Maureen Davis’ musical influences were sown early in life as she recalls, “my sisters Carolyn and Leslie had huge vinyl collections. They exposed me to all of the music that they loved. I was the baby," says Davis.
She remembers her childhood years, “What is funny is I was very religious. I was very Jewish and I wanted to be a rabbi, so I was in all of the choirs. I got so much of my musical knowledge from the cantor at the temple. I was in the children’s choir and the youth choir. I studied Hebrew music, which is the trope and that is the melody of reading Hebrew. It just fascinated me. I learned all of these trills and all of these things based on religious music. I had music in school and I did theater as a child and then something really tragic happened, my rabbi died. He was like my mentor. If there were family problems I would run to him and talk to him. He was my counselor and the person that I turned to when my parents were having problems and they were fighting a lot. He was stricken and then I got sick. I got very sick and we were both in the hospital at the same time.
I (learned that I had) Crohn's Disease and around that time I was thirteen and I also have asthma. When I had my bat mitzvah all of these weird things happened, my mom, my two sisters and I flipped over in a car, I got sick, my parents were going to get divorced and all of this stuff happened and then my rabbi died. I gave up Judaism right there. If all of these bad things are going to happen then God couldn’t be good. I couldn’t be close to God and I went into Rock and Roll. (She laughs)
I had such a great family, so I was still close to the Jewish traditions, I just didn’t want to do organized religion anymore. Once I got out of high school, I needed a job and I knew all of the Jewish music, so I taught music at one of the temples in town. I taught Rock and Roll Jewish music. It was the Folk songs that the kids learned at camp. I was still teaching Jewish stuff, because I knew it and I was trained for it.
If the kids got a detention for Sunday school they would have to come into my classroom and I would sit there and I would have long conversations with little kids about why are you here? Did your parents make you come? What makes you who you are? What’s crazy is it got me closer to being spiritual and being soulful, while teaching at a Jewish Sunday school, so it never left me. As I grew up my sisters were beautifully educated and they exposed me to books on Buddhism and my parents and my sisters made me read poetry and Rumi. They said go explore. It was a fascinating time and it all stemmed from my rabbi guy.”
Once she was old enough to live on her own, Davis moved to New York City, and she remembers it as being a time that was “very, very cool. I met up with my great Aunt Sandy and she is like Auntie Mame in the family. She was the artistic one. She was the rebel. If you were artistic at all you spent time with Aunt Sandy. I moved in with her and I slept on her couch bed. She had a gorgeous, elegant studio apartment in New York and she was my first roommate. She taught me how to survive and she told me about acting classes. She took me around New York and she showed me the ropes.”
In New York City Davis also reacquainted herself with some actors whom she had met while they were touring and they had told her if she ever lived in the city to look them up and they would help her to secure work, while she established herself as an actor. They helped her to find non-acting work, so she could survive, while she was doing auditions. They also assisted her in obtaining an agent.
“Within one month I was acting in off off Broadway. Off off Broadway were the smaller theaters. It wasn’t quite Off Broadway where you could get OBIE Awards, for Little Shop of Horrors and things like that. I did a charity production of Let’s MisBehave. It was a 1920s musical, plus I worked as a singer in a Japanese restaurant until two in the morning. I also worked in the fashion district, as a secretary. By the time I took the train home I think I would get about four or five hours of sleep. I would wake up in the morning and I would work in the fashion district, go to the rehearsal for the play and / or have a show if we weren’t in rehearsal and then work at the Japanese restaurant (all over again). I think that was at least four days a week. That is how I got my start. I really got into the Cabaret scene in New York at Don’t Tell Mama’s and the Duplex. It was so alive and so amazing. There were piano bars and one-person shows. You could do one-person shows and you could invite industry. I had this core group of friends and they were some of my best friends and we would always do shows together. It was like Cheers. You would walk into the bar and everybody would shout your name,” she recalls.
Cover songs in Maureen Davis’ repertoire back then included a Bonnie Raitt tune, Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” and “Think Of Me,” from Phantom of the Opera. She laughs when remembering that her friends would show her off to others and tell them, see she can sing Rock and Roll, Country and Opera. It just so happens that in one of her audiences there was a music director from a Boston production of Little Shop of Horrors. He told her that one of their actors was leaving and invited her to audition for the part.
“It was just in a bar and I am looking at the guy and thinking ya’ you’re drunk or whatever. This was a gay bar anyway, so I thought well he’s not trying to pick me up, so there might be some merit here. I don’t know. He gave me a card, I called and I auditioned for Little Shop of Horrors. I got the part, I moved to Boston and I started off as the left branch of the plant. The big plant was manned by five people. I worked my way up through each urchin. The urchins were the trio of girls and they made me like a Cyndi Lauper urchin (She laughs again). It was great! They put me in a red beehive wig and it was that really cool sixties (music) like the Shirelles. I got to play every urchin and I also got to play Audrey.
Whenever I on vacation I would run to New York and to
the Actors’ Equity building. I
would sign up for whatever open calls were there and I would wait and then go
room to room to sing and act or dance. It was all in one place (You
can hear the excitement and the joy in her voice as she recalls those moments).
I was in Little Shop of Horrors and I
spent a little time in the Into the Woods
audition. At this time they were just auditioning for the San Diego company at
the Globe, as they were workshopping it. A lot of shows get started there. Betty
Buckley was going to be in it.
They were doing an original casting from the workshop and for the
first time in my life they had me sing six songs. I went back to Boston and I
finished the Little Shop of Horrors
and then I moved back to New York after my show closed. I got a call from my
agent who said, did you go for an opening call for a Broadway show and not tell
me? I said yes, why? He said, they have requested you. You have an audition for
Into The Woods on Broadway. They are
looking at you for Bernadette Peters’ stuntwoman, because she has a magic trick
that she has to do, but also they are looking at you for all of the young
characters (such as) Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel.
I didn’t have any money. There was nothing in my bank account. I was not living with my aunt any longer and I had to get to this audition. I ran to the temp office and I said you guys I need car fare, so she gave me money for the subway tickets and I said if I get this part I am going to to get you tickets for the show. I went to the subway and it was stuck. Nothing was moving. I jumped back over the rail and I took a bus. I was on the bus and I was thinking oh my God, I am late, I am late and the bus broke down. I got off of the bus and I am thinking when is the next bus? I reached underneath where the tires are and because I am a drama queen I put some soot on me. I ran to the audition. I had to run eight New York blocks in this vintage sundress. I got to the audition and they were already down to the last six people. I said to the casting director you have to audition me, the bus broke down. I can’t make this shit up, I just can’t. She sees the soot on me and she sees that I ran and she goes okay go get cleaned up, we are going to see you. I walked in and that was it. They sang me and they danced me. The makeup artist came up to my face and she held up a picture of Bernadette Peters to measure the distance between our eyes, the length of our faces and our heights and everything. I got a call that I got the part. That was my adventure story.
I was cast as Sleeping Beauty and as the understudy for Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood in the original cast of Into The Woods. The most important role was the one of the ugly witch. When Bernadette Peters turns from beautiful to ugly, I was the ugly one. It was all trap doors and moving trees. We were taught the magic trick by Charles Reynolds who did The Magic Show on Broadway. We were taught how to do an actual magical illusion. I was Bernadette Peters for four minutes a night. She was my idol when I was growing up. I wrote a paper in high school and I said that I want to be Bernadette Peters,” she says.
Once Into the Woods closed on Broadway and in the wake of the Challenger spacecraft tragedy Maureen Davis would go on tour with Theater for Young Audiences in a play that was designed to help children to get over their fear of space and space travel. Davis remembers that the playwrights were brilliant and they utilized Pop music and comedy to get their message across. She says that it was a rewarding experience that she really loved.
When the Theater For Young Audiences tour ended Maureen Davis’ Aunt Sandy encouraged her to get to know her father again, as her parents had divorced when she was thirteen years old. At first they got to know each other over the telephone, while Davis attended college and the conservatory in New York City and then her father
would travel to New York periodically. Eventually, she moved to Los Angeles where her father lived and she got to know him and she continued to live in the west coast city.
Maureen Davis started doing standup comedy while living in Los Angeles and some of what she did was musical parodies. She discovered that she was funny, but she says she could not measure up to some of the other comedians at places like the Comedy Store and so she describes her tenure as an opening act as being more of a “musical sorbet.”
Deciding that her future did not lie in comedy, Davis started auditioning for plays once again.
She says, “That is when things really happened for me. It was kind of magical. I went to the Debbie Reynolds Theater, which is kind of like Actors Equity in New York. Every room has an audition. I crashed an audition where they were singing Jazz. There were hundreds of people and I said oh, I have an Ella Fitzgerald song I can sing. I didn’t know what it was for and I went and I sang just for fun. I left and they ran out after me and they said, we really like you and we need you to come back. It ended up being four callbacks after that. They were matching up three girls to tour Japan, Russia and to play Carnegie Hall. It was kind of an Andrew Sisters thing. It was for the Dark Ducks triangle tour. The Dark Ducks were this four man Japanese vocal group kind of like the Mills Brothers. They sang harmony and they had been together since college. They were known the world over. They sang in seven different languages. I think at one time they were in the Guinness Book of Records, as a vocal group that had been together the longest. At this time they were in their sixties and seventies.”“Then I came home and I got a job at a recording studio. I had already been writing songs, but I wasn’t very good at it and I met a songwriter who used to write for TV too. Actually, I dated him and I fell in love with him. He really, really helped me to write music and he taught me how music can be used in film.
Next I got a job working for cartoon composers, as a paid college intern. These guys worked for Hanna Barbera and they wrote (the music for) Johnny Quest, The Chipmunks and Dexter’s Lab and all of these shows for the Cartoon Network.
The coolest project that I still get royalties for and that they had me do was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Stories From My Childhood. There were these films from Russia and they took all of the music and dialogue off of them. They recast the parts with famous American actors and singers and the composers had to write new music to fit the films. Then they looked at me and they said, okay little girl you are going to write lyrics that match these cartoon characters. If the cartoon character is doing an “o” or a “ah” or an “e” you are going to note that and you are going to write a word that fits the story (she starts to laugh). Oh my God it was fascinating. They said we are going to write the melody and we are going to match the rhythm to the words. Now you are going to watch the cartoon and you are going to see on which beat the mouth is open a certain way. Here’s the story, it’s the story of Cinderella and you know what is going on, but you have to match English words to the cartoon character singing Russian words and I wrote nine episodes. Talk about backwards songwriting! I had to look for words to match pictures. God bless Thesaurus (she laughs).
We used to go to the coffee house and I would hire my friends to sing the parts when the actors couldn’t sing. My boyfriend at the time had this amazing, low baritone voice. He ended up starring as all of the evil characters and that was really fun. You had to get into character. They are still shown on TV from time to time. There are all of these wonderful children’s stories and the film quality is beautiful, just the way things were hand colored in those days. What is really terrific is I got to meet Pamela Phillips-Oland who is a very famous songwriter. She has written for so many people. She wrote for the Jackson Five, she wrote for Aretha Franklin (and Peabo Bryson, Reba McIntyre among the artists who have recorded more than 500 songs that she has written) and she now has the longest running musical in Dutch history (Solider of Orange). She was writing episodes with me,” she says.
Fast forward and Davis says, “When I formed Maureen &
the Mercury 5 I didn’t know if I had enough material and I saw Pamela in a
coffee house. I said do you remember me from college? I worked with you on the
cartoons from Russia and she remembered me. She ended up giving me the song “Red
Hot Rave On,” for my album and we became friends again. I still owe her a coffee
date. She said we can do some more writing together. It is so funny going from
the college internship and then to meeting the famous songwriter and years later
seeing her in a coffee shop and saying hey, I am in a Rockabilly band now and I
need some Rockabilly music, have you ever written that?”
Prior to Maureen & the Mercury 5, Maureen Davis started the band The Flutterbies with her neighbor Adam Daniel. We met at a garage sale and he said, I am a songwriter and I thought ya’ right, everybody is a songwriter, whatever. He turned out to be a really fantastic guitar player and I used to say when he performed on stage that his guitar was truth serum. He went through so many boyfriends with me and he counseled me (she laughs) and then we would write songs about these guys. There were times when we couldn’t even talk. I don’t know what was going on in my life at the time that I met Adam, but I was just meeting the wrong guys. There was one time that I walked in and my heart just hurt so badly that I couldn’t even say hello to him. He put down a paper and a pen and we were writing one word to each other. It went back and forth and back and forth and it ended up being called “First Rain of October.” Adam and I have this weird connection where we can just speak in song. He has a wife and a baby now and so we don’t write as often as we would like to, but he has been doing quite a bit of the writing with me for Maureen & the Mercury 5. Even though the Flutterbies don’t perform anymore Adam and I still write music for TV and film, even by phone.”
Davis makes the point that she does not want to be known as just another beautiful Swing singer, “I’m a Rock and Roller man! I’m a tomboy (she laughs). I need to play with the boys. It was Mark Tortorici who died tragically on October 30, 2014 in a car accident who said to me, Momo, why don’t you start a Rockabilly band? You already have The Flutterbies. It’s Alt Country and you love dancing. Your mom was a big band singer. Let me introduce you to some musicians and let’s get you a band.
Mark Tortorici had taken everybody from The Derby when it closed and brought them to Joe’s in Burbank. He made Joe’s the new Derby and he made Joe’s the new Swing place. It had been a sports bar, a Country sports bar and he single handedly got the best Blues, the best Swing, the best Rockabilly and the best Salsa on different nights at this club and he made this place a dance hall. He toured as a harmonica player and as a singer. He was amazing!
In 2013 Maureen & the Mercury 5 released the EP What’s It Gonna Take, which was comprised of five songs including the vintage sounding and romantic love letter “Mr. Love Love,” and Maureen Davis’ vocals are spectacular. The production is superb and the backing musicians with Eitaro Sako on guitar and Steve Whalen (upright bass) and Jason Eoff on keyboards are great. “Mr. Love Love,” is a gem today and it would have been equally heralded in the late 1950s and early 1960s during the golden age of Rockabilly music.
Talking about “Mr. Love Love,” Maureen Davis says, “Oh my God that was the one. Everybody loves that song. I was so happy about it. I wanted to write a Cha-Cha and I put on the karaoke track of “Stand By Me,” because it is a standard chord progression and that chord progression can be found in so many songs from the fifties and sixties. I found five songs with the same chords and I said well those are recognizable chords. I was very much in love with my dance partner and I wanted to write a song about him. It was his birthday gift. I just poured my whole soul and everything that I loved about this guy into that song. I have had people buy that record based on that song. In the beginning I was originally going to belt out that (she sings part of the song) and the producer said, no, sing it softly. Sing it like you are in bed and whispering to him. He said this song is not about belting, it is just about being in love. So I think I owe a lot to producer Scotty Lund for finding that sound.
This whole album (What’s It Gonna Take) was about getting the guy to marry me. We were on and off, on and off, on and off and so this record was my proposal to him. “What’s It Going To Take,” (the song) was really me saying (her voice becomes more direct) what’s it going to take? Why aren’t you marrying me? All of those songs were about him and about my journey with him. “Drink Him Down,” was about getting drunk, because he wouldn’t commit.”
In 2015 Maureen & the Mercury 5 released their current album The Keepin’ Kind, which features excellent songs such as the aforementioned rocking “Red Hot Rave On,” a fast moving song, with a call and response, the fun “Mambo Joe,” with a Latin beat and the Country flavored, bawdy tune “Victory Vice.”
Davis talks about “Mambo Joe,” which derives its name from a person she refers to as Joe Dancer.
“They call him Joe Dancer and I don’t think I even know his last name. He is one of my favorite, favorite people. When the guy turned me down after I proposed by record, it was embarrasing when he said no thank you, even though I had just written an entire record for him. It was a bad breakup and I had to dance it off. Joe would take me out dancing. We would go to all of the dance halls. He dances everything, Mambo, Cha-Cha and Jitterbug. He helped me through my breakup. I said I am writing you a thank you song. He helped me to write it. I asked him to give me the story of his life. I interviewed him. His dad was a preacher and his sister and brother used to make fun of him for dancing, but he ended up being the homecoming king. He has worked with movie stars. This whole song is his story,” she says.
Maureen Davis and Brad Hayman from Switchblade 3 collaborated to write “Victory Vice.” Davis refers to him as one of her mentors.
“Brad is hardcore. He is this tall Australian guy with a Mohawk. I met him at Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance at Joe’s Bar in Burbank. I was terrified of him and finally I got up the courage to talk to him. He had a band that would do Heavy Metal covers as Rockabilly tunes. He is a genius and we became friends. He taught me how to dress and he is the one who made me a tough girl instead of a soubrette. He said Momo you have to be one of the guys. You are going to be the strong one. You are not going to be the coquette in the corner. He said you’re in charge, that’s what’s interesting about you.
Brad came over and he said it’s time to write a song. We would just share stories about flirting (she bursts out laughing). So we basically had a flirt off. I was bemoaning to him, why am I still alone? We were getting ideas for songs and he said, tell me what you say and tell me what you do? We ordered pizza and we laughed so hard. It was like well if I had the courage I would do this. If you look at the lyrics, the whole song is a flirt off. It is about a guy who says okay game on and she says you can have me if you kill your friend, because I hate your friend. He goes no. It is this whole thing of they are constantly finding the no. They want each other so badly, but they are constantly finding the no. I think my favorite lyric (happened) when we sat on the couch and we looked at each other and we said, I can’t believe we just wrote this. It’s the bridge. I looked at him and I said what do you do when you say no to a girl? He said I just say sports and grannies (she imitates an Australian accent). I said sports and grannies we are using that in the song. (She then recites the bridge). That sums up my friendship with Brad Hayman, because he is just this Rockabilly bad boy and he has decided that I need to be Ava Gardner. I need to be Ann-Margret. He said that is what you are going to do now. I am your Svengali. That is the “Victory Vice,” story, Brad Hayman daring me to dig deeper into my inner siren,” she says.
In addition, to Maureen Davis on lead vocals, the album The Keepin’ Kind has Steve Whalen on upright bass, Scott McLean (lead guitar and vocals), Sylvain Carton (vocals, saxophone and rhythm guitar) and Tommy Goddard on drums (editor’s note: T. Alex Budrow is now the drummer for performances).
These are heady days for Maureen Davis as she is now the Musical Director for After Dark with Julian Clark a late night talk show program being developed by Second City Hollywood and that is taped before a live audience, with the hope that a network will pick it up. At the moment the episodes appear on YouTube.
Davis says, “It is exciting to be the first female music director of a TV show in development. I plan on being the female Paul Shaffer and I am told that I look better in fishnets than he does.
We have big name stars on the show and we are hoping that once we get thirteen episodes in the can that people will be able to see it on TV in 2016. That’s our goal. Our song “The Keepin’ Kind,” is the theme song of the show.
Top Photo by Mike Kendall, Cover Art by Adam Huntley, Bottom
Photo by Jason Holmes / Retrodolls
Top Photo by Mike Kendall, Cover Art by Adam Huntley, Bottom Photo by Jason Holmes / Retrodolls
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Maureen & the Mercury 5 here.
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This interview by Joe Montague published November 1st,
2015 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine ©
All Rights Reserved. All Photos courtesy of Maureen Davis, cthe
photographers and artists and are protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved
This interview by Joe Montague published November 1st, 2015 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved. All Photos courtesy of Maureen Davis, cthe photographers and artists and are
protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved