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Billy Davis, 76; Songwriter Was Part of Ad Team Behind Hit Coca-Cola Jingle

September 10, 2004|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Billy Davis, a songwriter who penned his share of hit songs but reached his greatest audience with the jingle-writing team that made advertising history with "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke," has died. He was 76.

Davis, who died Sept. 2 in New Rochelle, N.Y., after a long illness, was one of the four ad men credited with the gentle anthem that debuted in a television commercial in 1971 but quickly surged beyond that forum.

Not only did it become a pop hit -- with lyrics recast to omit the soda brand -- but its ubiquity and sing-along gentleness put it among the signature songs for the decade.

The sensation of the song was a huge windfall for the Madison Avenue career of Davis, but the Detroit native had already earned a spot in pop music history for his R&B songwriting, most notably his co-writer credit on "Lonely Teardrops," a defining hit for R&B great Jackie Wilson, as well as "Reet Petite," Wilson's first charting hit in 1956.

A songwriting trio is credited on those hits -- Davis (under the name Tyran Carlo) was joined by a girlfriend, Gwen Gordy, as well as her brother, Berry Gordy Jr., a record store owner who was in the early years of a music business path that would see him build Motown Records into a household name. Davis himself went on to an esteemed brand in the 1960s as in-house producer and creative guiding hand at Chess Records, the storied Chicago label.

In 1968, the McCann Erickson advertising agency came to Davis and coaxed him into taking on a new career in New York in its music division.

In 1971, a seasoned Davis was listening when his ad agency's creative director, Bill Backer, described how he and other passengers stranded at a fog-bound Dublin airport passed the time sipping Coke and chatting. Davis and two other songwriters used that sentiment as the core of "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke." Among the lyrics:

"I'd like to teach the world to sing

In perfect harmony.

I'd like to buy the world a Coke

And keep it company."

The commercial paired the music with a visual image of youth and harmony -- attractive teens and young adults from around the globe who were gathered together on a hilltop in Italy to form a rainbow-faced chorus.

Davis told interviewers he knew something special was happening when his friends in radio called to say listeners were calling to request that the commercial be played as if it were a hit single.

It became just that when Davis drafted a group of singers, quickly dubbed the Hillside Singers, and produced a single with the same melody and meadow-mellow harmonies, but with the title "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)."

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