Frank Henry was working in Collegetown Bagels in Ithaca in the late 1980s when one day a man with dreadlocks came in wearing a baseball jacket reading “Oscar Oscar Oscar World Tour” on the back.
Henry was curious about this world tour he’d never heard of, so he asked.
Turned out there was no tour, the dreadlocked man told Henry; the jacket was more of an advertisement of an aspiration. That was how Oscar Davis, musician, met Frank Henry, producer.
“And from that moment on we were inseparable for many years,” Henry said. “It was a quite a ride. And I did not plan to get on that train.”
Oscar Davis died July 9 in Delray Beach, Florida, but for many people in Cortland and Tompkins counties, his memory and his music live on.
Davis left Cortland for Delray Beach in the spring of 2013, but he lived for 22 years in and near Cortland, and between his musical gigs and his various jobs, people got to know him, said Noralyn Masselink, Davis’s ex-wife.
“People loved him,” Masselink said. “He was charismatic.”
Davis grew up in New York City and came from a rough background, she said.
“When I met Oscar he carried his money in his shoe because he didn’t trust the banks,” she said. Music was his way out.
Davis got his first exposure as a musician on the Ted Mack and The Original Amateur Hour in New York. He was maybe 16 or 17 at the time, Masselink said. He also tried out on a talent night at the Apollo Theater.
His break came at age 19 while working at a Long Island gas station. He sang while he worked, and one day an impressed promoter heard him and offered a gig.
That gig started a decades-long career in which Davis worked with many bands. He toured with the Max Gregor Orchestra in Germany for two years in the 1970s, he participated in the Quincy Jones Workshop in Los Angeles, and he performed with a group called the Bombers.
He rubbed elbows with famous musicians before their careers took off, such as Keith Sweat and Debbie Allen, Masselink said.
These brushes with fame kept him going, she said, and Davis was always confident he was going to hit the big time. “This was a man who never gave up,” she said.
Masselink and Davis moved to Cortland in 1988 after they married. They were one of the first inter-racial couples in the area, she said, “and that was really tough.”
Masselink was hired as an English professor at SUNY Cortland. Davis worked in security management in New York, but he gave that up to follow her to Cortland.
He drove buses for the Cortland and Ithaca school districts as well as SUNY Cortland from 1990 to 1998, Masselink said. Then he worked for St. Mary’s Church as a cleaner for two years, before returning to work for SUNY Cortland, this time as a cleaner.
“He did all these part-time jobs so he could pursue his music,” she said.
That career was centered on old school soul and R&B, inspired by the likes of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gay and Wilson Pickett.
Among the singles they recorded at Pyramid Sound Recording Studios in Ithaca are a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” that was played by several local radio stations, Henry said, as well as originals such as “Wiggle When You Walk” and Henry’s personal favorite, “Happy.”
Henry said he’d been thinking lately about “Happy” because that song best exemplified the kind of person Henry was.
“He was an amazing man, and he had one of the greatest smiles I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Oscar was a consummate artist. … He had a great heart, and he had a great ear. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he wanted to put it together.”
Two years before Davis left Cortland, he and local drummer Tim Laurence (a.k.a. RicSupreme), went on a road trip in Davis’s 1959 Chevy Impala. Dubbed the “Sharing the Goods Tour,” they stopped in eight cities, ending in Los Angeles, and picked up gigs along the way.
In Los Angeles, Jay Leno invited Davis on stage prior to the taping of a show, and he and Leno talked music and classic cars.
Davis is survived by Masselink and their daughters, Emmalon Davis, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, Eena Wright, a third grade teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Endira Davis, a certified medical assistant in Cortland, as well his sister Evelyn Hargrove and brother William Davis.
No services are planned. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations to offset the cost of an out-of-state death be sent to Endira Davis at 3745 Lyncourt Drive, Cortland.