In the spring of 1980, an unknown band from Atlanta came from nowhere and took the US charts by storm with the infectious dance floor burner, ‘Take Your Time (Do It Right).’ They were called the S.O.S. Band and their debut single (written and produced by the late Sigidi Abdullah) spent five weeks nestled at the top of the American R&B singles chart that summer. More significantly, its across-the-board popularity was such that it crossed over into the US pop charts (Billboard’s The Hot 100) rising to #3 and selling a million copies in the process.
Its meteoric success suddenly thrust the seven-piece Georgia funk and soul group – fronted by smoky-voiced singer, Mary Davis – into the limelight but during the next two years in the wake of that phenomenal debut hit, the group struggled to emulate its success with subsequent singles.
A fortuitous hook up with Time members and budding tunesmiths, Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and Terry Lewis, gave the band new momentum and a new ‘electro’ sound and they scored a series of big international hits, beginning with ‘Just Be Good To Me,’ in 1983 and followed by ‘Tell Me If You Still Care,’ ‘Just The Way You Like It,’ ‘No One’s Gonna Love You,’ ‘Weekend Girl,’ The Finest,’ and ‘Borrowed Love’ during a fertile three-year period. Mary Davis’s departure for a solo career in 1987 didn’t sink the band, which continued with Pennye Ford on vocals and continued to record well into the I990s.
Recently, Mary Davis – whose husky, soulful vocals gave the band a distinctive sound – returned to the fold and the long-running group – who’ve always been popular with the UK soul community – are coming over to the UK in November to perform at two Great Voices Of Soul concerts In London and Birmingham) alongside fellow soul legends Patti LaBelle, The Whispers, Gwen Dickey, Loose Ends, Soul II Soul and Meli’sa Morgan. Ahead of the concerts and with a new album in the pipeline, the band’s long-serving original members, Mary Davis and Abdul Ra’oof, chewed the fat with SJF’s Charles Waring…
Now, if we can go right back to the beginning, Mary, how did the SOS band come into being in the first place and how did you get recruited?
I lived in New York for a while and then moved to Atlanta. At that time I was looking for a band to perform with so on the strip there was this club, The Regal Room, in South West Atlanta. I went to the club because everybody said a band was there so I went and performed a song at the club and the manager/owner of the club liked my voice. Jason (Bryant, a founder member of the original SOS Band), also lived in Atlanta. He had been overseas in Europe for about six months and he came back home, and he was there looking for work. The owner of the club said to us, he called us in his office and said if we would put a band together he would hire us for six months. So Jason went and got different musicians and we went into the woodshed and we practiced and we did most of the Top Ten hits of that time and we started singing and playing at the club on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and then after that we started playing like seven nights a week and then one of the horn players, Billy Ellis – who passed away a while back – he knew Bunny Ransom (who became the band’s manager) who knew Clarence Avant who ran Tabu Records. Clarence was looking for a group to sign up. She (Bunny) told us to go into the studio and do a demo and we did and she sent it to Clarence. Clarence liked what he heard and he said he wanted to sign us up. Then he sent (producer/songwriter) Sigidi Abdullah to Atlanta to record us and ‘Take Your Time’ came out of that and that’s history from there.
You were called Santa Monica, I believe, before you became the SOS Band?
That was the name of the time that we played in the club – Santa Monica. We were told that that name was too long so we were told to come up with a shorter name, so we all threw names in the hat but Sigidi was the one that came up with SOS Band, which stands for Sounds Of Success.
Abdul, you joined a little later after Mary. How did you come on board?
I was a local musician playing here (in Atlanta) and I was approached by (saxophonist) Billy Ellis to be a part of the group and I heard the band perform on ‘Take Your Time.’ There were two songs that they had done already, already recorded, when I joined the band but I was able to be recording on the remaining songs, horn-wise. I think I may have done some vocals, but I did all the horn work, because they were looking for a horn player. I knew Jason and he knew me from playing in Atlanta. I was playing locally and they wanted someone that could double up. I was percussion, trumpet, singer and entertainer, so I was blessed to be a part of that group and I joined in the summer of ’79 during the time when the record was out. I used to go to the Regal Room so most of us knew each other basically. But that’s how the offer came to me and it’s been an excellent journey for me.
What was Clarence Avant like to work with?
Mary: Stern. (Laughs). He was so stern and very businesslike.
Abdul: He’s so informed. I talked to him every now and then. He has so much knowledge and he’s like the Godfather. He did so many things and touched so many artists’ lives through his era of being in the industry. He’s not doing too much now but he’s still doing pretty well. But he was kind of like Berry Gordy of the Motown story. He was very similar and he was a politician as well. (The band’s manager) Bunny Ransom’s ex-husband at the time was Maynard Jackson, who was the mayor in Atlanta. So his relationship was closer to Clarence than even Bunny was.
What about the producer, Sigidi Abdullah – what do you recall about him, because he co-wrote and produced your debut hit, ‘Take Your Time’ didn’t he?
Mary: Sigidi was a true artist because he had a way of using words and putting them together to make a story and he was also an excellent person, I really enjoyed working with him. He was also stern too when we were in the studio (laughs). He liked perfection: he liked everything to be just right. We stayed in the studio all night with those vocals on ‘Take Your Time.’ I took my pillow and my blanket (laughs). He was just stern and a beautiful person.
Abdul: Sigidi was a guy that you’d seldom find today. He could give you a song lyrically without any music but the content and the lyrics would just overwhelm you. You hadn’t really heard the track yet but you’d get the idea and you might call him back the next day and say: did you say that? That was crazy? Did you use that word? That was really great. So, he was a third-eye thinking person, a very cerebral kind of guy, a spiritual guy, and we miss him dearly. He was part of the family and I don’t think the SOS Band would be where they are today without Sigidi. He was the anchor and he was also the visionary person that really loved the SOS Band.
Your debut single, ‘Take Your Time (Do It Right),’ was a number one single and a million seller. How did it feel to be so successful so early on?
Mary: To me it was like a dream come true because when I was a kid I used to dream that I would see my name on a billboard and in lights. I lived in New York for a while when I first started and I would knock on the doors of different record companies and was turned down. So to come from where I was as a kid to see my name on billboards and playing at the Apollo, and Madison Square Garden – because that was a dream as well – it was just fantastic.
Did having a number one so early on in the band’s career put pressure on you to live up to to that success?
Mary: Somewhat, I think, because when you have a number one hit people expect you to do that consistently over and over again but very seldom that happens and the thing about it, we did the best that we could because the expectations were so high and sometimes it’s hard to follow that but we did the best that we could.
Abdul: You’ve got to look at the fact that that was a megahit. Mary used to call it, what Mary the national anthem of 1980. It was played so much that people almost got tired of it. It was incredible so, to follow that was hard… there were big expectations afterwards but you never know what’s going to happen. We knew it was a good song but we didn’t know what it was going to do. No one knew that (Michael Jackson’s) ‘Thriller’ was going to be what it was. They knew that it was a great song but you just can’t call it out. You just do the best you can, like Mary says.
But it took the band a couple of years to find its momentum again, didn’t it?
Abdul: Yeah, we went through some changes there… As a matter of fact with the second album (‘SOS Band Too’) we went through some problems production-wise – bad tapes – and our timeline was a little different than it should have been which made it difficult for us to pursue and follow-up on that particular album. But that was when we were introduced to (Jimmy) Jam & (Terry) Lewis through ‘High Hopes.’ That was a single that went another direction. We were trying to find our way but it was our introduction to Jam & Lewis, they wrote that song. They didn’t produce it but they were writers for a lot of different artists, a writing team, and Leon Silvers was given the duty to produce the band with Gene Dozier and they presented the song ‘High Hopes,’ which was a song written by Jimmy and Terry.
What qualities did Jam & Lewis bring to the band that you didn’t have before?
Mary: I felt that Jam & Lewis took what we had and came up with something different because they studied Sigidi’s ‘Take Your Time’ along with the musicians that we had – we were a band that had different backgrounds in music – so they did their homework and brought ‘Just Be Good To Me,’ ‘Just The Way Like It,’ and it came out pretty cool.
Abdul: It was a time-change in sound and one of the things they did, we went away from analogue and it started going digital – the whole drum machine sound, that was a new thing for us. Those same elements were in ‘Take Your Time’ but they were played by percussion players, because we always had a percussion track in our songs but the invention of the Roland 808 drum machine, which is a sound within itself, and the Oberheim, the keyboard that they used to do a lot of those tracks, it was just a unique sound. And that sound is relevant today – the sound is really close to a lot of things that you hear today.
Given that you are self-contained band with horns and a rhythm section, was there any resistance when Jam & Lewis wanted to bring in drum machines and synthesisers?
Mary: No. We welcomed it.
Abdul: No, we were excited by the tracks. It was different. Naturally, we horn players said oh-oh, no horns because it took away the horn section itself but it gave us something totally different and another way of doing it. Those songs, that we recorded without horns, for live entertainment we’ve added horn arrangements to give it that live feel and to hit those spots where we can and to keep the energy in it.
What were Jam & Lewis like to work with in the studio? How did they present their songs to you?
Mary: They would do basic rhythm tracks and bring them to us. Like Rao’of said, being the musicians that we were, the guys allowed our musicians to be themselves. Like I said earlier, we had different types of musicians: some played gospel, some played R&B, some played jazz, some played rock, so with all of that combined we were able to come up with that particular sound.
You had lots of hits with them at the helm with ‘Just Be Good To Me’ probably the biggest – what are your recollections of those days?
Mary: Yes, that one was our biggest with them, because there are quite a few people that redid that song. It just brought about a change, like Ra’oof said, for the musicians and the sound changed. It was a wonderful change and we welcomed that change.
Abdul: It was a great team. We were a great team. Jam & Lewis (pictured left) were young guys with fresh ideas. It was like any team – a basketball team, a football team or whatever. They were able to manage the musicians, like Mary said, and get us to use our gifts and find a way to bring it to the tracks that they may brought and make it the SOS Band. That’s what we created. One of the things that I remember most was, the day that they got fired (by Prince, from The Time). It was probably the best thing that ever happened to them but it was a situation that they had to think about. We were already in a groove by that time. We got snowed in. It doesn’t snow in Atlanta that much but they couldn’t fly out. They were touring with The Time and they couldn’t fly out and missed the date. They got fired but it was probably the best thing that ever happened because they became the iconic producers of the ’80s from that point starting out with the SOS Band. And I’m so grateful that we were instrumental in their success and totally a part of that, and they will as well, part of that whole journey that they’ve taken.
You certainly were, weren’t you, and that’s an amazing story. As you said, it worked to their benefit that Jam & Lewis got fired in the end.
Mary: (laughs) To me was an act of God because in Atlanta it never snowed and that was the first time that it happened in a hundred years. Atlanta didn’t have any snow ploughs so the snow just came and people left their cars on the highway and walked home. Everything was shut down. Airports, the whole bit. The whole town was shut down everybody was gone. So that was like a blessing in disguise and they missed their gig.
Abdul: ‘That’s right. We already had a process going, a vibe that we knew was going to be special. We all he knew it was going to be special so we were already in that mode of recording so it just made them put more interest in it because they didn’t have to go backwards and forwards so they could focus on the band. At that time we became their total focus, not them playing with The Time and going back and forth. We became their total focus. So it worked for us as well.
Were you surprised that the single ‘Just Be Good To Me’ and its parent album ‘On The Rise’ took off so spectacularly?
Mary: No, I wasn’t because everybody wants somebody to be good to them and the words themselves standout. “I don’t care about anybody else – just be good to me.” We’re good (laughs).
Abdul: ‘Take Your Time’ wasn’t by chance. It was a well-thought-out song and the whole process was intentional. So Jimmy and Terry studied that. ‘Take Your Time’ was a song that that had a guitar break, a bass break, it was long and a whole lot went on in that song. Horn breaks as well. They (Jam & Lewis) did some of the same things. Percussion breaks. They did some of the same things but it was just a new feel based on the instrumentation they used and Just Be Good to Me had the elements of power, it had a sing-along track, a nice funky drum track, and all these things, these elements, that made really made the song feel good. Mary topped it off. She topped it off with her voice – no one has a voice like and when that voice goes on the track and it goes on well it just matches up well with the track and it goes down well. We used to say it goes on good on tape – we don’t do tape anymore but it does the same thing.
Let’s talk about the Great Voices of Soul concerts in London and Birmingham next month. What is the S.O.S. Band going to serve up?
Mary: Nothing but the best. We’re going to serve up all the hits that people love listening to and we’re going to to do a great performance. We’re looking forward to coming and having a good time.
We look forward to that. What’s in the set list?
Abdul: The set time is going to determine what we play but we don’t have those logistics yet but it’s going to cover most bases. We’ve been blessed with so many good songs so it’s going to be a great show for you guys and for the people that are going to be on there with us, the other artists.
Who’s in the band these days besides you two guys?
Abdul: When we put this (version of the) band together, in ’94, most of these musicians have been around and been friends and we’ve played when we were reformed placing musicians in the band. They’re excellent guys, excellent musicians, good people to be around and it’s a very good environment for us to be in while we are travelling, performing and doing great things we love to do.
What about your previous visits to the UK? What can you remember about coming to the UK in the ’80s?
Mary: The UK has always been a major market for us and every time we come it’s always a wonderful thing because the people there like our music, and we love them for liking our music and we just really feel for each other. We have a good time.
Abdul: Europe has always been like a musician’s base. They love great entertainment, they love great music and it’s a great atmosphere for musicians and artists to be able to come and give their talents and share that gift with everybody and you get it back and people really appreciate you and really appreciate your art. So we get that from them and we always love coming there because we know it’s going to be a great audience…and that’s part of our whole thing, performing, as well.
Catch the S.O.S. Band live in the UK next month at the Great Voices Of Soul concerts: Wembley (SSE Arena, Sunday 15th November) and Birmingham (O2 Academy, 16th November).
Want to find out more and contribute to the S.O.S. Band’s new album? Go to: