MARTHA DAVIS (By Dave Penny)

Born 14 December 1917, Wichita, Kansas

Died 6 April 1960, Mount Vernon, New York

At the mid point of the 20th Century, the success of the jolly fat lady at the piano was a universal phenomenon. To name a few: Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher, Rose Murphy, Winifred Atwell and even Mrs Mills.and, one more, Martha Davis.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, on 14th December 1917, and raised in Chicago, Martha Davis attended the famous Du Sable High School, and counted Dorothy Donegan and Nat Cole among her class mates. She met Fats Waller in the 1930s, who allegedly taught her some of his piano skills, and by the mid 1930s she was frequenting the lively Windy City jazz clubs and sitting in at all-night jam sessions. At one such in 1939, she met and subsequently married a Mississippi-born (17th October 1917) bass player named Calvin Ponder, but as he would enjoy a lucrative career with, notably, Earl Hines' big band, the couple did not work together regularly until 1948. By this time, the couple had moved to California and Martha had made her impressive recording debut on the tiny West Coast independent, Urban Records and had even enjoyed a substantial movie role in the Monogram Films featurette, Smart Politics, alongside Gene Krupa's Orchestra.

In 1948 Martha and Calvin recorded together for Ben Pollack's Hollywood-based Jewel Records, and it was to be her most successful year chart-wise, with a cover of Dick Haymes' pop hit Little White Lies reaching #11 on the Billboard R&B listing in July. This was followed by her duets with Louis Jordan - Daddy-O c/w You're On The Right Track, Baby, the former of which climbed to #7 later in the year. The patronage of Jordan provided an entrée with Decca Records, and Martha recorded six tracks for the label in December 1947. Surprisingly, she would not record again until 1951 when Bob Thiele signed her to Coral Records, although Herman Lubinsky reissued the 1948 Jewel sides in 1950 when he purchased the recording masters from Pollack.

Martha and Calvin's nightclub act, Martha Davis & Spouse, became hugely popular in the early to mid 1950s, and several of their joyous performances were filmed by Snader Telescriptions for the company's video jukeboxes. They also broadcast over AFRS from their L.A. home and were much in demand for a series of network TV Shows, particularly Garry Moore's CBS show. The Snader film footage was later used for inclusion in the variety films Rhythm & Blues Revue, Rock 'n' Roll Revue and Basin Street Revue during 1955/56, and videos of the performances such as Vippety Vippety Vop, Martha's Boogie and Goodbye have been doing the rounds among rock 'n' roll collectors for decades.

Surprisingly, despite their raised profile in the mid 1950s, the couple's commercial recording career was put on hold between 1951 and 1957 until they resumed recording for the brand new ABC Paramount label, with whom they cut two LPs, including a tribute to Martha's mentor, Fats Waller. Sadly, there is little to report after this; Variety reported that Martha died from cancer on 6th April 1960 in Mount Vernon, New York - where the couple stayed during their long residencies at the Blue Angel cafe - while "spouse" Calvin passed away back at home in Los Angeles a decade later, on 26th December 1970.

Recommended listening:

The Chronological Martha Davis (Classics 5123) - This new CD features Martha's entire recorded output except for her late 1950s LPs for ABC Paramount and, strangely, her biggest hit "Little White Lies", since a satisfactory copy could not be found for dubbing.

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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