The Nashville Brass midwifed country music's transformation from the earthy grit of honky tonk to the lush sophistication of the Nashville sound, introducing the tenets of big-band swing to create a distinctly modern and radio-friendly interpretation of traditional American roots music. The Nashville Brass was the brainchild of trumpeter and bandleader Danny Davis, born George Nowlan in Dorchester, MA on May 29, 1925 -- as a teen he played with the Massachusetts All State Symphony Orchestra, and briefly attended the New England Conservatory of Music before leaving to sign on with famed jazz drummer Gene Krupa's orchestra. Stints behind bandleaders including Art Mooney, Vincent Lopez, Freddy Martin, Sammy Kaye, Les Brown, and Bob Crosby followed before Davis settled in New York City in 1958 to go to work as a staff producer for Hal & Mariam Weiss' fledgling Joy Records label -- a few years later, he moved to MGM Records, helming a series of pop hits for Connie Francis as well as signing British Invasion group Herman's Hermits. Davis joined RCA in 1964, continuing to work with Francis on an album of country duets that paired the singer with Hank Williams, Jr.. Over the course of the project he made several trips to Nashville, befriending composer Fred Rose and producer Chet Atkins. After Atkins offered him an A&R executive position, Davis relocated to Nashville in 1968; he soon scored with Don Gibson's "Rings of Gold" and Waylon Jennings' Grammy-winning rendition of "MacArthur Park," records that hinted at the signature sound Davis would soon perfect.
The roots of the Nashville Brass lie in Davis-led MGM projects like Brass on the Rebound, a record profoundly influenced by the commercial success of fellow trumpeter Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Essentially, he proposed to Atkins a pop-influenced country aesthetic that replaced strings with horns, and to his surprise, Atkins greenlighted the session, reportedly responding "Young fella, I run Nashville -- go do it." Davis quickly commenced work on a demo, collaborating with trumpeter and arranger Bill McElhiney to realize the Nashville Brass sound. In effect, their approach replaced lead vocals with a brass ensemble of two or three trumpets and two trombones playing over a standard country rhythm section (i.e., guitar, bass, drums, and banjo). Davis next recruited a who's-who of Music City session aces to round out the session: Grady Martin on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harmon on drums, and both Bobby Thompson and John Hartford on banjo. Atkins hand-delivered the resulting demo, a remake of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," to an RCA executive roundtable in California -- a full-length LP, The Nashville Brass Play the Nashville Sound, followed in the fall of 1968, with a sequel, The Nashville Brass Featuring Danny Davis Play More Nashville Sounds, hitting stores a year later. The second album earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance, a category the group dominated in the years to come, garnering a dozen nominations in all. In addition, they were voted instrumental group of the year by the Country Music Association from 1969 and 1974.
The Nashville Brass recorded more than 30 albums over the course of its RCA run, including collaborations with Atkins, Hank Locklin, and Willie Nelson. With its success, Davis relinquished his other RCA duties to devote his full attention to the project. The Nashville Brass also toured the globe, albeit with significant roster changes as the salaries of its original all-star lineup made live performances economically unfeasible. Over the years, Davis settled on a core personnel featuring trumpeter/flutist Bill Pippin, trumpeter Ray Carroll, trombonists Rex Peer and Frank Smith, guitarist Larry Morton, bassist Chuck Sanders, banjoist Curtis McPeake, and drummer Terry Waddell. Not only was the Nashville Brass among the first country acts to travel in their own airplane (nicknamed the Lady Barbara in honor of Davis' wife), but they were also one of the first Nashville acts to play the Las Vegas Strip, opening for Connie Francis and later Kay Starr. The group was also a familiar presence on television, guesting on variety shows headlined by Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, and Red Skelton, and performed at the presidential inaugurations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. After leaving RCA, Davis founded his own label, Wartrace, to continue releasing new Nashville Brass recordings. During the 1980s, he also joined the cast of television's Hee Haw as a member of its Million Dollar Band, reuniting with Atkins and Cramer in the process. In its final years the Nashville Brass headlined Branson, MO, but dissolved following Davis' retirement in mid-2005. He died at his Nashville home on June 12, 2008. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi