Billy Newton-Davis – by Xander
By Keith Sharp
Before there was Drake, before there was The Weeknd, Toronto enjoyed a thriving R&B/soul music scene. If you hung out at venues like Club Blue Note, The Bamboo Club, Grossman’s Tavern or the Montreal Bistro in the mid-1980’s you would recognize names like George Olliver, Liberty Silver, Jackie Richardson, Molly Johnson, Micah Barnes and Manteca. And centre stage in this group was a Cleveland Ohio exile named Billy Newton Davis.
Arriving in Toronto in 1980 after initially starring in local Ohio band The Illusions and appearing on Broadway in “Stop The World I Want To Get Off'” with Sammy Davis Jr, Newton-Davis registered a major impact on the local scene with his first two Columbia Records albums; “Love Is A Contact Sport” (1986) and “Spellbound” (1989) both winning Juno Awards in the Best R&B/Soul categories.
But when the openly gay Newton-Davis was diagnosed as HIV-Positive in 1986, he eventually lost his record contract only to move on to join a cappella group The Nylons in 1991, replacing original member Marc Connors who had died from AIDS.
Newton-Davis left The Nylons in mid-tour in 1994 to move to Australia to pursue a solo career, continued to perform corporate events from trios and quartets to full band performances. But now Billy is back with “Have We Met”? a five-song, off-the-floor, EP titled featuring covers from the great American songbook.
Recorded and mixed by Brad Nelson at Cylinder Sound in Toronto, featuring Mike Downes on bass, Stu Harrison on piano and Ben Ball on drums, `Have We Met? Spotlights Newton-Davis’s love of classic blues/jazz tracks like “All The Things You Are”, a Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein composition sung by Frank Sinatra, Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands, Cole Porter’s “Night And Day”, “Where Or When” written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and famously covered by Barbra Streisand and finally, the Carole King/Gerry Goffin classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, originally recorded In 1960 by The Shirelles but also covered by Amy Winehouse and King herself on her classic “Tapestry” album.
“I looked at what I wanted to sing every night and this collection of songs is a record of my experience in this music business,” explained Newton-Davis from his Toronto residence. “I sat down with Mike Downes, my arranger, for a few days and we went through what the feel of the sessions should be. I wanted to make them sound current, keep the record in the moment by making it mine.”
At a time when blues/soul/jazz is enjoying a renaissance (Molly Johnson has just released her own blues-based Christmas album, `This Holiday Season’), Newton-Davis is departing from a period of time, performing at corporate events. to make a concerted effort to re-enter the public forum. “My intention here is to bring old standards to a new audience, to shed a new light on some great music.”
Reflecting back on the initial impact he and his cohorts created in the mid-’80s, Newton-Davis says “I, along with others, take a lot of personal credit for what was achieved in the ’80s. I do believe we set a stage that artists like Drake and The Weeknd could do what they do now.”
Certainly, Newton-Davis was able to establish himself in the mid-’80s with his first two albums, `Love Is A Contact Sport and Spellbound both won Juno Awards for Best R&B/Soul albums. He also teamed up a young Celine Dion to duet with her on “I Can’t Live With You, I Can’t Live Without You”, written by Dan Hill which earned Newton-Davis the third Juno for best R&B recording.
“Working with Celine was interesting and great at the same time. She was very young. Just learning to speak English and very Montreal in a full-length fox coat and stilettos. An amazing singer! With her then Manager Rene Angélil,” Newton-Davis informed. “I was looking to do a duet with Gloria Estefan, Regina Bell and they were not available. Celiné was introduced to me and I loved her voice. They were also launching her career.”
Unfortunately, Newton-Davis was operating under the handicap of being diagnosed HIV-Positive in 1986. Did his condition result in Columbia Records dropping him after the release of Spellbound? Possibly but he defers saying “That is a very good question because I do not recall that being the reason. I recall it being more artistic differences and low interest from both parties. I was also still trying to find my sound….and myself. I continued to write and then fell into recording “Techno House Music” and winning my 4th Juno with Deadmaus’s. For the song “All You Ever Want” on Play Records.”
For a change of pace, Newton-Davis joined the world-famous Nylons a cappella group, touring the world for three years. He even sang O Canada with The Nylons at the World Series Game 6 on the night when The Toronto Blue Jays beat Atlanta Braves in 1992 to clinch their first Series championship.
“I was sad, you want to keep a record deal but I knew that Columbia Records would never get me,” Newton-Davis surmised. “I had to keep moving until I found people that got me. But I also had to find myself to get me as well.”
The Nylons allowed Newton-Davis to take the pressure off himself as a solo performer and instead integrate himself into the quartet as a tenor singer. “Everything just clicked, I ended up touring Europe, the U.S and Mexico, I was able to be that new story. But one day, I woke up, I didn’t know where I was, I was on tour but I decided this was the right time to move on, so I did move to Australia to have some fun.”
Newton-Davis has since been able to expand his scope into techno dance (winning his Juno with Deadmaus) and he’s also been recording Gospel music while building a reputation at major corporate events. He’s also been very proactive in the LGBTQ2S Community serving as an associate with “The 519”, CANFAR, Loft Community Services, MCC Toronto, to name a few.
“I still have a voice that has a nice timbre to it,” Newton-Davis allowed. “When it starts breaking down and the tires poop out and the axle cracks, then I’ll quit, but that will be my decision and I am not done yet.”