The late Mac Davis, who died at age 78 on Tuesday (Sept. 29), was one of the most consistent hitmakers in ’70s country and pop, scoring 15 Billboard Hot 100 entries in between 1970 and 1981 — led, of course, by 1972’s “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” his lone single to top the chart.
But that repertoire of hits as a recording artist only scratches the surface of Davis’ multi-platform contributions to ’70s and ’80s pop culture. Not only was also he a TV variety host and a successful film actor outside of music, but he started his musical career as an in-demand songwriter for other star artists — including The King himself, who released signature recordings of a number of Davis’ most famous songs. And long after his stardom waned as a singer, Davis’ pen game remained prolific, right up to the 2010s, when he was still getting co-writes with rock, pop and EDM stars.
Presented chronologically, and encompassing both his own recordings and his writing credits for other artists, here are Billboard‘s picks for Mac Davis’ 15 finest songs, with a playlist of all of them at the bottom.
Elvis Presley, “A Little Less Conversation” (1968)
A slice of southern-fried funk unlike quite anything he’d ever recorded before, Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” married a slithering drum-and-bass groove with jagged guitars and some of The King’s friskiest lyrics, courtesy of Mac Davis and co-writer Billy Strange. Maybe a little too frisky at times, as the chorus demands of “Hold your mouth and open up your heart and baby, satisfy me” have aged fairly poorly — but the rest of the song is still electric enough that it became a hit a second time around in 2002, when a much-synced Junkie XL remix returned it to the Hot 100.
Elvis Presley, “Memories” (1968)
Co-written with Strange specifically for Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special, this nostalgic, wistful ballad of romantic days gone by became Davis’s first major hit as a songwriter, reaching the Hot 100’s top 40. “They had asked for a song about looking back over the years, and oddly enough, I had to write it in one night,” Davis told Billboard in 2015.
Elvis Presley, “In the Ghetto” (1969)
This trenchant social commentary still stands out more than 50 years later for its bold stand on racial inequality and inner-city poverty, and became Presley’s song most associated with Davis, reaching No. 3 on the Hot 100 in 1969. Davis wrote the song based on memories he had of his Texas childhood, and realizing the different treatment his Black friend received based on the part of town he lived in.
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, “Something’s Burning” (1970)
The smell of love is in the air, and its flames are burning brighter and brighter in this smoldering 1970 hit for Rogers and his then-backing band. Musically, the song veers from soft verses to an explosive chorus as the passion rises and ebbs and rises again for our young lovers.
Bobby Goldsboro, “Watching Scotty Grow” (1970)
“That’s mah boy.” Davis’ touching and lovingly detailed ode to his five-year-old son was deemed a poor fit for his own catalogue by producer Jerry Fuller, who suggested the song might work better in the more adult-contemporary hands of Bobby Goldsboro. It just so happened that Goldsboro was in town the next week, so Davis handed over the song, but still felt it personally enough to reject certain proposed changes to it. “[Goldsboro] called up and said, ‘Could I change this to “Watching Danny Grow?” We’ve [recorded] it, but my son’s name is Danny,” Davis told the Tennesseean in 2014. “I said, ‘Nope.'” Original title intact, the song reached No. 11 on the Hot 100 in February 1971.
Mac Davis, “I Believe in Music” (1971)
With the simplest of statements — a belief in the power of music to bring peace and happiness — Davis scored one of his earliest hits in 1970, with a tune that became a staple for school choral groups across the land. Davis wrote the song while in London after Lulu and Maurice Gibb asked him if he believed in the occult. He replied “I believe in music,” and wrote the song that night. “I still have the original paper from the hotel. I’ve got it framed. I did use that line in there: ‘Lift your voices to the sky, God loves you when you sing.’ That epitomized the whole song. That’s what music is about,” he told Billboard.
Mac Davis, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” (1972)
“Baby,” a catchy song about waving off a woman’s affection before she gets too attached, likely wouldn’t fly in 2020 with such lyrics as “don’t start clinging to me girl ‘cause I can’t breathe’ and ‘I’ll just use you then I’ll set you free,” but it hit all the right notes in 1972 as Davis took the song straight to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Davis frequently told the story that the idea for the song came after producer Rick Hall, unhappy with the material Davis was providing in the studio, told him to write a song with a “hook.”
Mac Davis, “Kiss It and Make It Better” (1973)
Though Mac Davis was primarily a pop and country performer as a recording artist, he had a little soul to him, too. You could hear this most prominently on 1973’s seductive “Kiss It and Make It Better,” where gently lapping drums, pulsing bass and yowling guitars provide a plush bed for Mac’s offers to perform the titular action. If you think that’s suggestive, wait till you get to the spoken-word breakdown, where Mac goes full Barry White as he moans, “Let me kiss away your tears/ I can taste it… can taste your lovely…” A little too real for ’73 audiences, perhaps, as the song missed the Hot 100 altogether, but an impressive display of virility and versatility all the same.
Mac Davis, “Lucas Was a Redneck” (1973)
A little too biting for single release, one of Mac Davis’ most memorable ’70s songs came with this Stop and Smell the Roses deep cut, a swampy excoriation of the “born-to-be-a-bum” title character. May cause some wincing at Davis’ use of the hard N-word when he’s scornfully quoting Lucas, but the song is undeniably potent, both for its vicious portrayal and dismissal of Southern white ignorance, and its thick, harmonica-led lurch, which lands “Lucas” practically in Dr. John territory.
Mac Davis, “Stop and Smell the Roses” (1974)
Davis’ lone return to the Hot 100’s top 10 after topping the chart with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” was with this gentle paean to taking time to appreciate the finer things in life. Not one of Davis’ richest lyrics or most-layered productions, necessarily, but its rosy sing-and-clap-along chorus is fairly hard to resist, and the gently wailing slide guitar in the background adds a much-appreciated degree of musical pathos to the swaying.
Mac Davis, “It’s Hard to Be Humble” (1980)
In this tongue-in-cheek takedown of fame, Davis humorously muses on how difficult it is to remain down to earth when “you’re perfect in every way” and “get better looking every day.” The kicker, however, comes in the verses — where the self-delusion-as-self-preservation comes into play. The protagonist tries to convince himself that his girlfriend left him because she got jealous of the “love-starved women” throwing themselves at him and that the reason he has no friends, isn’t because no one can stand to be around his egotistical self, but so he can stand out in the crowd.
Dolly Parton, “White Limozeen” (1990)
Written with longtime friend Parton, “White Limozeen” served as the title track for Parton’s 1989 album and explored her rags-to-riches tale. In this case, substitute Nashville with Los Angeles, and the story hews closely to Parton’s experience leaving her small town to pursue big dreams, while never abandoning her soul. The song remains popular today, having just provided the namesake and inspiration for a vintage restaurant/lounge atop Nashville’s new Graduate Hotel.
Weezer, “Time Flies” (2010)
Certainly not the most obvious pick of collaborator for alt-rock greats Weezer to team up with Davis for this stomping days-go-by closer to their underrated Hurley album. But strip away the purposefully lo-fi production and the emo-leaning twinge of frontman Rivers Cuomo’s lead vocal, and you’ve got a big huge chorus and a thoughtful lyric worthy of Davis’ ’70s hits, one that feels hard-lived without being despairing: “Life is moving fast and I’m running out of gas/ Time ain’t on my side/ I’m still in the race and I’m barely keeping pace/ But it’s worth the ride.”
Bruno Mars, “Young Girls” (2013)
Pop superstar Bruno Mars’ co-writer/co-producer Jeff Bhasker met Davis through Bhasker’s manager and invited him to drop by the studio as they were writing songs for Mars’ sophomore set, Unorthodox Jukebox. Grappling to land the hook, they asked Davis for help and he came up with “all you young wild girls, you make a mess of me/ you young wild girls, you’ll be the death of me,” arguably creating the song’s most memorable lines on this spot.
Avicii, “Addicted to You” (2013)
A more logical team-up than it initially appears, particularly while Avicii was in the throes of his stomp-folk phase of hitmaking. The ’70s were the golden age for country-based disco jams — waters Davis waded into on occasion, though by the time he jumped in with both feet, it was too late — and it’s easy to imagine him penning banjo bangers for folks like Avicii had he been born a generation later. But even being born when he did, he managed to co-write this short-but-soaring TRUE highlight in his ’70s, an incredible display of endurance from an industry veteran who never shut his ears or his heart to the larger pop world.