A! Magazine for the Arts

Charles 'Chick' Davis

Charles 'Chick' Davis

Davis believed music was the 'soul's own speech'

February 21, 2022

Charles R. “Chick”Davis was a member of the Emory & Henry faculty from 1957 to 1996. A native of Louisiana, he moved to Tazewell, Virginia, where he decided to attend nearby Emory & Henry College and was dubbed “The Singing Quarterback” for his fame for both his singing and football talents. Ultimately, he became the driving force behind the development and growth of the college’s vocal music program.

As an undergraduate at Emory & Henry, Davis was a four-sport athlete who quarterbacked the football team to two appearances in the Tangerine Bowl. After graduating from Emory & Henry, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Westminster Choir College and a Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University

Just one year after returning to his alma mater to teach, Davis founded the Emory & Henry Concert Choir, the college’s first touring musical group. Under his direction, the choir built a reputation for excellence, winning two medals in international competition and performing regularly throughout the United States and Europe.

DeeDee Davis, his widow, says, “Vocal and choral students at E&H affectionately referred him as ‘Doc,’ while he always called them ‘his kids.’ He loved them greatly and firmly believed that he could teach anyone to sing. I remember hearing him work with a freshman who couldn’t even match pitches.Later, I asked him why, and his response was, ‘You wait, he has quite an instrument.’ Sure enough, two years later, he was an outstanding soloist. In fact, his choirs were often composed of students with little to no past musical background. Davis found the greatest joy in teaching his students how to use their God-given voices to worship the Lord through singing during worship services on campus each Sunday morning. For Doc, music was ‘the soul’s own speech,’ intended to glorify the One who created it.

“I was in awe of his energy, his love for what he did, and how much he could get out of primarily untrained singers.He brought out talent that students never knew they had. Many went on to sing with major opera companies, became choral directors in colleges, high schools and churches. Many are using their talents in Southwest Virginia. As a musician myself, what impressed me the most was the sound that Chick was able to get out of his choirs — and especially the pianissimos. He could command 100+ voices (when he combined his choirs) with the tiniest movement of his hands or raising of his eyebrows and lead them to sing at full volume or almost at a whisper. It was breathtaking. The expressiveness and musicality of his choirs was unlike any other I’ve ever heard. Many times after working with his choirs, Chick would say, ‘This is so much fun, I would do it for no pay.’”

Davis directed three choirs at E&H: The Chapel Choir (freshman voices), the Concert Choir (audition only - but primarily composed of non-music majors), and the Oratorio Choir (the Chapel and Concert choirs combined).

“What amazed me was how much the Concert Choir (the main touring choir for E&H) was able to accomplish with only two 1-hour rehearsals each week. They often sang in churches throughout the Southwest Virginia area on weekends, so that gave them a little extra practice. But that was it. Just in those short times, though, Chick was able to develop them musically and prepare them for annual tours,” DeeDee Davis says.

The renowned composer Randall Thompson once overheard the E&H choir rehearsing one of his own choral pieces. Thompson was so impressed with the sound and beauty of the choir that he subsequently finished writing“The Twelve Canticles”and dedicated it to Dr. Davis and the Emory & Henry College choral program. In 1981, Thompson returned to E&H for the world premiere of this piece, which was his last composition before his death.

Davis ran a very busy schedule at E&H. He would be on campus from about 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day,juggling private voice lessons, teaching music classes and rehearsing his three choirs. Any free moment he had between lessons or classes or rehearsals, he would run across the street to hit a few golf balls on the campus golf course. DeeDee Davis says that “At age 48, Chick agreed to be the quarterback for the Theta Chi fraternity intramural football team... just for one game.”

Davis frequently lent his talents to community endeavors, including occasional leadership of high school all-county, district and state choirs and direction of the Bristol Concert Choir, a position he held for several decades.In his work with the Bristol Concert Choir, he brought in some great performers, orchestras and introduced major choral works. They gave excellent performances each year. They often collaborated with the Mid-Atlantic Chamber Orchestra or the North Carolina School of the Arts orchestra.

For26summershe served asDean ofStudents for summer sessionsof the Brevard Music Center in Brevard, North Carolina.

He concluded every concert by inviting up any former E&H choir members who might have been in the audience to come and join the Concert choir in singing the Benediction by Peter Lutkin, based on the passage in Numbers 6:24-26.

“One thing that he would most certainly want to be said: Although he loved coaching students in voice, music and life ... his chief aim in all of these was to help students give their best for the glory of God. He recognized music as a gift from God and sought to encourage students to worship Him with their singing and their lives. He beckoned students to listen to the lyrics of the sacred music they sang and allow their voices to express the truths contained in them. It was a regular occurrence for students to see tears in Chick’s eyes - both because the lyrics they were singing were so moving and because the voices themselves reflected the lyrics so beautifully,” DeeDee Davis says.

Dr. Charles(Chick) Davis: The Professor and Friend Who Changed My Life

It was the year 1969 and time for this high school seniorto make my decision for the big, nextstep. The Emory & Henry Concert Choir was on tour to Knoxville and coming to my church for a special concert. As soon as I heard those voices, I wanted to be up there singing with them.

Already a young singer with aspirations of opera and theater, it was arranged for me to sing for Dr. Davis privately. Until that moment, I had never met anyone with such magnanimouspresence, exuberant personality and warmth. It was a meeting that truly changed my life and set the wind in my sails for my life’s journey.

He was a fine teacherof music history. He loved and understood the power of the voice as a powerful gift of human expression. He conducted and inspired 34 voices as one instrument. He was dedicated to his art and his students.

We toured New York City and Dr. Davis arranged for tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and a show on Broadway. He introduced us to New Orleans for our concert tour through the deep south. Then ... The Emory & Henry ConcertChoir from Southwest Virginia was off to Paris and Rome to compete in the International Choral Festival ... and we won.

We all loved him. That magnanimous person loved his students for so many decades. He taught me well. He was acherished friend. He is a true legend.

Jane (Hicks) Vernon Harter