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Mac Davis, hit songwriter for Elvis Presley and '70s solo star, dies at 78

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times
FILE - Musician Mac Davis appears at the Texas Film Awards in Austin, Texas on March 6, 2014. Davis, a country star and Elvis songwriter,   died on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 after heart surgery. He was 78. Davis started his career writing hits for Presley, including “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto.” The Lubbock, Texas-native had a varied career over the years as a singer, actor and TV host and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. He was named ACM entertainer of the year in 1974 after the success of songs like “Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me.” (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP, File)

Mac Davis, the singer, songwriter and actor known for recording a string of easygoing country hits in the 1970s and '80s and for the tunes he wrote for Elvis Presley, including "In the Ghetto" and "A Little Less Conversation," died Tuesday in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 78.

Davis' death was confirmed in a Facebook post by his longtime manager, Jim Morey, who'd said earlier that his client had fallen "critically ill" after undergoing heart surgery.

In a statement, Kenny Chesney called Davis "a songwriting hero to me," and Reba McEntire remembered his "incredible talent" and said he "entertained and spread joy to so many people."

Davis was a steady presence on Billboard's country and pop charts in the '70s with earthy yet slickly produced hits such as "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me," which topped the Hot 100 in 1972, "Stop and Smell the Roses" and "One Hell of a Woman," which propelled him to being named entertainer of the year by the Academy of Country Music in 1974.

That year he was nominated for the same prize by the Country Music Association, which had Davis host its annual awards show from 1980-82 following a resurgence on the charts led by "It's Hard to Be Humble," his jokey hit about a self-centered star:

"Some folks say that I'm egotistical

Hell, I don't even know what that means

I guess it has something to do with

The way that I fill out my skin-tight blue jeans"

Morris Mac Davis was born on Jan. 21, 1942, in Lubbock, Texas. After high school he moved to Atlanta and played in a rock band called the Zots, which met with little success; Davis then worked in promotion for the Vee Jay and Liberty labels.

In the mid-'60s he moved to Los Angeles and became a staff songwriter for Nancy Sinatra's publishing company; soon his songs were being cut by the likes of Sinatra, Glen Campbell and Lou Rawls. Presley recorded the swinging "A Little Less Conversation" in 1968, then quickly followed it up with several other Davis compositions, including "Memories," which the singer performed in his famous comeback television special, and "In the Ghetto," an orchestral ballad about inner-city deprivation later covered by acts as varied as Dolly Parton, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Davis earned his first of three Grammy nods for writing "In the Ghetto"; it was nominated in 1969 in a category then known as best contemporary song. In 1972 he was nominated for male pop vocal performance with "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me"; in 1976 he competed for male country vocal performance with his "Forever Lovers" album.

Davis hosted an NBC variety series in the mid-'70s that later led to acting roles in film and TV projects including 1979's "North Dallas Forty" and 1983's "The Sting II." More recently he appeared in a 2000 "Dukes of Hazzard" special and in a 2019 episode of Parton's Netflix series "Heartstrings."

In 2002, "A Little Less Conversation" topped the singles chart in the U.K. thanks to a thumping remix by the Dutch producer Junkie XL; Davis revisited the club world in 2013 when he co-wrote "Addicted to You," a No. 1 dance hit by Avicii. Of the latter, he told Billboard in 2015, "It made me feel like I'm still viable at the ripe old age of 73. I can still move around and sing on key."

A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Davis is survived by his wife, Lise; three sons; a granddaughter; his mother; and a sister.