By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Though Clifton Davis tends to downplay his exceptional career and achievements, calling himself a “journeyman actor,” the extensive list of credits he’s amassed as an actor, songwriter, and vocalist, as well as educator and minister are anything but ordinary. Davis, who attained early songwriting fame for his worldwide hit “Never Can Say Goodbye,” has been the principal star of two series and a major figure in a third, while appearing in numerous films and a host of Broadway shows. He’s combined that with a longtime career in the ministry, a two-year stint as a vice chancellor at an HBCU, and even a contributor to the book “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.” His chapter recounts the ugly racism he experienced growing up.
Today, Davis is busier than ever at 74. He’s recently recorded an LP “Never Can Say Goodbye” in Franklin with the Beegie Adair Trio, and is preparing to portray the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in the second season of the EPIX show “Godfather of Harlem” starring Forest Whitaker. When asked the secret of his success and longevity as an actor, Davis responds in straightforward fashion.
“It’s been very simple,” he told the Tribune during an interview this week. “Whenever I’ve gotten in or out of the business, I’ve always turned to God and asked for his direction. He’s always steered me back into the business during those times when I was out, and he’s made the way for me to enjoy the success that I’ve had. My faith is what has kept me going, helped me to find the relationships that are most important in my life, and made it possible for me to keep working so long in this business.”
Davis’ track record in television dates back to the mid-70s ABC show, “That’s My Mama.” Later he was among the featured stars in the hit NBC show “Amen,” and he recently finished a five-year recurring role in the CBS drama, “Madam Secretary.” But he’s done numerous guest starring roles in sitcoms and dramas. However, Davis has an equally impressive and lengthy Broadway resume. He’s appeared in such productions as “Galt MacDermot,” “Two Gentleman of Verona,” and most recently “Aladdin.”
“I’ve been blessed as an artist to do many different things and play many different roles,” Davis continued. “That’s been one of the greatest things that I can say, that I’ve been able to bring to life different characters and work in so many situations, whether it’s been dramatic or comedic.”
Davis holds a BA in Theology from Oakwood University and a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University. For decades he’s had an interdenominational ministry. He’s been a frequent guest and host on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Whenever he advises aspiring performers, he tells them to be certain acting is their passion and then trust in God that he will guide them in the right direction.
“This can be a tough business,” Davis warns. “Be sure that this is your passion, because I’ve seen it really destroy people, even as it’s making others happy and rewarded them. If you know that acting is what you want, then ask God to guide you in the right direction, to let whatever talent you have come out in the right vehicle. If you do that, things will work out for you.”
Despite his busy schedule, Davis keeps track on what’s happening with the new generation of stars, and in particular Black stars.
“I can remember starting out when the only people who’d ever won Oscars were Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel,” Davis recalled. “Now you’re seeing exceptional Black talent getting recognized all over the place, and these are people who are proud of their heritage, who aren’t afraid to be activists.”
“I was really saddened by the death of Chadwick Boseman, because he was so talented, and someone who was always willing to give back. But it’s been wonderful to see talents out there now like Michael B. Jordan and so many others. Audra McDonald has won more Tonys than any one else on Broadway, and she’s so gifted and talented. I can’t name all the ones that I’m excited to see, but it is gratifying to see what’s happening now with Black talent in Hollywood.”
“I feel so grateful to God for the career that I’ve had, and I plan to keep on going as long as I can.”
“Never Can Say Goodbye” featuring Clifton Davis with the Beegie Adair Trio is now available on multiple formats. The second season of “Godfather of Harlem” starring Forest Whitaker on EPIX begins production later this year.