Mac Davis, songwriter of Elvis hits In the Ghetto and A Little Less Conversation, dies aged 78

<span>Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NBC</span>
Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NBC

Mac Davis, who wrote some of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits as well as finding US chart success of his own with a characterful blend of pop, soul and country, has died aged 78.

He had suffered complications following heart surgery. His manager Jim Morey announced his death, saying Davis was surrounded by his wife and three sons: “He was a music legend but his most important work was that as a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend.”

Born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, in 1942, Davis settled in Atlanta, Georgia, as a young man and began working as a songwriter signed to Nancy Sinatra’s Boots Enterprises. His biggest successes were songs for Elvis Presley in his brief late-1960s resurgence, following his peak rock’n’roll years in the 50s.

A Little Less Conversation – written by Davis with Aretha Franklin in mind – was a minor hit in 1968, reaching No 69 in the US, but it became a global smash in 2002 when remixed by Junkie XL, reaching No 1 in the UK and numerous other countries. Davis’s ballad In the Ghetto, an unusually socially conscious song for Presley, reached No 3 in the US and No 2 in the UK in 1969. Other Elvis successes included Memories and Don’t Cry Daddy, the latter another US Top 10 hit.

Davis songs of the period were also recorded by artists including Kenny Rogers, BJ Thomas, and Perry Como, one of many singers who cut versions of his song I Believe in Music – the best known is by soft rock band Gallery. Davis said it was written on a guitar owned by Bee Gees’ Maurice Gibb during a party at Gibb’s house. After being asked by “a bunch of hippy types” to join a seance, Davis declined, telling them “I believe in music” and inspiring the song.

Davis during his 1970s solo career.
Davis during his 1970s solo career. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

Davis became a performing artist in his own right, signing with Columbia Records in 1970 and scoring a hit two years later with the sly ballad Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me, about keeping a clingy girlfriend at arm’s length. It spent three weeks at the top of the US charts. The optimistic Stop and Smell the Roses was another US Top 10 hit in 1974, and he also found success with One Hell of a Woman and Rock’n’Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life).

He largely stopped releasing his own music in the mid-80s, but continued as a songwriter, working with artists including EDM star Avicii and alt-rockers Weezer. He wrote the hook for Bruno Mars’ song Young Girls on an impromptu visit to Mars’s studio. “It was pretty crowded in there, but they were looking for a rhyme for the hook, and a line just popped out. ‘All you young wild girls, you make a mess of me. / All you young wild girls, you’ll be the death of me.’ Well, that was my contribution to the record, and so I ended up with part of the songwriting credit.”

Davis also had a minor acting career, taking leads in 1981 comedy film Cheaper to Keep Her and the 1983 sequel to The Sting. He guest presented The Muppet Show in 1980, had his own TV variety show in the mid-1970s on NBC, and later had a guest voice role on animated series King of the Hill.

He married Lise Gerard in 1982, following two previous marriages.