Vocal Plumber Judy Davis Unclogs the Pipes of Even Streisand

UPDATED 07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

Judy Davis will never make the Top 40. When she underwent a tonsillectomy at 19, an anesthetic accidentally dripped on her vocal cords, and her voice today is unmusically raspy. But when Davis rasps, people like Barbra Streisand and Jerry Garcia pay heed. A blunt, feisty singing coach with a waiting list of 600 would-be protégés, she boasts a roster of former clients that reads like a pop Hall of Fame: Besides Streisand and Garcia, it includes the rest of the Grateful Dead, Vicki Carr, Grace Slick and Jefferson Star-ship, Peter, Paul & Mary and Janis Joplin. Davis hasn't let it go to her head. "I'm a vocal plumber," she says. "I fix the pipes, that's all."

At her storefront studio in Oakland, Calif., Davis conducts private consultations and teaches 150 students in 15 once-a-week classes stressing the physical basics of singing, especially proper breathing. "You don't have to know how a sparkplug sparks to drive a car," she says, "and you don't have to know all the folds of the vocal cords to sing. But you must understand how the diaphragm and lungs work and how to let them function normally." Her pedagogical style is a blend of cajolery and chewing-out. "Singers are not known to be bright," she may tell a pupil who neglects the prescribed exercises, "but don't prove it to the world." When rocker Eddie Money got an audition with her after a year's wait, he showed up 20 minutes late. "Come back next year," Davis snapped. Later Money spotted her in a parking lot, tried to charm his way back into favor and, failing, lay down in front of her car. Choosing mercy over homicide, she relented.

Davis divides singers she admires into two categories: stylists who succeed despite modest voices (Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard and John Lennon) and great singers who are also great stylists. "Nat Cole and Mel Tormé," she says, "were great stylists who became great singers." As for opera, she has no use for most divas. "They learn to sing in three registers and glide from one to another," she explains. "You're listening to a singer and all of a sudden this growl comes out akin to yodeling and it's like a whole different person. That's why I can't stand opera."

She also flunks many pop idols. "Joni Mitchell bores me," Judy says. "Linda Ronstadt has a fine voice and face, but she is not groomed. She looks like the girl next door on a bad day. The Gibbs have fine voices, but Andy's breathy vibrato drives me up the wall. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are message singers; if you know the message, you don't need to pay $30 to hear it." Davis rates Donna Summer "probably the best of today's generation," loves Pavarotti even if he does sing opera ("He has the same quality of joy pop stars have") and finds Liza Minnelli a classic case of style over talent. "Liza is not a good singer, but God, what a performer!" says Davis. "You walk out of a show thinking you can conquer the world."

The daughter of an Oakland architect-contractor, Davis started giving piano lessons at 12. During World War II, when she was an assistant dance director at Warner Bros, in Hollywood, she began helping singers do lip synch for movie sound tracks. Later she worked for a vocal coach and studied Gray's Anatomy "to learn how the throat works." In 1948 she had her own school. Her first notable pupil: 15-year-old Ann Richards, who later won down beat's poll as jazz singer of the year and married Stan Kenton. Along the way the twice-divorced Davis married her husband of 29 years, tennis pro Frank Kovacs, a cousin of Ernie. ("Frank is gorgeous and kind—the opposite of me," she says.)

Of all her former charges, Davis, who has two grown children, especially treasures Streisand. "Every night is opening night with Barbra," she says of the star who came to her in the early '60s suffering a crisis of confidence. "She never falters and she expects the best in everyone else." Davis also briefly coached the late Janis Joplin, whom she found to be "a dear girl who wanted to be great. Success confused her, and she gave so much of herself she ripped her throat to shreds. When she got all her sounds in harmony, she could have put the Mormon Tabernacle Choir out of business." Davis' favorite singers? "Sinatra, because he makes you feel so good. He may sing a sad song, but there's always hope. Then Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, Sammy Davis, Liza, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Ella Fitzgerald. And put Mel Tormé on the top of the list."

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