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Davis was born in Independence, Kansas. In 1937 he moved to Los Angeles, California, playing saxophone in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. After some years playing swing and jazz, he became more involved in the West Coast R&B scene in the mid-1940s, becoming a regular session player and arranger for the fast-growing independent record labels such as Aladdin. He also recorded with the Jay McShann band, featuring blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon. By 1952, he had played on numerous R&B hits by Percy Mayfield, Peppermint Harris, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, and others.
In 1955 he joined Modern Records as musical director, bringing in most of the artists on Modern and Aladdin, and producing most of their records. Although his success rate started to diminish thereafter, he became regarded as an elder statesman, and "the father of West Coast R&B".
"Maxwell Davis is an unsung hero of early rhythm and blues," noted songwriter/producer Mike Stoller. "He produced, in effect, all of the record sessions for Aladdin records, Modern records, all the local independent rhythm and blues companies in the early 1950s, late 1940s in Los Angeles."
- With B.B. King