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WILKINSON, GWENDOLYN JOY [SHERRY DAVIS]

Sherry Davis promotional photo.
Sherry Davis promotional photo. Davis (born Gwendolyn Joy Wilkinson, sang on radio and television. During her career she worked with many famous stars, including Jim Reeves, Lawrence Welk, Patti Page, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Courtesy Sarada Bonnett, daughter of Sherry Davis.

WILKINSON, GWENDOLYN JOY [SHERRY DAVIS] (1933–2004). Sherry Davis, singer, was born Gwendolyn Joy Wilkinson on March 21, 1933, in Handley, Texas. She grew up in Fort Worth and displayed singing and yodeling talent at an early age. During her childhood, she participated in a number of singing competitions at movie theaters in Dallas and Fort Worth. By the late 1940s she got her first professional job as a singer on WBAP radio in Fort Worth. There she performed under the name Shirley Davis with the Texo Hired Hands (in reality, an incarnation of the Light Crust Doughboys), and the program was sponsored by Burrus Mill. She soon appeared on Fort Worth’s first television station by 1950 as a singer on the Bewley Barn Dance program. The show was sponsored by Bewley Mills, a direct competitor to Burrus Mill. To disguise the fact that Gwendolyn Wilkinson, known as Shirley Davis on the Burrus radio program, was the same singer, Bewley Mills made her television stage name Sherry Davis—a performance name that she kept throughout her career.

In the early 1950s Davis moved to California and appeared on television on The Foreman Phillips Show, where she worked with Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and others. She also sang for Lawrence Welk for a time. With the death of her mother (who was also her chaperone in California) in 1955, she returned to Fort Worth and lived with relatives. She worked as a vocalist on area stations KRLD, WFAA, and KLIF before becoming a regular performer on Big D Jamboree in 1956. Interestingly, though the Saturday night shows at the Sportatorium featured many rising country and rock-and-roll stars, Davis never saw them perform. Instead, she spent her time in Ed McLemore’s (owner of the Sportatorium and promoter of Big D Jamboree) office studying her Sunday school lessons. Davis, a Baptist, recalled, “I would stay in the office until it was time to go down and do my few songs, then I would go home and get ready for Sunday school the next morning.”

Sherry Davis and Elvis Presley on tour.
Sherry Davis and Elvis Presley on tour. Davis embarked on a concert tour across Texas with Presley in 1956. Describing the "King of Rock-and-Roll" as "so nice and so charming," she later admitted that he was her favorite performer that she had worked with through the years. Courtesy Sarada Bonnett, daughter of Sherry Davis.

In the fall of 1956 Davis embarked on a concert tour with Elvis Presley across Texas, which included stops in Dallas, Waco, Houston, and San Antonio. During the shows, Davis performed songs before Elvis took the stage. She later characterized him as “so nice and so charming” and admitted that he was her favorite performer that she had worked with throughout the years. At some point, she went to Clovis, New Mexico, and cut a song, “Broken Promises,” for producer Norman Petty. Her backing band was Buddy Holly and the Crickets—before they had recorded any of their own material.

By the early 1960s Davis was performing at the Stardust in Las Vegas as part of a four-girl musical act with Mexican composer and showman Juan Esquivel. While in Vegas she recorded an album, Live at the Sands. During her career she also did shows at Cocoa Beach, Florida. The many stars she worked with during her career included Jimmy Durante, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves, Patti Page, and Danny Kaye. Though she sang both country and rock-and-roll numbers on Big D Jamboree, she was essentially a pop and ballad singer.

Davis retired from professional music in 1971 and returned to Dallas. She married Kenneth Gilliland who left shortly after the birth of their daughter, Sarada. She later married Hal Leakey who adopted Sarada as his own and who also had two daughters from a previous marriage. Davis went by the name of Gwendolyn Joy Leakey. She died on September 23, 2004, in Plano, Texas, and was buried in Restland Memorial Park.

Davis was among the female vocalists featured in the release of The Gals of the Big “D” Jamboree on Dragon Street Records in 2001. Her tracks include “Bop City,” “Just a Little Bit,” “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded,” and “Broken Promises” (with Buddy Holly).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Kevin Coffey, Liner notes, The Big “D” Jamboree Live, Volumes 1 & 2 (Dragon Street Records, 2000). Dallas Morning News, September 26, 2004. Bryan Woolley, ed., Where I Come From (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2003).

Laurie E. Jasinski

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Laurie E. Jasinski, "Wilkinson, Gwendolyn Joy [Sherry Davis]," accessed October 23, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwicf.

Uploaded on March 18, 2015. Modified on June 13, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.