Born April 30, 1896 in Laurens County, SC; died May 5, 1972 in Hammenton, NJ; son of John and Evelina Davis; married Annie Bell Wright, 1937.
Gary Davis's finger-picking guitar style influenced many other musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan. These musicians in turn delivered his bluesy gospel message to a world-wide audience. Songs like "Baby, Can I Follow You Down," "Candy Man," and "Samson and Delilah" define the common perception of American folk blues. According to guitarist and author Stefan Grossman, Davis said he was three weeks old when he became blind from chemicals put in his eyes. Despite this affliction, he showed musical talent immediately, making his first guitar from a pie pan and a stick before he was ten.
One of eight children, Gary was raised by his grandmother on a farm near Greenville, South Carolina after his father decided that his mother could not care for him properly. In the South of the early 1900s street bands provided entertainment, often traveling through the small towns on wagons. The music the young Davis picked up on was a lively combination of spirituals sung in black churches, square dance music, and marches by popular figures such as John Phillips Sousa. Davis's distinctive style can be seen as an attempt to translate these types of music to the guitar. In an interview with Sam Charters, Davis said of his chosen instrument: "The first time I ever heard a guitar, I thought it was a brass band coming through. I was a small kid and I asked my mother what it was and she said that was a guitar."
As a youth, Davis sang at the Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina. Later, he played in a string band in Greenville and learned to read Braille at the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg. After slipping on ice and breaking his wrist, the bones were set badly, and he was forced to play with an oddly cocked left hand. This may have become an advantage as it allowed him to finger the chords in a unique way. In 1931 Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he met Blind Boy Fuller, another of many blind street musicians of the time. Music was often the only occupation available to these men and their ranks boasted such legendary figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Blind Eubie Blake, Georgia's Blind Willie McTell and Louisiana's Blind Willie Johnson. From the necessity of playing on the street came a style that was forceful and clear, with crowd-pleasing melodies around which the singer invented showy guitar riffs.
While in Durham, Davis met and married his first wife, but left her after discovering she had been unfaithful. He then moved to Washington, North Carolina and became an ordained minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in 1933. Davis and Blind Boy Fuller journeyed to New York City in 1935 to record for the American Record Company. Although Fuller and another blues singer, Bull City Red, were the more famous participants in these sessions, Davis was able to lay down 15 tracks, among them "I Saw the Light," "I Am the Light of the World," and "You Got to Go Down." Other musicians who recorded this brand of music, which came to be known as the "Piedmont style," included guitarist Brownie McGhee and his partner, harmonica player Sonny Terry.
In 1937 Davis married his second wife, Annie Wright, and together they moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where she found work as a housekeeper. The city's location on the Long Island Sound was close enough to New York City to put Davis in touch with the thriving music business there. He began to record again, making records for producer Moses Asch, and then for the record labels Folkways and Prestige. In 1940 Davis and his wife moved to Harlem to a house on 169th Street where they stayed for the next 18 years. There, Davis became a minister at New York's Missionary Baptist Connection Church and also taught guitar.
In 1974, Davis described his teaching style for Blues Guitar: "Your forefinger and your thumb--that's the striking hand, and your left hand is your leading hand. Your left hand tells your right hand what strings to touch, what changes to make. That's the greatest help! You see, one hand can't do without the other." This finger- picking style was capable of maintaining a melodic line while inserting complex harmonies. "Soldiers Drill," for example, was an instrumental reworking of some Sousa marches. Davis used a large six-string guitar, which he affectionately called "Miss Gibson" after the guitar's manufacturer. Reverend Gary usually tuned the guitar to a relatively difficult E-B-G-D-A-E configuration rather than the "open" tuning favored by most of his fellow street musicians (who could make chords by simply barring across a fret). This provided him with a more complex set of chord possibilities. He alternated major chords and sevenths to give his music the dissonance characteristic of the blues, while picking a melody and variations of the melody. In the liner notes to Davis' album Say No to the Devil, critic Larry Cohn compared his instrumental virtuosity in this regard to that of classical guitarist Andres Segovia and banjo player Earl Scruggs.
Folk music experienced a popular revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a growing audience on college campuses and among hipsters in places like lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a successful version of Davis's "Samson and Delilah," also known as "If I Had My Own Way," originally a song by Blind Willie Johnson. Other young musicians eager to hear the genuine down-home blues flocked to Davis as well. David Bromberg, Taj Mahal, and Dave Van Ronk are among the many guitar players to absorb the Reverend Gary's phrases and intonations first-hand. Davis's guitar lessons at his house were often accompanied by food and drink; invariably, they contained pungent advice on many different subjects, especially religion. Davis was in his late fifties by this time, and played mostly gospel and traditional folk songs, having given up the lascivious saloon ditties of his youth.
The resurgence of American roots music and its practitioners found Davis performing at folk festivals around the country, including the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His fame ultimately increased to the point that he was asked to tour Europe. Hearing him in 1962, English music critic Robert Tilling of Jazz Journal called him "one of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers." In 1968 Davis bought a house in the New York City borough of Jamaica, Queens, and continued to teach and perform in the area, always accessible to scholars and the new generation of country blues guitarists. On May 5, 1972, he suffered a heart attack while on the way to a performance in Newtonville, New Jersey. He died at William Kessler Memorial Hospital and is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.
More than two decades after his death, the influence of Reverend Gary Davis can still be felt. As each new generation is introduced to blues, folk, and other forms of traditional American music, Davis's signature guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals continue to move, entertain, and educate.
by Paul Andersen
Reverend Gary Davis's Career
Started playing guitar at age six; became a street singer, playing ragtime, spirituals and dance music; moved to Durham, North Carolina, 1927; became an ordained Baptist minister, 1933; made first recordings with the American Record Company, 1935; moved to Mamaroneck, New York, then New York City, 1940; sang on the streets of Harlem and preached at the Missionary Baptist Connection Church; recorded on Stinson Records, Riverside, Prestige and Folkways; recorded Harlem Street Spirituals, Riverside Records, 1956; taught guitar to many aspiring musicians, such as Dave Van Ronk and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir; toured Great Britain, 1964; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1968; appeared in movie Black Roots, 1970.
- Selective Works
- Harlem Street Spirituals, Riverside, 1956.
- Reverend Gary Davis, Folkways, 1958.
- Children of Zion, Kicking Mule, 1962.
- Pure Religion and Bad Company, Smithsonian Folkways, 1962.
- Pure Religion!, Prestige, 1962.
- At Allegeny College, Document, 1964.
- At Newport, Vanguard, 1965.
- New Blues and Gospel, Biograph, 1971.
- Say No to the Devil, Prestige/Bluesville, 1990.
- Selected films Blind Gary Davis (short),1964.
- Black Roots, 1970.
- Reverend Gary Davis, 1971.
- Cusic, Don, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music, 1993.
- Grossman, Stefan, Rev. Gary Davis: Blues Guitar, Oak Publications, 1974.
- Grossman, Stefan, Legends of Country Blues Guitar, Mel Bay, 1995.
- Tilling, Robert, Oh, What a Beautiful City: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis, 1993.
- Acoustic Guitar, Nov./Dec., 1994 Blues Guitar, February 1974.
- Cadence, May 1992.
- Down Beat, August, 1991; August, 1992.
- Folk Roots, June 1991, October 1991, March 1992.
- Guitar Extra! 1971 (interview with Dave Van Ronk).
- Jazz International, October, 1993.
- Living Blues, July/Aug. 1991; July/Aug. 1992; Sept./Oct. 1992; Jan./Feb. 1993.
- Musician, Feb, 1993.
- New York Times, Dec. 11, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, Aug. 8, 1991.
- Sing Out!, No. 2, 1991; No. 2, 1992.