Born on May 12, 1952, in New York, NY; son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (stage and film performers). Addresses: Record company--Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104. Management--Thom Wolke Management, P.O. Box 161, Claremont, NH 03743.
"I never picked cotton except my BVDs up off the floor," bluesman Guy Davis has been quoted as saying, according to the Denver Post. Yet by the early years of the twenty-first century Davis had emerged as a prime interpreter and creator of the acoustic music known as country blues, a type of music created by African-American agricultural laborers in the Mississippi River delta region of the Deep South. Among a group of blues revivalists who came to the fore in the 1990s, Davis stood out for his thoughtful explorations of the narrative quality of the country blues.
The son of legendary African-American theatrical figures Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Guy Davis was born on May 12, 1952, in New York City. There was blues music in his family background; his grandfather was a railroad worker who played the harmonica, and a great-grandfather was a blues singer. But Davis grew up in a different atmosphere in suburban Mount Vernon, New York, surrounded by some of the top figures of the American stage. "Sidney Poitier used to walk over to our house in his bare feet," Davis told the Boston Herald. Davis's first exposure to the blues, in fact, came at a summer camp in Vermont, where he was taught to play the banjo.
As a teenager Davis encountered the big-name electric blues of Buddy Guy and his Chicago contemporaries, and the folk blues of Taj Mahal, but he didn't warm immediately to the music's original acoustic form. "At first, I was scared of Delta blues," he told the Toronto Star. "It's so fierce, so harsh, with that slow, menacing stomp." Davis switched from banjo to guitar and began to learn the East Coast acoustic blues style of Willie McTell and others, which tended toward a steady foot-tapping tempo and had a less elemental outlook than Southern country blues. Davis's first experiences as a performer, however, were not in music but on the stage.
At age 16 Davis made his stage debut in a production of the play Cotton Comes to Harlem, directed by his father. In 1978 he recorded an album for the Folkways label, but was dissatisfied with it and did not return to music full-time for many years. Instead, Davis pursued a career as an actor. He won acclaim for his portrayal of a South Bronx disc jockey in the early hip-hop film Beat Street (1984), and was featured for a time in the cast of the television soap opera One Life to Live. Davis spent much of the 1980s performing with different New York theater groups, and by the early 1990s he had garnered his first starring role, as an understudy in Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes's Mulebone.
What brought Davis back to the blues was his next stage production: he was slated to play 1930s Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in the 1993 play Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. Davis was unsure of his ability to handle the role, but grew into it while participating in a French television documentary about the blues. Visiting Stovall's Plantation in Mississippi, the birthplace of blues artist Muddy Waters, Davis tried unsuccessfully to extract a nail from the wall of Waters's house as a souvenir. "Then the film crew shot me, and I put my hand on the house's wall, and the second I did I felt something jump right out of the wood up my arm," Davis told the Boston Herald. "That's the moment I understood what the blues was. The life of those slaves was as hard as that Mississippi pine, the nails were as resilient as the people. I just started to cry and cry, and they filmed it! That was the crossroads of me. It brought the blues and my own people home to me. Then I went back to New York and played Robert Johnson to the very best of my ability."
By 1994 Davis had written a one-man play of his own, In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters, and the following year he composed music for two television films. In 1995 he was signed to the folk-oriented Red House label, and since then has focused primarily on music rather than acting. He told the Toronto Star, "I sure hope I don't ever have to choose between them but it's a possibility." Davis has credited his acting experience with helping him to focus his blues lyrics on a single idea or emotion.
Davis's country blues debut, the live Stomp Down Rider, was released in 1995 and showcased the artist at his spontaneous best. Davis mixed country blues classics and originals in his concerts, with many observers noting how he had mastered the art of creating new pieces that seemed to blend smoothly with the likes of Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, or Sleepy John Estes. Perhaps the works of the Tennessee-born Estes were a special influence; many of that artist's songs were story-like depictions of people and places he knew, rather than re-workings of classic blues formulas, and Davis, too, emerged as a consummate storyteller in his recordings and stage appearances.
Davis's knack for storytelling showed up not only in his songs, but also in his mastery of stage repartee, an important component of the blues since its Delta days. A resident of New York City's Harlem neighborhood, Davis commented on the area's rampant gentrification in one Denver show: he predicted a day when Harlem's famed Apollo Theater would host a Lawrence Welk retrospective (referring to the white Midwestern bandleader). Davis proved a consistent touring draw, making trips to Canada and Europe as well as across the United States.
By 2002 Davis had released five albums: after Stomp Down Rider came Call Down the Thunder (1996), You Don't Know My Mind (1998), Butt Naked Free (2000), Give in Kind (2002), Chocolate to the Bone (2003), and Legacy (2004). Mostly he toured and recorded as a solo act, but on disc he sometimes augmented his sound with small bands, including former Van Morrison guitarist John Platania, multi-instrumentalists Levon Helm (The Band) and Tom "T-Bone" Wolk (Hall & Oates, Carly Simon), drummer Gary Burke (Joe Jackson), and acoustic bassist Mark Murphy. These included unusual instruments such as the mandolin, the accordion, and the Australian didjeridoo---an unusual choice for the blues, perhaps, but fully in the spirit of the on-the-spot collections of instruments that early Memphis blues bands might use as the need arose. Davis picked up his first didgeridoo in Australia, and learned to play it for the song "Layla, Layla" on Give in Kind. "I added the didgeridoo. ... to the part where the slide guitar is making the woman's voice, thinking it would make it into a dialogue," Davis told Bluesrevue.com. "The didgeridoo becomes the aggressive guy, kind of that 'barking dog' sound. Then the rest of the song just took shape around that."
Each of his releases has garnered critical accolades from such noted critics as Dave Marsh and Down Beat magazine. The latter publication awarded Chocolate to the Bone a four-and-a-half-star rating on a five-star scale. Legacy, Davis's fourth album featuring Platania as producer, included the song "Uncle Tom's Dead," which features vocals by Davis's son, Martial. The album's liner notes and cover art were commissioned from comic book artist Guy Davis, who is known best for his work for the comic books Sandman Mystery Theatre and The Nevermen. In addition, Davis has contributed songs to tribute albums for Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Nick Lowe, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan. He also contributed music in 2004 to the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance" campaign, which helps schools teach diversity and understanding through music and art.
One indication of the distinctiveness of Davis's sound is that he has received frequent offers to provide music for television commercials. Davis himself pointed to the narrative aspect of his work as one of its most authentic features. "I'm sure not the best Delta blues player out there," he told the Toronto Star. "I wouldn't bother going up lick for lick against, say, John Hammond. But I think I can tell a tale of the blues with the best of them." Davis had developed, in the words of the All Music Guide's Chris Nickson, into "a consummate bluesman. His lineage is obvious, and he's the new generation, doing it right and keeping it real."
by James M. Manheim and Bruce Walker
Guy Davis's Career
Made stage debut at age 16 in play Cotton Comes to Harlem; recorded album for Folkways label, 1978; appeared in film Beat Street, 1984; appeared on daytime television drama One Life to Live; appeared in play Mulebone, with score by Taj Mahal, 1991; portrayed bluesman Robert Johnson in play Trick the Devil, 1993; signed to Red House label; recorded Delta blues debut, Stomp Down Rider, 1995; recorded Butt Naked Free, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Stomp Down Rider Red House, 1995.
- Call Down the Thunder Red House, 1996.
- You Don't Know My Mind Red House, 1998.
- Butt Naked Free Red House, 2000.
- Give in Kind Red House, 2002.
- Chocolate to the Bone Red House, 2003.
- Legacy Red House, 2004.
- Back Stage, March 19, 1993, p. 34.
- Boston Herald, January 15, 1996, p. 39.
- Denver Post, May 18, 1997, p. B7.
- Down Beat, March 1999, p. 22; June 2001, p. 58.
- Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), November 23, 2000, p. 17.
- New York Times, February 25, 1993, p. C22.
- People, July 23, 1984, p. 10.
- Sing Out!, Summer 2002, p. 139.
- Toronto Star, February 1, 1996, p. H7.
- "Five Questions with Guy Davis," Bluesrevue.com, http://www.bluesrevue.com/davis.html (December 28, 2004).
- "Guy Davis," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 28, 2004).
- Guy Davis Official Web Site, http://www.guydavis.com (December 28, 2004).