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Davis, Guy

Guy Davis

Blues singer, composer, guitarist

"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."

For the Record . . .

Born on May 12, 1952, in New York, NY; son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (stage and film performers).

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.

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.

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."

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.

Sources

Periodicals

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.

Online

"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).

—James M. Manheim andBruce Walker

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"Davis, Guy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Davis, Guy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-guy

Davis, Guy 1952–

Guy Davis 1952

Blues singer, composer, guitarist, actor

At a Glance

Selected discography

Sources

I never picked cotton except my BVDs up off the floor, bluesman Guy Davis was quoted as saying by the Denver Post. Yet Davis by the early years of the 21st century had emerged as a prime interpreter and creator of the acoustic music known as country bluesa music created by African-American agricultural laborers in the Mississippi River delta of the Deep South. Among a group of blues revivalists who came to the fore in the 1990s, Davis stood out for his thoughtful exploitation of the narrative quality of the country bluesfor his storytelling.

The son of legendary African-American theatrical figures Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Guy Davis was born in New York City on May 12, 1952. 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 atmospherein 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. Daviss 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 didnt warm immediately to the musics original acoustic form. At first, I was scared of Delta blues, he told the Toronto Star Its 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 foottapping tempo and toward a less elemental outlook than Southern country blues. Daviss 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

At a Glance

Born May 12, 1952, in New York, NY; son of stage and film performers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

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; performed and recorded acoustic blues, 1995-.

Addresses: Record label Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104. Management Thom Wolke Management, P.O. Box 161, Claremont, NH 03743.

1990s he had been slated in his first starring rolein Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughess Mulebone, as an understudy.

What brought Davis back to the blues was his next stage production: he was slated to play 1930s Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in a 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 Stovalls Plantation in Mississippi, the birthplace of blues artist Muddy Waters, Davis tried unsuccessfully to extract a nail from wall of Waters house as a souvenir. Then the film crew shot me, and I put my hand on the houses wall, and the second I did I felt something jump right out of the wood up my arm, Davis told the Boston Herald. Thats 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. Since then he has focused heavily on music rather than acting, and told the Toronto Star that I sure hope I dont ever have to choose between them but its a possibility. Davis has credited his acting experience with helping him to focus his blues lyrics on a single idea or emotion.

Daviss country blues debut, the live Stomp Down Rider, was released in 1995, and it 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 artists songs were story-like depictions of people and places he knew rather than reworkings of classic blues formulas, and Davis, too, emerged as a consummate storyteller in his recordings and stage appearances.

His 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 Manhattans Harlem neighborhood, Davis commented on the areas rampant gentrification in one Denver show: he predicted a day when Harlems famed Apollo Theater would host a Lawrence Welk retrospective (referring to the quintessential whitebread Midwestern white television bandleader). Davis proved a consistent touring draw, making trips to Canada and Europe as well as the United States.

By 2002 Davis had released five albums: after Stomp Down Rider came Call Down the Thunder (1996), You Dont Know My Mind (1998), Butt Naked Free (2000), and Give in Kind (2002). Mostly he toured and recorded as a solo act, but on disc he sometimes augmented his sound with small bands. These included unusual instruments such as the mandolin, the accordion, and the Australian didjeridooan 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.

One indication of the distinctiveness of Daviss sound was that he enjoyed frequent offers to provide music for television commercials. Davis himself pointed to the narrative aspect of his work as its most authentic features. Im sure not the best Delta blues player out there, he told the Toronto Star. I wouldnt 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 hes the new generation, doing it right and keeping it real.

Selected discography

Stomp Down Rider, Red House, 1995.

Call Down the Thunder, Red House, 1996.

You Dont Know My Mind, Red House, 1998.

Butt Naked Free, Red House, 2000.

Give in Kind, Red House, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

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.

The 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.

On-line

All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com

http://www.guydavis.com

James M. Manheim

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Davis, Guy 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Davis, Guy 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-guy-1952

"Davis, Guy 1952–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/davis-guy-1952