Davis, Reverend Gary D

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Davis, Reverend Gary D

Davis, Reverend Gary D. , influential American blues, folk, and gospel singer, songwriter, and guitarist;b. Laurens County, S.C., April 30, 1896; d. Hammonton, N.J., May 5, 1972. Davis’s original mixture of blues, gospel, and folk made him a major influence on a generation of folk and rock performers.

The son of John and Evelina Davis, Davis suffered from ulcerated eyes and was partially blind by the age of two, losing his sight completely by his twenties. He taught himself to play guitar, banjo, and harmonica as a child and began performing before he reached his teens. He attended the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg, S.C., in the mid-1910s.

Davis traveled extensively through the upper South during the 1920s and 1930s, although he was based in Durham, N.C. He was ordained a Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., in 1933. He made his first recordings in 1935. He had been married during the 1920s; in 1937 he married his second wife, Annie Bell Wright. Around 1940 he moved to N.Y., where he gradually became known in folk music circles. He performed at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and at several subsequent editions of the festival, as well as at other folk festivals during the 1960s.

Among Davis’s many recordings, the most influential was the 1960 Prestige Records album Pure Religion!, which featured a series of songs written by or associated with him that were taken up by other artists. “Samson and Delilah” was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary on their self-titled debut album in 1962 under the title “If I Had My Way” and became a regular part of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” was one of many Davis songs recorded by Hot Tuna, whose guitarist, former Jefferson Airplane member Jorma Kaukonen, took lessons from Davis. Another was “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which also was played extensively by the Dead. Davis’s songs were performed by such other folk artists as Bob Dylan, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Dave Van Ronk, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder, some of whom studied with Davis. Other notable songs he wrote or popularized include “Candyman,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Delia,” “I Am the Light of This World,” “Twelve Gates to the City,” and “You’ve Got to Move.”


The Holy Blues (1970); S. Grossman, ed., Rev. Gary Davis/Blues Guitar (1974).

—William Ruhlmann