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Davis, Jimmie

Jimmie Davis

Singer, songwriter

Louisiana musician and politician Jimmie Davis is renowned for his rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," a song known by most people in the English-speaking world. He did not compose the song, but he did popularize it. Beyond "You Are My Sunshine," however, Davis had a fascinating career that led him from raunchy blues to gospel music; from a subsistence-level sharecropper's shack to the Louisiana governor's mansion; and from recording with black musicians to defending the system of state-imposed racial segregation that existed in the American South until the late 1950s. Over his 101 years of life, Jimmie Davis became a little-known but significant shaper of American culture.

Davis was born in Beech Springs, Louisiana, near Quitman, probably on September 11, 1899. Ongoing uncertainty about his birthdate was explained, Davis once said, by the fact that his sharecropper parents did not know for certain the date of his birth. He grew up in poverty that was extreme even by the standards of the small farms of the Deep South. Until he was nine he didn't have a bed to sleep in, and he had to help his father build a casket out of loose pieces of wood when his younger sister died.

Received Hog Bladder for Christmas

Davis shared a small cabin with ten siblings and several members of his extended family. "The first Christmas present I ever got," he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph of London, "was a dried hog's bladder and a plucked blackbird. We ate the blackbird and played ball with the bladder, and I thought we were pretty well off." According to the New York Times, when a friend asked Davis whether his family had an out-house, he replied, "No, we had outwoods."

Despite this hard life, Davis excelled in school. "I decided at a very young age that if my life was to be better, I had to get an education," he was quoted as saying in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After finishing grade school as one in a class of three, he attended high school in Winnfield, Louisiana, and then moved to New Orleans, carrying his belongings tied together in a bedsheet, to attend business college. Moving on to Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College in Pineville, Davis worked his way through school partly by singing and playing the guitar, although he was forced to drop out at one point due to lack of funds. "I had to start from scratch," Davis recalled, as quoted in You Are My Sunshine: The Jimmie Davis Story. "Because we didn't have a library back home, I simply had no idea of how to use one or for that matter what one even was." With an eye toward a teaching career, Davis completed a master's degree in education at Louisiana State University in 1926.

After graduation and a brief stint teaching in public schools, Davis began teaching at the all-female Dodd College in Shreveport. A year later, apparently not finding teaching to his liking, he got a job as a clerk in Shreveport's court system. Davis kept up with his music, performing on a Friday night program on Shreveport radio station KWKH, and when Northern record labels began looking for a yodeling country singer who could duplicate the success of Mississippi's "Blue Yodeler," Jimmie Rodgers, Davis emerged as a natural pick and was courted by several companies. He was signed to the Victor label in 1929.

Recorded Raunchy Blues Numbers

The roughly 60 sides Davis recorded for Victor between 1928 and 1934 were, in the words of country music historian John Morthland, as quoted in London, England's Daily Telegraph, "the dirtiest batch of songs any one person had ever recorded in country music." Heavily influenced by Rodgers in his yodeling blues style, Davis went further and delved into African-American blues music, discovering its rich lore of sexual double meanings and making them his own in such pieces as "Tom Cat and Pussy Blues." In his "Organ Grinder Blues," Davis sang of a popular anti-impotence monkey-gland treatment popularized by quack physician and heavy radio advertiser John R. Brinkley.

In some of his blues pieces, Davis recorded with black guitarist Oscar Woods and with a few other African-American performers, becoming one of the first white musicians to record in an integrated group. Not all of Davis's songs were risqué; his "Saturday Night Stroll," recorded with Woods, is a non-sexual—although rather violent—depiction of a typical Saturday evening of hopping from place to place, looking for entertainment. Later in his political career, Davis's political opponents would attempt to use this phase of his musical career to discredit him, but many Louisianans reacted instead with enthusiasm at discovering these little-known recordings.

In 1934 Davis moved to the Decca label and notched his first bona-fide hit. "Nobody's Darling But Mine," a grim dirge with a theme of suicide, became a country classic. At Decca, Davis fell in with a group of musicians from Shreveport and nearby east Texas who were trying to create a country counterpart to the smooth pop of Bing Crosby and other "crooners" of the day. Davis had a nationwide hit with "It Makes No Difference Now," a downbeat but smoothly sophisticated song he co-wrote with Texas vocalist Floyd Tillman.

Popularized "You Are My Sunshine"

Looking for more material in the same vein, Davis and another musician named Charles Mitchell purchased "You Are My Sunshine" outright from Georgia performer Paul Rice (who had himself probably learned it from someone else) in early 1940 and recorded it on February 5 of that year, having already copyrighted it for themselves. The purchase price was $35—a bargain of Manhattanite proportions, for Davis's own recording sold well and was followed by blockbuster versions from Crosby, from cowboy crooner Gene Autry, and later from rhythm-and-blues star Ray Charles. The song spread around the world, and England's King George VI pronounced it his favorite song. It was recorded more than 350 times.

By that time Davis had married Shreveport socialite Alverna Adams, another critic of his dirty songs. "I try out a song on my wife," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, "and if she doesn't like it, I rush right out and record it." The marriage produced a son, James, and lasted until Alverna's death in 1968. Davis later married another woman, Anna Gordon, a member of the Chuck Wagon Gang gospel group.

For the Record . . .

Born c. September 11, 1899, in Beech Springs, LA; died on November 5, 2000, in Baton Rouge, LA; married Alverna Adams (died, 1968); married Anna Gordon (a musician); children: one son, James. Education: Attended business college in New Orleans, LA; graduated from Louisiana College, Pineville, LA; Louisiana State University, master's degree in psychology and education, 1926.

Signed to Victor record label, 1929; recorded 78 rpm singles in 1930s and 1940s for Victor and Decca labels; also appeared in films including Mississippi Rhythm and Louisiana; entered politics as commissioner of public safety, 1938; recorded "You Are My Sunshine," 1940; served as governor of Louisiana, 1944-48; began recording gospel songs, 1950s; reelected as governor, 1960-64.

Awards: Elected to Country Music Hall of Fame, 1972; inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2000.

He also plunged into politics, winning an election as Shreveport's commissioner of public safety in 1938 and stepping up in 1942 to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, a powerful post once held by the dean of Louisiana politics, Huey Long. In the fall of 1943 Davis entered the race for governor of Louisiana and won. Musical performances, as they did for a number of old-time Southern politicians, played a major part in his campaign. "It's better in a political campaign to give folks very little talking and a whole lot of songs," Davis was quoted as saying in the New York Times.

Serving as governor from 1944 to 1948, Davis didn't let his political responsibilities interfere with his musical career. He traveled often to Hollywood to make movies that featured his singing. Films such as Mississippi Rhythm were short, thinly veiled excuses to showcase a few songs from Davis and his band, but Louisiana (1947) was a more ambitious rags-to-riches tale based on Davis's own life.

Flourished as Gospel Singer

Davis moved to the new Capitol label in the late 1940s, but then returned to Decca, and in the 1950s the former salacious bluesman became best known for gospel recordings. His version of the gospel standard "Suppertime" became a major hit in the early 1950s. In 1962 Davis landed back on the country charts with a version of the Western song "Where the Old Red River Flows."

That song, like Davis's film successes of the 1940s, was recorded while Davis was occupying the Louisiana governor's mansion. He had run for a second term in 1959 and been elected, serving from 1960 to 1964. This period saw bruising conflicts across the South, as state governments resisted court-ordered desegregation orders. Davis ran on a segregationist platform in 1959 but was not regarded as a virulent racist, and desegregation proceeded in Louisiana during his second term largely without the violence that occurred in other states. Davis smoothed out legislative controversies by leading lawmakers in singalongs of "It Makes No Difference Now," and he once rode his horse, Sunshine, up the steps of the state capitol building in Baton Rouge while singing a song about his legislative agenda.

Davis ran for a third term in 1971 but was defeated. He was inducted the following year to the Country Music Hall of Fame. After that he gradually faded from the public view, but continued to perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, whose cast he had joined in 1951 and where he made his last appearance in 1994, at age 95. A heart attack in 1987 slowed his activities, but he continued to perform occasionally, even singing at his own 100th birthday party in Baton Rouge in 1999. He died at his home in Baton Rouge on November 5, 2000, having said, according to the New York Times, that he wanted to be remembered as "someone who scattered a little sunshine along his path."

Selected discography

Jimmie Davis, Decca, 1953.

Near the Cross, Decca, 1955.

Hymn Time, Decca, 1957.

Hail Him with a Song, Decca, 1958

You Are My Sunshine, Decca, 1959.

Suppertime, Decca, 1960.

Rock 'n' Roll Blues (early Victor material), Bear Family, 1984.

Sounds Like Jimmie Rodgers (early recordings), ACM, 1985.

Barnyard Stomp (early Victor material), Bear Family, 1988.

Sources

Books

Weill, Gus, You Are My Sunshine: The Jimmie Davis Story, Pelican, 1987.

Periodicals

Daily Telegraph (London, England), November 7, 2000, p. 31.

Guardian (London, England), November 7, 2000, p. 24.

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), November 9, 2000, p. 86.

Independent (London, England), November 7, 2000, p. 6.

New York Times, November 6, 2000, p. A37.

Scotsman, November 9, 2000, p. 18.

Times (London, England), November 7, 2000, Features section.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), November 6, 2000, p. 1; November 10, 2000, p. Living-1.

Washington Post, November 6, 2000, p. B6.

Online

"Jimmie Davis," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 16, 2004).

"Jimmie Davis," Country Music Television, http://www.cmt.com (December 16, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

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