My initial firsthand, intense listening experience with acoustic blues came courtesy of the Reverend Gary Davis. A few of us pooled our money together and brought him from New York to Edmonton, to perform on Feb. 10, 1971, at the University of Alberta. We were able to set it up through a connection to one of Davis’s guitar students.
I had a few of the reverend’s albums, and I was aware of his importance as a unique artist who had inspired a school of followers. He was a true legend, known for his rich mournful voice, blues and gospel guitar and banjo playing, and for his deep catalogue of songs, which are still be being covered today and are regarded as standards.
Davis was born in South Carolina in 1896 and was blind from infancy. He first recorded in 1935 as Blind Gary Davis. He became ordained as a baptist minister, and in 1951 moved to New York. Initially, he was a street singer but, thanks to the folk revival of the ’60s, Davis went on to record extensively and perform internationally.
Davis spent about a week in Edmonton, as I recall. Apart from the concert, the off nights found him in living rooms informally playing guitar and telling stories. His 12-string was always within reach. One night, a friend invited the reverend and I over for dinner. I drove him to a high-rise apartment in Edmonton. We were about to enjoy the chicken (his request) when Davis realized he’d forgotten his false teeth. It fell on me to drive back to where he was staying and pick up the Rev. Gary Davis’s teeth; not a blues experience shared by many, I’m sure.
Davis’s music has been recorded by the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Hot Tuna, the Grateful Dead, Stefan Grossman, Roy Book Binder, Maria Muldaur and Mavis Staples. Rory Block’s latest CD is called I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis.
Check out Rev. Gary Davis doing one of his classics, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
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on Aug 13, 2012