Reverend Gary Davis, also known as Blind Gary Davis (April 30, 1896 – May 5, 1972), was an blues and gospel singer, as well as a renowned guitarist. The best known example of the "gospel blues," his playing influenced several of the rock and roll legends of the 1960s.
Born in rural South Carolina, Davis was almost totally blind from infancy. He taught himself guitar at an early age and soon became an active player in the Piedmont blues scene. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1933, and first recorded for the American Record Company (ARC) in 1935. Davis moved with his wife, Annie Bell, to New York in 1940, where he continued teaching guitar, singing, working as a minister, and, beginning in 1945, recording on a fairly regular basis. His career reached new levels of success during the folk revival of the 1960s, and his song, "If I Had My Way," was featured on Peter, Paul, and Mary's chart-topping debut album.
Davis' location in New York City placed him in a position to teach a number of young musicians who went on to make a major mark in the folk and rock music scenes. His unique, virtuoso finger-picking style was influential on many subsequent artists, and his students included Jorma Kaukonen, Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Weir. He also had a significant impact on such artists as the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Bob Dylan, Keb Mo, and Resurrection Band. Few of his students claim to have mastered his style, which is highly complex, creative, and difficult to duplicate. As a singer and preacher, Davis left a legacy of hundreds of spiritual and gospel songs, while his reputation as a guitar genius served to introduce millions of young folk music fans to gospel music.
Born in Laurens, South Carolina, to John and Evelina Davis. Davis reported as an adult that his blindness resulted from a misapplication of chemicals to his eyes after birth. By the age of only three weeks he had almost completely lost the ability to see. However, he was able to distinguish light from darkness and discern shapes to a degree, but not to recognize people with his eyes alone. One of eight children, he was raised on a farm in the Piedmont section of South Carolina, the home of a particular style of blues playing also called "Piedmont." His grandmother was his primary caregiver.
Gary became interested in music while still a small boy. At the age of seven, he reportedly built a guitar out of a pie pan and taught himself to play. He claims that no one taught him to play and that he "worked it all out myself." In his teenage years, Davis played at local dances and picnics, both for white and black audiences, and also sang in church. In the 1920s, he attended the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg, South Carolina and learned to read Braille. He also played in a local string band there.
Around this time, Davis broke his left wrist from a fall suffered when he slipped. The wrist was set improperly, and did not heal correctly. Some observers believe this condition may account for his unusual chord patterns and manner of holding the neck of his guitar. In any case, for Davis, the guitar assumed a unique, multi-voice style, playing not only ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original tunes using both chordal harmonies and counterpoint with a unique finger-picking guitar style.
Davis married in the mid 1920s and traveled throughout the Carolinas and Tennessee playing and teaching guitar to make his living. By 1927, he had settled in Durham, North Carolina. While there, Davis collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene, including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red. He also become more serious about religion, receiving his ordination as a minister in the Baptist church in 1933. He personally founded three churches in the Durham area during this time, but separated from his wife after learning of her alleged promiscuity.
In 1935, a store manager named J.B. Long introduced Davis to the American Record Company (ARC). The subsequent recording sessions marked the beginning of Davis' larger career. It was for the ARC that Davis made his first trip to New York City. There, he recorded 15 sides in the summer of 1935. Although he recorded some secular blues songs, Davis already expressed a preference for gospel music and spirituals, although his music always showed a definite blues influence. Davis would not record again until 1945.
In 1937, Davis married Annie Bell Wright. As the blues scene in Durham began to decline, the couple migrated to Mamaroneck, New York, and soon moved to 169th Street in Harlem. Davis became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church in Harlem.
He began to record once again in 1945, but no longer sang blues songs at all, considering the blues to be the "Devil's music." However, he continued to perform in the "gospel blues" tradition, and many of his songs were not specifically religious, such as "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and "Motherless Children." He also displayed his guitar skills on various instrumental tunes with a ragtime flavor.
The folk music revival of the 1960s boosted Davis' career significantly, although unlike many other early bluesmen, he had continued recording during the late 40s and 50s. His unique guitar style found numerous enthusiastic adherents, such as David Van Ronk, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Jorma Kaukonen, and Stefan Grossman. Peter, Paul, and Mary's cover version of his song "Samson & Delilah"—also known as "If I Had My Way"—further helped his recording career. Davis became a regular feature at the large folk festivals of the 1960s and a popular performer at major folk venues from New York City to Los Angeles. He also toured Europe during this time.
In the late 1960s, the aging Davis settled in Jamacia, Queens, New York and began living a more retired life, performing locally in the New York and New Jersey but no longer touring. He suffered a heart attack while on the way to a performance in New Jersey on May 5, 1972, and soon died. He is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.
While many blues players also performed in the gospel tradition, Gary Davis made gospel blues his special art. His singing, often overlooked because of his genius as a guitarist, represented the truest expression of his soul as a performer, with his guitar providing both a rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. He had a tremendous emotional range in his delivery, moving from shrieks and shouts to whispers and pleading. His singing ranged from the joy of sure salvation to the mourning of a child without his mother, to prophetic warnings of God "muddying the water" in the coming day of judgment.
Davis was a powerful and multidimensional singer, and his guitar playing marked him as an instrumental genius. While some other players sought to imitate ragtime piano patterns on the guitar, no one succeeded better than Davis. His style of finger-picking did not follow the normal patters of alternating bass lines or dampened chords played with the thumb while the fingers play a simplified melodic pattern. Instead, Davis used a complex combination of cross-picking, unusual chord inversions, and counterpoint to create a style that was all his own. It is rarely duplicated effectively, especially in combination with powerful singing such as his. His accomplishment as a guitarist is all the more impressive given the fact that his style required him often to move up and down the neck of his guitar without the use of the sense of sight. Particularly memorable, though less technically difficult, were the many charming dialogs he carried out with his guitar, asking it questions, requesting that it repeat itself, telling it not to cry, or creating special effects such as harmonics, slaps, knocks, playing with his left hand only, and imitating the sound of a snare drum.
Reverend Gary Davis made hundreds of recordings and left an important legacy for guitarists. No serious student of rock or blues guitar fails to be impressed by his genius as a instrumentalist, and those who attempt to master his style are invariably challenged by his technical accomplishment. "He was the most fantastic guitarist I'd ever seen," said Dave Van Ronk, who in turn was a major influence on the guitar playing of Bob Dylan. Bob Weir said that Davis "taught me, by example, to completely throw out my preconceptions of what can or can't be done on the guitar."
Often overlooked, however, is the legacy that Davis left as a singer of spiritual songs and gospel blues. His versions of "Twelve Gates to the City," "If I Had My Way (Samson and Delilah)," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and "Motherless Children," for example, are classics, and his renditions of hundreds of traditional gospel songs rarely fail to create a response from those who listen to them closely. Few performers can match the level of artistry he achieved in combing the power of gospel singing, the emotional tonality of the blues, and a true creative genius on the guitar. Beyond his significance as a performer and teacher, it may be his greatest legacy that Reverend Davis introduced a generation of folk music fans, who previously had no interest in gospel music, to this important musical genre.
Many of these records were published posthumously.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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