Lins Honeyman tells the fascinating tale of the street musician who became a folk and rock mentor, REVEREND GARY DAVIS

Rev Gary Davis
Rev Gary Davis

When it comes to ranking the music world's greatest guitarists of all time, blind South Carolina-born bluesman, street performer, guitar tutor and ordained minister Reverend Gary Davis rarely gets a mention despite a body of work that betrays a virtuosity that few guitarists have been able to match. Famous for a dazzling ragtime guitar style that has confounded imitators for decades thanks to his skill at working his way up and down the fret board at speed, Gary Davis songs such as "You Gotta Move", "Cocaine Blues" and "Samson And Delilah" are now standard blues fare and cover versions by luminaries like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead plus an outpost of Davis' former students including renowned players like Stefan Grossman and Woody Mann help to keep the man's music alive.

It could be argued that the odds were stacked against Gary Davis who was born in 1896 in the South Carolina city of Laurens. Growing up in desperate poverty and the only one of eight children borne by his teenage mother Evelina to survive into adulthood, Davis became blind at three weeks of age following ulceration of the eyes caused by, according to Davis, the doctor putting "alum and sweet milk in my eyes." Other accounts suggest that Davis' mother tried to treat her infant son's eye infection with lye soap but the fact remains that, in a country where being either black, blind or poor placed a soul at a disadvantage, being all three would require supreme resolve and resilience on Davis' part to overcome the challenges of life.

With his absentee father reportedly murdered when the young Gary was only 10 and his mother rejecting him in place of one of his siblings, Davis was brought up by his paternal grandmother. Grandma Annie had been born a slave and, importantly, was a religious woman who would introduce her ward to his first spiritual song "Children Of Zion" - a move that may well have influenced Davis' decision to play mostly gospel-based songs throughout his lengthy career.

In addition to learning songs through church attendance, Davis began to play the harmonica at an early age and started making his own guitars using everyday items such as pie pans, pieces of timber and copper wiring before - in a rare act of kindness - Davis' mother bought him his first guitar which allowed Davis to get lessons from a local musician. Soaking up any available musical influence ranging from the minstrel shows to the circuses that passed through Laurens, Davis exhibited a keen ear and fascination for all kinds of music - something that would be reflected later in his versatile and genre-hopping guitar playing. Before long, Davis was receiving invitations to play at picnics and other public events and began developing his version of the fingerpicking technique that would become known as Piedmont style.

Short-lived stints at boarding school - with Davis, in trademark straight-talking fashion, quitting because he didn't like the food - led him to return to his family's farm until the age of 21 before he started travelling from town to town and playing on street corners. Upon his arrival in the town of Greenville, Davis fell for his uncle's lodger Mary Hendrix and a couple of months later the pair were wed. The couple continued to travel before the marriage soured and ended leaving Davis to enter into a period of recklessness and wandering - fuelling later unconfirmed claims that Davis had fathered several children during this time.

In the late 1920s, Davis finally settled in Durham, North Carolina and became a regular musical feature on the city's streets as well as stints leading a band that played on the regional party circuit. Street musicianship in the US was no easy ride though and, with theft from a blind person seen as an opportunity by local petty criminals, Davis began carrying a pistol and a knife for his own protection - something that would occasionally lead to his arrest and incarceration. During this time, Davis came into contact with a young and inexperienced guitar player called Fulton Allen - later to be known as Blind Boy Fuller - which set Davis on the road to a lifelong passion for teaching guitar with the likes of Stefan Grossman, Woody Mann, the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Ernie Hawkins all having benefitted from the Reverend's tutorage.

In 1934, following a reconciliation of sorts with his mother, Davis experienced something of a spiritual awakening and, during the months of his mother's declining health leading up to her death from a heart disorder, he would learn to rely on God's love to get him through. Whilst dates are somewhat sketchy, it appears that Davis was ordained as a minister at Free Will Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina in 1937 leading him to combine his newfound passion for God with his considerable abilities as a blues guitarist to produce some of the most dynamic gospel music ever recorded.

Rev Gary Davis: The bluesman deserving "greatest guitarist" accolade

A couple of years before starting out as a preacher, Gary Davis was invited to record along with Blind Boy Fuller and washboard player Bull City Red at the American Record Corporation with two solo tracks "I'm Throwin' Up My Hands" and "Cross And Evil Woman Blues" being the first Davis songs to go down on acetate. A couple of days later, Fuller and Davis returned to the studio but the latter had made the decision to only perform spiritual numbers with "Lord, I'm The True Vine", "I Am The Light Of This World" and "O Lord, Search My Heart" and a handful of other familiar gospel tunes being laid down. The decision to play spirituals instead of more carnal blues numbers led to Davis joining the ranks of the likes of Reverend Edward Clayborn, Blind Joe Taggart and Blind Willie Johnson as a so-called guitar evangelist but ultimately would not have helped his first recordings sell well in a market hungry for secular blues music.

In the summer of 1939, despite his faltering first forays into recording, Davis was offered the opportunity to record in New York but turned it down on account of the modest fee being offered and a decision to spend more time preaching and singing in various churches and revival meetings around the Hayti district of Durham. By 1942, in dire straits financially, Davis' future wife Annie Belle Hicks came into his life and offered him a place to stay. Deeply religious and of the popular opinion of the time that blues music was of the devil, Annie's attitudes would further urge Davis to continue to exclusively play gospel songs - or at least when Annie was in earshot. In November 1943, Gary and Annie tied the knot although, due to doubts as to whether or not Davis had actually divorced his first wife, the legal legitimacy of the marriage has always been in question.

In January 1944, following Annie's relocation to the Big Apple a couple of months earlier, Gary Davis upped sticks and moved to the Bronx region of New York and, in order to put food on the table for him and his new wife, he sought out preaching opportunities in local churches and plied his trade musically on the hazardous Harlem streets. Before long, Davis met up with guitar and harmonica duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and played at parties held by legendary folk singer Leadbelly with luminaries like Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White in attendance. Perhaps thanks to mingling with more recognised folk and blues names or on account of his street singing visibility, Davis was invited to record eight songs for the Asch label in a single session which lasted under an hour - the undoubted highlight being the virtuoso instrumental "Soldier's Drill" (or "Civil War Parade") which still confounds guitar players to this very day. Unfortunately, commercial success continued to elude Davis with the gospel music market being flooded with harmony groups and gospel quartets at the expense of rough around the edges guitar evangelists like Davis.

Reverend Gary Davis effectively struck gold in January 1950 when he appeared at a memorial concert for the recently deceased Leadbelly at New York's Town Hall with his performance garnishing favourable reviews in high ranking publications like the New York Times. However, it wasn't until the late '50s that Davis' career would get the boost it deserved. American folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliot covered Davis' "Cocaine Blues" on his 'Jack Takes The Floor' album - released by British label Topic Records - thus ensuring that Davis' songs if not Davis himself were spreading across the pond and catching the attention of a new audience. For instance, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards is on record as stating that "Cocaine Blues" was the "crucial fingerpicking lick of the period" whilst "Streets Of London" singer Ralph McTell admitted to being "quite dumbfounded by the incredible fully pianistic (guitar) style" of Davis. In addition, Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch would hear Jack Elliot's cover of "Cocaine Blues" and seek out more of Davis' songs, eventually teaching Donovan how to play the Reverend's "Candy Man".

By the early '60s and with the folk revival in motion, Davis had begun playing folk festivals whilst building up a healthy roster of guitar students who would visit his and Annie's home in the Bronx. With Davis' reputation growing in the burgeoning New York folk scene, newcomer Bob Dylan's eponymous debut album featured "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" - a reworking of a rare secular Gary Davis song called "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You" which Davis had taught privately to student Dave Van Ronk who, in turn, would pass it on to Dylan. Further exposure would come when folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary chose to record "If I Had My Way" - a song they had heard Davis perform in Greenwich Village which sometimes went by the name of "Samson And Delilah". The song in question would feature on the trio's debut release and become a stalwart of their high profile live performances. Seizing the opportunity to earn some well-deserved royalties, Dave Van Ronk encouraged his mentor to attend a meeting with a copyright lawyer to ensure that he got due credit for writing the song. However, when pressed about whether or not he wrote the song, the Reverend adamantly insisted that he had not penned the number but instead God had. In reality, the song goes back at least to Blind Willie Johnson who recorded the number in the 1920s but, regardless, the royalties received from Peter, Paul and Mary's version would give Davis the financial boost for which he had been waiting his whole career.

Having lived hand to mouth for most of their married life, this financial windfall meant that in 1964 the Davises were able to move out of their ramshackle apartment in the Bronx and purchase a modest house in the more desirable Jamaica, Queens region of New York before later purchasing a second property in New Jersey. Busier than ever in terms of live performances, Davis began including more secular blues numbers into his live sets - partly encouraged by his students and other budding guitarists. It was during this time that the Reverend allegedly had a number of dalliances with women who came along to his gigs - either flirting openly on stage or going a bit further in private - but, other than reports of Davis' tendency to let his hands wander, any alleged affairs seem to have been kept hidden from Annie and the public eye.

Later in 1964 and largely spurred on by the British blues boom of the time, Davis would make his first visit to the UK as part of the American Blues and Gospel Caravan which also featured the likes of Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. On returning to America, Davis would continue to tutor his willing and mostly white students - including future Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat And Tears and Gary Davis devotee Stefan Grossman - and the Reverend and Annie opened up their home to anyone who was willing to learn in acts of kindness that transcended the racial tensions of the time.