Lins Honeyman tells the fascinating tale of the street musician who became a folk and rock mentor, REVEREND GARY DAVIS
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The following year, Davis revisited the UK as part of the American Folk Music and Blues Tour which kicked off in Birmingham at the start of June, 1965. His matchless guitar style caught the attention of all and sundry with a young Eric Clapton reportedly grabbing the chance to watch Davis play in a guitar shop before appearing - along with British blues bigwigs Long John Baldry and John Mayall - with the Reverend at a blues festival in Uxbridge near the end of the tour. Returning to his homeland, it became clear that Davis was more popular in the UK than with American music lovers who, by now, were in the midst of the Beatlemania that was sweeping the nation.
In the latter part of his career, alcohol problems began to threaten the Reverend Gary Davis' performances with pre-concert whiskey drinking resulting in him becoming difficult and short-tempered or not appearing on stage at all. When he was able to take the stage, he would often to sermonize to a largely unbelieving crowd at the expense of the songs that they had come to hear. Attempts to limit his drinking by his longstanding manager Manny Greenhill were only partially successful with Davis himself blaming the devil for putting whiskey in his way. Suggestions by those nearest to him that he was getting too old for the life of a travelling musician met with the steely response that "God put me on this earth to spread his Gospel and sing his truth, and Lo' help me, that's what I'm bound to do until the day he knocks me down dead."
Nonetheless, bookings started to diminish and Davis found himself at home with Annie more allowing him to concentrate on his ministry and teaching activities. Perhaps surprisingly, the Reverend resumed his recording career with an album titled 'O Glory: The Apostolic Sessions' which was released posthumously by Adelphi Records. In March 1971, Davis recorded a remarkable 25 songs in a five hour session for New York label Biograph - the undoubted highlight being a stunningly eerie version of Rev Edward Clayborn's "I Heard The Angels Singing" which, with hindsight, marks Davis' recognition of the fact that his time on earth would not be long.
The following month, Davis would get more recognition thanks to a cover of "You Gotta Move" - a stalwart of Davis' set throughout the years - by none over than the Rolling Stones on their multi-million selling 'Sticky Fingers' album. However, the Stones chose to credit the recently re-discovered bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell as the writer of the song before the band's manager Allen Klein insisted that the song be credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on future pressings. Watching from the sidelines, Gary Davis' manager Manny Greenhill pursued the claim that "You Gotta Move" was in fact his client's song and managed to secure copyrights for both McDowell and Davis. In reality, the song originated in the black church with McDowell, Davis or the Stones not having much right to claim composer credits.
In June 1971, Davis visited the UK for the last time before returning to New York and then heading back to Europe to play at a Belgian jazz and rock festival. Shortly after returning back home, Davis was admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke followed by a period of frequent bouts of ill health that culminated in a heart attack in February 1972. Regardless, the Reverend was determined to honour an invitation to play what would be his last official live appearance in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in the neighbouring town of Northport on 24th April and, with a sell-out crowd in front of him, eye witness reports suggest that the undeniably frail Davis played the gig of his life and departed the stage to a standing ovation.
A week or so later, just after his 76th birthday, Davis reported a pain down his arm and, instead of visiting a doctor, decided to accompany Annie on a car trip to their second home in Newtonville. A short while into the journey, Davis suffered a massive heart attack and was pronounced dead at 11.47am on 5th May 1972, leaving an understandably distraught Annie to be comforted by those who she and her late husband had taken into their home over the years.
Bizarrely, the Reverend Gary Davis' death certificate failed to mention his musical occupation - instead listing him only as a minister - and a humble funeral at Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church in the Bronx where Davis had often preached took place with very little mention of the music that had been such a big part of the recently departed singer's life. Only a small number of media publications mentioned his passing with those who did giving very little column space with factually suspect information about the Reverend.
Nonetheless, Davis' reputation as a virtuoso blues guitarist and songsmith continued to grow beyond the grave. In 1977, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne covered Davis' "Cocaine Blues" on his seminal 'Running On Empty' album whilst several Davis students including Stefan Grossman, Woody Mann, Roy Book Binder, Ernie Hawkins and Larry Johnson have all gone on to stylistically carry Davis' torch and have carved successful musical careers for themselves whilst ensuring that they refer back to their mentor at every opportunity. In addition, the market has been flooded with a plethora of Reverend Gary Davis albums from studio sessions and live performances to tapes his students made during lessons or workshops. Tribute records by the likes of Rory Block and other prominent blues artists have also seen the light of day whilst the Trevor Laurence and Simeon Hutner-directed documentary film Harlem Street Singer and Ian Zack's excellent Say No To The Devil biography shine more light on one of the music world's greatest but least celebrated talents.
Perhaps the last word should go to someone who knew the Reverend Gary Davis personally, guitarist Larry Johnson who had this to say shortly after his tutor and friend's death: "I admired him most for, first of all, he being born blind, in the South, black, had everything against him. Everything. Nothing did he have in his favour. And he managed to become a master musician. And then he managed to influence other musicians from here to England. And I think for him to do that, even to keep a mind good enough to do that, is something else."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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