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 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. 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 s, 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 , 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 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. Electronic Folk International. Jazz Latin New Age. Aggressive Bittersweet Druggy. Energetic Happy Hypnotic. Romantic Sad Sentimental. Sexy Trippy All Moods. Drinking Hanging Out In Love.
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My Profile. This gives listeners a chance to hone in on [sic] his dexterous guitar skills, blending ragtime, folk, and blues, usually on guitar though he plays banjo on a couple of songs, and harmonica on one. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Reverend Gary Davis. Retrieved October 31, The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. ISBN
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