a sketch of Reverend Gary Davis by Rory Block
Reverend Gary Davis, born April 30, 1896, died May 5, 1972, was an amazing guitarist and a remarkable person.  This website is dedicated to honoring him and his legacy.
click here to return to the Rev. Davis home pageread news about Rev. Davis, including recent and upcoming releasesdiscographygo to a list of songs by Rev. Davis, including lyrics and links for purchasing tablatureread stories about Rev. Gary Davispictures, paintings, sketches and memorabiliainstructional books and videos on how to play the Reverend's songslinks to other websites related to Rev. DavisFrequently asked questions like who has publishing rights to the Reverend's songs, how to contact the webmaster, site map and more


home > biography


Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, not to mention Davis's own releases.

From the perspective of his one hundredth birthday (April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina -- he died on May 5, 1972 in Hammonton, New Jersey), the Davis legacy looms especially large. Early musical experiences at Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina, were at the core of strong religious convictions that helped him cope with blindness, and in 1933 he was ordained as minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. For years he toured as a singing gospel preacher and also sang on the streets, mostly in Durham. During this period he crossed paths and eventually recorded with Blind Boy Fuller and other "Piedmont style" musicians, including Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.

By 1940 Reverend Davis had found his way to New York City, where he was ordained minister of Missionary Baptist Connection Church. Here his recording career began in earnest, first for Asch and Folkways Records (now available on Smithsonian/Folkways), and later for Prestige (now available on Fantasy).

Starting in the late 1950's, as folk music became popular on campuses and in coffee houses, Davis was "discovered" by a largely educated, middle-class audience that, at least at first, was more interested in his hot guitar licks and blues-holler style of singing than in his specific religious message. While the Reverend was not above responding to this more secular audience (for whom temporal songs like "Cocaine" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" were as exciting as gospel compositions like "Samson and Delilah" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy"), he always considered his work to be essentially religious in nature. When students like Dave Van Ronk journeyed uptown to learn the intricacies of "Soldiers Drill" (an instrumental reworking of a couple of Sousa marches, probably remembered from childhood), Reverend Davis would extend the lesson with preaching, food and companionship. In this way he became an important mentor to the folk music revival, and eventually performed at many festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others. Eventually he toured in Britain, as well, where critic Robert Tilling, writing in Jazz Journal, called him "One of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers.

By the 1960's Davis was represented by Folkore Productions, which also published his songs under the imprint of Chandos Music (ASCAP). Chandos and Folklore continue to administer on behalf the Reverend Gary Davis Estate, whose main beneficiary, the widow Annie Davis, dwelled for many years in the Reverend's proudest legacy, a brick house in Queens, New York.

(the biography above was copied from the Folklore Productions website)

The Reverend Gary Davis
by Bruce Eder, All-Music Guide

In his prime of life, which is to say the late '20s, the Reverend Gary Davis was one of the two most renowned practitioners of the East Coast school of ragtime guitar; 35 years later, despite two decades spent playing on the streets of Harlem in New York, he was still one of the giants in his field, playing before thousands of people at a time, and an inspiration to dozens of modern guitarist/singers including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Donovan, and Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder, who studied with Davis.

Davis was partially blind at birth, and lost what little sight he had before he was an adult. He was self-taught on the guitar, beginning at age six, and by the time he was in his 20s he had one of the most advanced guitar techniques of anyone in blues -- his only peers among ragtime-based players were Blind Arthur Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie Johnson. Davis himself was a major influence on Blind Boy Fuller. Davis's influences included gospel, marches, ragtime, jazz, and minstrel hokum, and he integrated them into a style that was his own. In 1911, when Davis was a still teenager, the family moved to Greenville, SC, and he fell under the influence of such local guitar virtuosi as Willie Walker, Sam Brooks and Baby Brooks. Davis moved to Durham in the mid-'20s, by which time he was a full-time street musician, and celebrated not only for the diversity of styles that his playing embraced, but also for his skills with the guitar, which were already virtually unmatched in the blues field.

Davis went into the recording studio for the first time in the '30s with the backing of a local businessman. Davis cut a mixture of blues and spirituals for the American Record Company label, but there was never an equitable agreement about payment for the recordings, and following these sessions, it was 19 years before he entered the studio again. During that period, he went through many changes. Like many other street buskers, Davis always interspersed gospel songs amid his blues and ragtime numbers, to make it harder for the police to interrupt him. He began taking the gospel material more seriously, and in 1937 he became an ordained minister. After that, he usually refused to perform any blues. Davis moved to New York in the early '40s and began preaching and playing on streetcorners in Harlem. He recorded again at the end of the 1940s, with a pair of gospel songs, but it wasn't until the mid-'50s that a real following for his work began developing anew. His music, all of it now of a spiritual nature, began showing up on labels such as Stinson, Folkways, and Riverside, where he recorded seven songs in early 1956.

Davis was "rediscovered" by the folk revival movement, and after some initial reticence, he agreed to perform as part of the budding folk music revival, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, where his raspy voiced sung sermons, most notably his transcendent "Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)" -- a song most closely associated with Blind Willie Johnson -- and "Twelve Gates to the City," were highlights of the procedings for several years. He also recorded a live album for the Vanguard label at one such concert, as well as appearing on several Newport live anthology collections. He was also the subject of two television documentaries, one in 1967 and one in 1970. Davis became one of the most popular players on the folk revival and blues revival scenes, playing before large and enthusiastic audiences -- most of the songs that he performed were spirituals, but they weren't that far removed from the blues that he'd recorded in the 1930s, and his guitar technique was intact. Davis's skills as a player, on the jumbo Gibson acoustic models that he favored, were undiminished, and he was a startling figure to hear, picking and strumming complicated rhythms and countermelodies. Davis became a teacher during this period, and his students included some very prominent White guitar players, including David Bromberg and the Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen (who later recorded Davis's "I'll Be Alright" on his acclaimed solo album Quah!).

The Reverend Gary Davis left behind a fairly large body of modern (i.e. post-World War II) recordings, well into the 1960s, taking the revival of his career in his stride as a way of carrying the message of the gospel to a new generation. He even recorded anew some of his blues and ragtime standards in the studio, for the benefit of his students.

~ Bruce Eder, All-Music Guide

(The biography above was copied from SonicNet)


by Paul Andersen Contemporary Musicians, April 1997 (Volume 18)

Born April 30, 1896 in Laurens County, SC. Died May 5, 1972 in Hammenton, NJ, son of John and Evelina Davis; married Annie Bell Wright, 1937.

Started playing guitar at age six; became a street singer, playing ragtime, spirituals and dance music; moved to Durham, North Carolina, 1927; became an ordained Baptist minister, 1933; made first recordings with the American Record Company, 1935; moved to Mamaroneck, New York, then New York City, 1940; sang on the streets of Harlem and preached at the Missionary Baptist Connection Church; recorded on Stinson Records, Riverside, Prestige and Folkways; recorded Harlem Street Spirituals, Riverside Records, 1956; taught guitar to many aspiring musicians, such as Dave Van Ronk and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir; toured Great Britain, 1964; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1968; appeared in movie Black Roots, 1970.

Gary Davis's finger-picking guitar style influenced many other musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan. These musicians in turn delivered his bluesy gospel message to a world-wide audience. Songs like "Baby, Can I Follow You Down," "Candy Man," and "Samson and Delilah" define the common perception of American folk blues.

According to guitarist and author Stefan Grossman, Davis said he was three weeks old when he became blind from chemicals put in his eyes. Despite this affliction, he showed musical talent immediately, making his first guitar from a pie pan and a stick before he was ten.

One of eight children, Gary was raised by his grandmother on a farm near Greenville, South Carolina after his father decided that his mother could not care for him properly. In the South of the early 1900s street bands provided entertainment, often traveling through the small towns on wagons. The music the young Davis picked up on was a lively combination of spirituals sung in black churches, square dance music, and marches by popular figures such as John Phillips Sousa. Davis's distinctive style can be seen as an attempt to translate these types of music to the guitar. In an interview with Sam Charters, Davis said of his chosen instrument: "The first time I ever heard a guitar, I thought it was a brass band coming through. I was a small kid and I asked my mother what it was and she said that was a guitar."

As a youth, Davis sang at the Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina. Later, he played in a string band in Greenville and learned to read Braille at the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg. After slipping on ice and breaking his wrist, the bones were set badly, and he was forced to play with an oddly cocked left hand. This may have become an advantage as it allowed him to finger the chords in a unique way. In 1931 Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he met Blind Boy Fuller, another of many blind street musicians of the time. Music was often the only occupation available to these men and their ranks boasted such legendary figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Blind Eubie Blake, Georgia's Blind Willie McTell and Louisiana's Blind Willie Johnson. From the necessity of playing on the street came a style that was forceful and clear, with crowd-pleasing melodies around which the singer invented showy guitar riffs.

While in Durham, Davis met and married his first wife, but left her after discovering she had been unfaithful. He then moved to Washington, North Carolina and became an ordained minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in 1933. Davis and Blind Boy Fuller journeyed to New York City in 1935 to record for the American Record Company. Although Fuller and another blues singer, Bull City Red, were the more famous participants in these sessions, Davis was able to lay down 15 tracks, among them "I Saw the Light," "I Am the Light of the World," and "You Got to Go Down." Other musicians who recorded this brand of music, which came to be known as the "Piedmont style," included guitarist Brownie McGhee and his partner, harmonica player Sonny Terry.

In 1937 Davis married his second wife, Annie Wright, and together they moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where she found work as a housekeeper. The city's location on the Long Island Sound was close enough to New York City to put Davis in touch with the thriving music business there. He began to record again, making records for producer Moses Asch, and then for the record labels Folkways and Prestige. In 1940 Davis and his wife moved to Harlem to a house on 169th Street where they stayed for the next 18 years. There, Davis became a minister at New York's Missionary Baptist Connection Church and also taught guitar.

In 1974, Davis described his teaching style for Blues Guitar: "Your forefinger and your thumb -- that's the striking hand, and your left hand is your leading hand. Your left hand tells your right hand what strings to touch, what changes to make. That's the greatest help! You see, one hand can't do without the other." This finger- picking style was capable of maintaining a melodic line while inserting complex harmonies. "Soldiers Drill," for example, was an instrumental reworking of some Sousa marches. Davis used a large six-string guitar, which he affectionately called "Miss Gibson" after the guitar's manufacturer. Reverend Gary usually tuned the guitar to a relatively difficult E-B-G-D-A-E configuration rather than the "open" tuning favored by most of his fellow street musicians (who could make chords by simply barring across a fret). This provided him with a more complex set of chord possibilities. He alternated major chords and sevenths to give his music the dissonance characteristic of the blues, while picking a melody and variations of the melody. In the liner notes to Davis' album Say No to the Devil, critic Larry Cohn compared his instrumental virtuosity in this regard to that of classical guitarist Andres Segovia and banjo player Earl Scruggs.

Folk music experienced a popular revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a growing audience on college campuses and among hipsters in places like lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a successful version of Davis's "Samson and Delilah," also known as "If I Had My Own Way," originally a song by Blind Willie Johnson. Other young musicians eager to hear the genuine down-home blues flocked to Davis as well. David Bromberg, Taj Mahal, and Dave Van Ronk are among the many guitar players to absorb the Reverend Gary's phrases and intonations first-hand. Davis's guitar lessons at his house were often accompanied by food and drink; invariably, they contained pungent advice on many different subjects, especially religion. Davis was in his late fifties by this time, and played mostly gospel and traditional folk songs, having given up the lascivious saloon ditties of his youth.

The resurgence of American roots music and its practitioners found Davis performing at folk festivals around the country, including the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His fame ultimately increased to the point that he was asked to tour Europe. Hearing him in 1962, English music critic Robert Tilling of Jazz Journal called him "one of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers." In 1968 Davis bought a house in the New York City borough of Jamaica, Queens, and continued to teach and perform in the area, always accessible to scholars and the new generation of country blues guitarists. On May 5, 1972, he suffered a heart attack while on the way to a performance in Newtonville, New Jersey. He died at William Kessler Memorial Hospital and is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.

More than two decades after his death, the influence of Reverend Gary Davis can still be felt. As each new generation is introduced to blues, folk, and other forms of traditional American music, Davis's signature guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals continue to move, entertain, and educate.

read an interview of Rev. Gary Davis by Stefan Grossman

View a photo of his grave and read his obituary from the New York Times.



home | news | biography | discography | songs | stories | visuals | how to play | links | FAQ