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.
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Stories

What was the Reverend like as a person?

 

For example, stories abound that after Rev. Davis was famous, and had many recordings and played many famous venues, he still gave guitar lessons for $5 in his home, which could sometimes last all day and include dinner.

 

If you have a story to share about Rev. Davis, please email it to the webmaster.

 

Buffy St. Marie:
"I did a tour with Gary Davis, Paul Simon and Ramblin' Jack. We did this tour by car. We were driving like heck through these winding roads. Gary Davis couldn't see the turns, so he'd be flying all over the place. When he finally got out of the car, he kept saying, 'Free at last. Free at last.'" (1)

Herb Gart:
"Once, Buffy Ste. Marie was touring with Rev. Gary Davis, and the Reverend was spending the entire tour trying to feel her up. Pretending to fall out of the car -- whatever he could do." (1)

Paula Ballan:
"For a blind man he could sure find a woman's parts real easy." (1)
Danny Kalb:
"I thought Rev. Gary Davis was absolutely the best American overall guitarist. He's a total genius. If he had sight he would have been more than a genius." (1)
Wavy Gravy:
"I was married by Rev. Gary Davis. Dylan was there. Paxton. Van Ronk. And they all sang 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee...'" (1)
Robert Shelton:
Before the end of 1961, he [BOB DYLAN] was talking about marriage... planning the ceremony in detail. One winter night at the White Horse, he told Suze and me how it would go: 'We'll get Reverend Gary Davis... to perform the ceremony. Naw, he can just sing the ceremony. And we'll have all the singers there.' (2)
Harry Lewman:
"Tiny Robinson and Jerry Ricks told me a funny story about the march song. Gary would play it for hours at a time - the same song. Finally, Tiny would tell him: "Gary, you have marched those guys all over the world, taken 'em into battle, shot 'em brought 'em back up again and marched them some more. Don't you think you can give them a rest now?"
"Did you know that Gary Davis could walk into a room, feel the walls and tell you what color the walls were painted? Tiny saw him do that often and finally realized that he really could do it."

Tom Kukes:
"I caught the Rev. at the Gaslight Lounge in the Village in about 1964. I was moved big time by the music but didn't know why. I was all of 18 yrs. old and was starting to pick some on an old Gibson entry level student guitar.

His instrument was most impressive. He that that old huge Gibson jumbo with the really cool pick guard. I just saw one like it (35 yrs. later) for about $10,000. I also saw him up close and personal at either the Retort Lounge or the Chessmate in Detroit. At 18 0r 19 I had no idea what I was looking at.

Thirty five years later I've still had a burning desire to learn to play the music I never learned as a youngster. I'll admit it's a little unusual for a 53 yr. old businessman who's starting to get old before my time to pick up this type of hobby. Perhaps playing a little "Davis" will keep me young or keep me from getting older any faster. By the way, I watched him do the WASHINTON POST MARCH and actually started learning it from a guy who actually went to NY to study with Davis. This is all a faded memory in 1999."

Mike Taub:
"I was fortunate enough to grow up in Saratoga Springs NY where there is a great coffeehouse called the Caffe Lena. I worked there washing dishes through high school, 1968-1972 and more, and saw the Rev. there in 1969. Roy Bookbinder was leading him around at that time. Gary played four nights, Thurs through Sun, and wore us all out. He smoked these huge cigars, and played until 2:00AM. We were all exhausted, but he kept going. Wouldn't quit. Amazing stamina.

I remember that during "The United States of America March" he got turned around and had his back to the audience. Roy said, " I hate having to do this" as he walked up to the stage and turned the great man around.

Gary's wife was also there, and whenever he started to play blues, she started saying something like, "Now, now Gary, no one wants to hear that trash. Play the gospel music." She was quite loud and persistent. Lena came into the back roomwhere we were all resting during the set and was rather flustered,"I was going to say something to that woman, but she is his wife!" Of course we wanted to hear anything Gary had to play.

Those were great times in Saratoga. An unbelievable group of people lived in town, attracted to the Caffe. Bromberg was getting his solo act together and played there a lot. Andy Cohen lived there for several years. I learned to play guitar from them, and it was great. In 1969 or 1970, Bruce 'Utah' Phillips moved to town and changed any number of peoples lives (mine included). Between the Caffe and his sheer force of personality he formed a folk music union, as he would call it. This collective was called the 'Wildflowers," and is a saga worthy of a book itself. It was actually registered as local of the IWW, as Bruce is an incorrigable Wobbly The union included Bruce, Andy Cohen, Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, Martin Grosswendt, and a few others. Kate McGarrigle was living in town at the time, with this great guitarist Roma Barron, but I'm not sure if they were members. I was a young high school kid who just was hanging out. The effect on me was incredible, and of course the music was indescribable. The union hung in there for a few years. My memory is that they went broke after a festival organizer ripped them off, but who knows?

One more. His last two recordings for Biograph, which include my all time favorite, 'Oh, Glory, How Happy I Am', were apparently all first takes. Seems The Rev. said if he played them twice they would have to pay him double!"

Rick Blaufeld:
Back in 1963, I had just started playing country blues, and was getting guitar lessons from any bluesman that would hold still long enough, including Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis. Usually I managed to corner them backstage at gigs, and was persistant enough to get them to show me a lot of stuff. Of course they were being very kind to me in the bargain!

One night, I went to a coffee house in Philadelphia called "The Second Fret" to hear Rev. Davis perform."Backstage" there was really upstairs, up a tight spiral staircase, with just room enough for one person at a time to pass. Now, as the Reverend was coming down the stairs, an attractive young woman was trying to go up. As she approached Rev. Davis, she piped, "'Scuse me, Reverend!" He at once reached out and accurately seized her by the buttocks, saying, "Did you say, 'Squeeze me, Reverend?'" Ignoring her outraged squeals, he managed to rub the entire length of his body against hers as she pushed past him. He then turned and seized the next person coming up the stairs in the same manner, who cried out, "Reverend, I'm a guy!" Rev. Davis did not immediately remove his hand, saying, "When you're blind, boy, it don't make no difference!"

Easy Ed:
"In the late 1970's I met Jerry Garcia, who had taken lessons from the Reverend. I asked him about Gary Davis, and Jerry indicated, among other things, that he didn't think that Reverend Gary Davis was involved with the psychedelic aspect of the 1960's San Francisco scene."
Barry Melton:
"In the early days of Country Joe and the Fish, me and most of other guys in the band lived next door to "The Jabberwock," a folk music nightclub in Berkeley. The club was owned by a big, friendly guy named Bill "Jolly Blue" Ehlert. The Jabberwock was only a postage-stamp sized place, so when Jolly Blue got an offer to do a Reverend Gary Davis show, he decided to promote it in the Berkeley Community Theatre. We were all in awe of "Rev" and it was decided that while he was in Berkeley, he would stay in our house. I remember he stayed there several days, as we sat about the kitchen playing music hour by hour. I think he'd played the "Ash Grove" down in L.A. and had dead time between playing there and playing in Berkeley--this was in late 1966 or early 1967.

And, by the way, way, your quote from Jerry Garcia expressing the belief that Rev had nothing to do with San Francisco psychedelia is stone wrong. The Rev DID participate in the psychedelic aspect of the San Francisco scene, at least to a limited degree while staying at our house.

Because I was the band's lead guitar player and--I believe--the guy in the band most in awe of Rev, I surrendered my room and bed for Rev to stay in. Things were fine for the first few days he was there: We'd wait for him to get up in the morning, cook him breakfast, take him on whatever errands he had to do, etc., and sit around, smoke, and play music all day and into the night. It was easy to forget that Rev was blind as we sat around the kitchen table, listening to his songs and stories hour after hour. Then the night of the big concert came and, as was the long-standing musical custom, the Rev was paid in cash at the conclusion of the gig. He brought me with him to collect the money and made me read off the denomination of each bill was it was counted into his hand, and I remember him stashing the larger portion of his money into the sound hole of his Gibson J-200, while leaving some travelling money rolled up in his pockets.

Well, the next morning I woke up and remember having to go into my room to get some clothes or something out of my chest of drawers. I was very quiet, as I could hear Rev snoring and didn't want to wake him. Well, I got whatever it was and I was headed toward the door when I heard in a commanding voice,"Don't move or you're dead!". I turned around to see Rev with a .38 revolver in his hand pointed in my general direction, but sort of moving around so as to cover a wider target area. I remember screaming something to the effect of, "No--don't shoot." Rev replied, "One wrong move and you're dead." Well, then I started talking a mile a minute..."Rev, it's me, it's Barry, don't shoot Rev...I was only getting something from my chest of drawers..." Finally, Rev said, "Is that you, Barry?" The incident was soon over, and I had escaped with me life. I guess, from his perspective, it must have been kind of weird to be alone, blind, on the road 3,000 miles from home and rooming with a bunch of lunatic young musicians many years his junior. But to this day, the picture of Reverend Gary Davis that sticks in my mind the most is early in the morning, half-awake and blind as a bat, with a .38 in his hand pointed in my general direction. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I'll never forget it."

Rolly Brown:
In the winter of 1969-70, I was co-chairing the Kent State Folk Festival in Kent Ohio. We ended up booking Rev. Gary Davis, largely because Folklore Productions, which handled many of the good folk acts at that time, had no one else available, and because I'd heard a recording of "12 gates to the city" and was impressed. Manny Greenhill warned us not to give the Reverend any booze. When my friend Don Hernstrom and I arrived to meet the plane, the Reverend was nowhere to be seen. We finally asked a stewardess if anyone was still on the plane. She gave us a withering look and sent us back, where we found the Reverend (who was accompanied by his 13 year old grand-daughter) asleep in his seat with an empty fifth of whiskey portruding from his pocket. We woke him up and got underway. He was affable enough, but kept saying, "I shoulda brought my gun..." with references to what he'd do if he didn't get paid the agreed-upon amount.

(Years later I read James Taylor's account of his first gig. He'd opened for the Reverend at a club on Martha's Vineyard and, when the owner refused to pay Davis and Taylor the amount agreed upon, Davis, [he was BLIND, remember], had indeed pulled a revolver and waved it around, maybe even shot once or twice, until the payment was received.)

Anyhow, the Reverend made it clear, in terms that echoed Muhammad Ali, that he was "the greatest", and no one had ever been better. That evening, as we waited backstage for his performance, and he listened to several student acts performing folk, blues, and singer/songwriter stuff, he seemed a bit more despondent. The quality of the acts was technically pretty good, and the Reverend said to me something to the effect of "I USED to be the greatest, but I am not now what I once have been..."

Well, I led him onto stage for the final set of the night, not knowing quite what to expect. He was playing his Bozo 12 string. I think he'd quit using the six because his coordination was going a bit and he felt the 12 sounded fuller. He started out with "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning". He looked like he might totter over at any second, but the voice and the guitar were big and strong, and the audience was transfixed. This was a bunch of white-bread college kids who thought "folk music" was Judy Collins and "blues" was Cream.
Davis went on with one amazing rendition after another, filled with good humor and spirit. At the end of his set, these amazed college kids gave him SEVEN encores, and wouldn't let him off the stage. My eyes brim up a bit as I write this.

The next morning, we arrived at the Reverend's lodgings (campus guest housing) early and hung out with him until his afternoon workshop. Every time a young woman (the place was crawling with pretty coeds) would enter the room, the Reverend would say, "Ya know....the doctor says.......if I don't get a purty girl to kiss me every day......I'm gonna DIE!!" Damned if it didn't work every time! He was having a great old time, collecting kisses from one young sweetie after another.

I had a Gibson "country western" model at this time, and I played a bit for him (at his request). He kindly said, "You'll be alright...you just keep on". He took the guitar from me, brought it up to about an inch away from his face, and said, "Hmmmmm....mahogany!" I guess he had that little bit of sight. Then we went off to his 2 hour workshop, where he sat in the student union basement and played for 3 hours straight. I was just amazed by his hands, and the music that came out of his guitar. There was counterpoint and melody and bass movement, but his left hand seemed always to be holding a chord. It totally transformed my vision of how the left hand should operate. To this day, that weekend probably did more for my guitar playing development than any other 48 hours in my 39 years of intensive guitar playing.

At the end of the afternoon, we had two hours to kill till we left for the airport. Reverend Davis had already been playing guitar all day long, but he turned toward me and asked, "Well, what do you want to learn?" I was dumbfounded by his generosity, but recovered quickly, and started naming tunes: Buck Dance, Slow Drag, Talk on The Corner, 12 Sticks,....he went through them all pretty patiently. I didn't ask questions because I figured he probably was just a great "ear" player, but when I had trouble following him on the downward
chord sequence in Slow Drag, he finally, exasperated, said "C, Bb6, F with an A in the bass, and Ab!"...so much for my stereotypes about old illiterate blues guys...

After two hours of this, we took the Reverend to the airport and sent him off to New York. I think it was about a year later that he passed away. I envy those guys who got to study with him for years in New York, but I also value the brief time I spent with him, and I worked hard to make the most of it for a long time afterward.

I saw a lot of the old blues guys perform: Lightnin' Hopkins, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, and others. None came close to Gary Davis, in my opinion. And none was more beloved. He was a man of great spirit, and he WAS the greatest.

 

(1) quoted from "Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene" by Robbie Woliver, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986, pp. 45-46.

(2) No Direction Home, London, 1987, p. 131

 

 

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