Reverend Gary Davis

Reverend (Blind) Gary Davis (born Gary D. Davis, April 30, 1896 – died May 5, 1972) was a gospel and blues singer and masterful  acoustic guitarist.  He was a beloved mentor to many folk and blues legends including Dave Van Ronk, Roy Book Binder, Stefan Grossman, Ernie Hawkins, Rory Block, David Bromberg and Woody Mann to name a few.  His finger picking style was a major influence on other regional musicians of his time, most notably Blind Boy Fuller, a prime exponent of the Piedmont guitar style in the 1930s.  

Davis produced a polyphonic style of playing on six and twelve string guitar with the use of his thumb and index finger of his picking hand.  His repertoire was comprised of military marches, country instrumentals, Piedmont blues guitar style songs, church hymns, Gospel songs, popular tunes and original compositions.  "Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From", "She's Funny That Way" and "Hesitation Blues are a few of my personal favorites.

Born in Laurens County, South Carolina, he was the only child of eight born to his mother that survived to adulthood. Poorly treated by his mother, his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother.  His father was later shot and killed when Gary was 10 years old. His blindness, from early childhood from what he described as "sore eyes" did not seem to impede his ability to play.  

At 18, Davis applied and was granted a scholarship at the South Carolina Institution for the Education for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs, Spartanburg, where he learned to read Braille. In the early 1920s he busked and played in a string band in Greenville.  Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Davis migrated to "Bull City" alternate name for Durham, North Carolina, a major center of black culture. There he collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene, including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red.  In 1935, Davis, Fuller, and Red were introduced to the American Record Company by a local supporter and store keeper, J.B. Long. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis's career. Following his ordination to a Baptist minister in 1937, Davis began to prefer inspirational gospel music but would play Gospel-Blues like "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and Samson and Delilah."

Davis married Annie Bell Wright in 1937, a deeply spiritual woman who was devoted to him until his death.  By the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline, so Davis  and Annie Bell moved to Mamaroneck, New York.  Later that year they would relocate to 169th Street in Harlem, where he became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church.  His busking and preaching on the streets of New York earned him the appellation "Harlem Street Singer."

His guitar lessons and those who studied with him are legendary.  A single lesson could last all day and into the night.  Roy Book Binder who studied with Davis and became his driver to and from gigs for a period of time, recalls that lessons could last all day, include a meal or two and cost as little as five dollars.  During the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, Davis toured Europe and played several folk festivals including the Cambridge and Newport Folk Festivals.

In 1968, Davis bought a house in Jamaica, Queens and continued to perform in the New York and New Jersey area.  On May 5th, 1972, he suffered a heart attack on the way to a gig and died at William Kessler Memorial Hospital in Hammonton, New Jersey and was buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynnbrook, New York.

His widow Anne survived Davis by twenty five years, living to 101.  She remained active in the church, took in boarders and kept in touch with some of Davis' former pupils.

A partial discography includes: "Blues & Ragtime"  "Live at Newport"  "Little More Faith"  "Say No to the Devil"  "Pure Religion & Bad Company"  "Harlem Street Singer"

3 comments

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  • Anya

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    That is a great story, I look forward to more history of blues legends. I love the Queen Bees program. The little bit that I learned makes me hungry for more. How about the next blog be one of these fine women - maybe Ma Rainey? Their journey was different from the men of the same era. Thanks for keepin' blues alive and vibrant!

    That is a great story, I look forward to more history of blues legends. I love the Queen Bees program. The little bit that I learned makes me hungry for more. How about the next blog be one of these fine women - maybe Ma Rainey? Their journey was different from the men of the same era. Thanks for keepin' blues alive and vibrant!

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