Friday, February 17, 2017

Say No To the Devil - The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis - Ian Zack

I discovered the Rev Gary Davis a number of years ago and have been picking up what I can from the man when I find things and finally got this biography on him for Xmas (thanks Melanie!). While he has never become the household name that blues guitarists like Robert Johnson have - partially due to his insistence on mostly playing religious songs - his skill on the guitar is extraordinary and he is revered among those in the know.

Plenty of familiar names appear here regularly:  folk singers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Harry Chapin, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and more, as well as rockers like Jorma and Jack Cassidy of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna and more, along with bluesmen Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and many others that Davis played with and rubbed shoulders with and taught as he lived in New York City during the town's folk/blues boom. Lots of his students became ardent promoters, locally and farther, of the man's talents as they either became more well-known than the master. Davis' career parallels the 60's Folk revival - which, of course, helped Davis - and groups like Peter Paul and Mary covered his songs, which changed his life financially and dramatically.

Due to this help from colleagues, fans and students, he was able to begin a career as a touring musician - starting when he was in his 60's! Throughout his life he would continue to preach in small, local Baptists churches, but he was able to finally stop busking on the street. As with many religious men, he had his share of temptations, from women on the road (when his wife was left at home) to alcohol - which he would imbibe in to excess and which would eventually hurt his live reputation

Towards the end of the 60's, the folk revival began to fade with the emergence of folk rock, acid rock, hard rock and other genres and the Reverend's live bookings began to diminish. But, the Rev did record more albums, playing multiple instruments, and an anthology of his earlier work also was released, which helped to spread his word and helped financially. Of course, other covers of his tunes - or his arrangements - by artists, from Hot Tuna to the Rolling Stones (Davis got partial songwriting credit for "You Got to Move", even though it was an older traditional number and the Stones took their version from Mississippi Fred McDowell), gave him money to prosper, as well.

Eventually, age mixed with the toll of life on the road for a man of his age, caused his health to deteriorate and he eventually passed away from a heart attack in the early 70's, while he was in his early 70's. His wife, Anna, lived a much longer life - she died at 102! - and while her finances suffered after his demise, she was able to remain reasonably comfortable in her later years.

Ian Zack is a compelling writer and keeps the story moving throughout, giving a full picture of this religious man who wrestled with his fair share of demons, but was, by all accounts, a kind and giving man who loved his music and his students. A fine read!