Jesse Ed Davis: "I
Just Play the Notes That Sound Good"
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Charismatic Jesse Ed Davis was truly one
of the rare breed known as a
“guitarist’s guitarist.” On session
after session in the late 1960s and
1970s, he epitomized the concept of
playing for the song, drawing deeply
from country, blues, rock, and R&B
influences without mimicking anyone. He
recorded with three of the Beatles and
blues giants John Lee Hooker, B.B. King,
Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Albert King. He
appeared in the film Concert for
Bangladesh and played sessions with Eric
Clapton, Gene Clark, Neil Diamond, John
Trudell, and many others. He released
three solo albums on major labels. And
yet despite these accomplishments, Jesse
Ed Davis remains best known for his work
on the early Taj Mahal albums and for
being “the guy who inspired Duane Allman
to play slide guitar.”
True, Jesse created the signature riff used by Duane for the Allman Brothers Band’s “Statesboro Blues,” as well as the bottleneck on Eric Clapton’s “Hello Old Friend.” But slide was just one facet of Davis’ widespread talent. He created many memorable hooks. Playing fingers-and-pick country on his trademark Telecaster, he could fire off multiple-string bends and double-stops as naturally as a Nashville cat. In blues settings, he made every note count, like a B.B. King or Mike Bloomfield. He delved into jazz. His uncanny feel for rock led to his becoming John Lennon’s guitarist of choice for the Rock ’n’ Roll album.
With his handsome features, long black hair, and moddish clothes, Davis cut a dashing figure onstage. He was one of very few Native Americans to achieve prominence in pop music, and today, 22 years after his untimely death, he’s regarded as a hero by many young Native Americans.
A full-blooded Kiowa Comanche, Jesse Edwin Davis III was born in September 21, 1944, in Norman, Oklahoma. Growing up on an Indian reservation, he found a childhood hero in Elvis Presley. As Jesse recounting in a 1974 Guitar Player magazine interview with Steve Rosen, “I used to tie a rope around this acoustic Stella guitar we had, put it over my neck, and play Elvis Presley records real loud. I’d stand in front of the mirror and mimic the words and watch myself. I wanted to be Elvis so bad.”
Influenced by Chuck Berry records, he began playing seriously while in seventh grade: “I learned how to play when my dad was taking lessons. When he’d go off to work, I’d get his Martin guitar and bang around on it. The first guitar that I had was a Silvertone my father bought for me at Sears, Roebuck. I used to just sit for hours and figure themes out. I had that Silvertone for a long time until I finally just wore it out. All this time, I had my eye on a Fender Telecaster that had been sitting around in this same store for years and years. It was brand-new, but nobody ever bought it. When I was about 16, my dad finally gave me that Telecaster, which I’ve played for many years. The guitar just struck a hidden chord deep within my soul.” He credited a local blues pianist, Wallace Thompson, for teaching him how to play blues, and played in a high school rock band with Michael Brewer, later of Brewer & Shipley.
Jesse taught guitar at a music store and briefly studied literature at the University of Oklahoma before going on the road at 18, with country singer Conway Twitty. “He’s one of the greatest downhome dudes and finest white blues singers I ever heard,” said Davis. “We’d go out on the road and barnstorm it up.” In 1965, Jesse made his recording debut on a Conway Twitty 45, “I Don’t Want to Cry.” He next recorded two singles with Jr. Markham & The Tulsa Review, for the obscure Uptown label. “After that,” he recalled, “I was just laying around playing with nobody for three years, until I started playing with Taj.”
Moving to Los Angeles in the mid 1960s, Davis became the pianist and guitarist in Taj Mahal’s band. Their debut album, called Taj Mahal, contains Davis’ groundbreaking performance of the old Blind Willie McTell song “Statesboro Blues.” Ironically, McTell, one of the great prewar slide guitarists, played the original version without a slide. “I had never really played bottleneck before that,” Davis explained in Guitar Player, “and so for that recording I just put a steel tube on my finger and worked up a line. I just played it in regular tuning. I didn’t know about open tunings until I saw Muddy Waters play at the Whisky in Los Angeles some time after that.” After his initial attempt in standard tuning, Davis settled on open D for slide. While in Los Angeles in 1967 recording with Hour Glass, Duane Allman went to see Taj Mahal play at a nightclub. After watching Jesse Ed Davis perform his slide version of “Statesboro Blues,” Allman, who’d never played slide before, spent many hours working out Jesse’s slide riff and used it to power the Allman Brothers Band’s signature song.
In 1968, Jesse played guitar, bass, and piano on Taj Mahal’s Natch’l Blues, a collection of old-time blues tunes. His to-the-point riffs, warm solos, and sparkling guitar-harmonica interplay with Taj Mahal helped gain the album considerable radio play and the “classic” status it enjoys today. (The 2000 re-release of Natch’l Blues on CD includes three bonus tracks highlighting Davis’ lead guitar style.) Soon after its release, Davis described his equipment: “I still play that Telecaster my dad bought me when I was 16. Fender equipment is my favorite; however, I’ve used Gibsons from time to time.” Asked to describe his relationship with Taj Mahal, Davis responded, “It was written. We’re two proud men, playing together.”
Davis was asked if he and Taj had grown up listening to the same old-time blues heroes. “No,” Davis responded, “I’ve just been into those guys for about a year. The cats I listened to were Jimmy Reed and cats like that. Chet Atkins and hillbilly music were really all you could find on the radio back there in Oklahoma. I never started to appreciate them until I started playing with Twitty – before that, it had always sounded real nasal and twangy, even more so than I sound. I also used to listen to the soul sessions they had back in Oklahoma. My dad’s a Dixieland fanatic, and he’s got a ten-foot stack of 78s of everybody from that era. I was into all those cats like Ted Lewis. Today my favorite guitarist is George Benson. I have a lot of respect for Charlie Christian, James Burton, Grady Martin, and Jerry Kennedy. I have a lot of admiration for Jaime [Robbie] Robertson, now with The Band.” Soon after recording Natch’l Blues, Jesse made a notable session appearance with an old friend from Oklahoma, pianist Leon Russell, and Marc Benno on Look Inside the Asylum Choir.
On Taj Mahal’s 1969 two-record album Giant Step/De Ole Folks, Davis was credited with playing organ, piano, and guitar. Gently chorused, Curtis Mayfield-derived fingerpicking made “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’),” which Davis co-wrote, a staple on FM radio stations, while “Six Days on the Road” provided a great platform for his country licks. Around this time, Jesse and Taj made cameo appearances on Mike Bloomfield’s Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West album.
Davis made an unforgettable appearance on British TV in 1969. In his book Clapton: The Autobiography, Eric Clapton describes the event: “I had a call from Mick asking me to come up to a studio in Wembley, where the Stones were recording a TV special called ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus.’ I was intrigued because he told me that another of the contributing artists was Taj Mahal, an American blues musician whom I really wanted to see. It was certainly an amazing lineup, and included, as well as Taj, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull, and The Who. It was an interesting gig. Mick played the ‘the ringmaster,’ complete with top hat and tails, and introduced different acts. Jesse Ed Davis, who played guitar with Taj Mahal, was brilliant.”
Jesse Ed Davis recorded his first solo album, Jesse Davis!, at Olympic Sound Studio in London in 1970. With its colorful Native American-influenced artwork, the self-titled album featured Leon Russell on piano, Eric Clapton on guitar on most tracks, and background singers Gram Parson, Merry Clayton, and Nikki Barclay of Fanny. Davis delivered several strong original rockers – “Every Night Is a Saturday Night” was a standout – but downplayed his own soloing abilities to allow room for Eric Clapton. The album won Jesse a legion of admirers but met mixed critical reviews.
In 1971, session offers began coming fast and furious. Davis produced the self-titled album debut of Gene Clark, formerly of the Byrds, drawing critical raves for playing “with the subtlety of a Robbie Robertson.” He added tracks of guitars to Marc Benno’s Minnows, taking a notable slide solo on “Speak Your Mind.” He ventured into jazz on keyboardist Ben Sidran’s Feel Your Groove, getting production credit for two tracks, and Charles Lloyd’s Warm Waters. He produced and arranged Roger Tillison’s Album, playing “electric and bottleneck guitar and banjo.” He tracked powerful riffs and bittersweet solos on the highly energetic album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, and rejoined Russell and Benno on Asylum Choir II. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina found him sharing guitar duties with Ry Cooder and Neil Young.
At blues sessions that year, Jesse played on four tracks of Albert King’s Lovejoy, and then went toe-to-toe with Joe Walsh on B.B. King’s L.A. Midnight. At his session for John Lee Hooker’s Endless Boogie, he played stand-out slide on the slow blues “We Might as Well Call It Through (I Didn’t Get Married to Your Two-Timing Mother).” On his final outing with Taj Mahal, Happy to Be Like I Am, he revisited old-time country blues, delved into Caribbean influences, and participated in a memorable band version of “Oh! Susanna.”
By far, though, Jesse’s biggest gig of 1971 was playing in the stage band at the Concert for Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison. On that August evening in New York City, Davis shared the stage with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Klaus Voorman, Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Carl Radle, and the Memphis Horns. Seeing Harrison’s melodic slide style up close influenced Davis to take his own bottlenecking beyond blues-rock realms. The film Concert For Bangladesh quickly made the rounds of theaters.
When Jackson Browne began assembling an all-star studio team for his 1972 debut album, Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using), the guitarists he called were Clarence White, Albert Lee, and Jesse Davis. Jesse reportedly soloed on the Browne’s first hit, “Doctor My Eyes.” Jesse picked up two production credits that year, for Gene Clark’s so-called “White Light” album and Jim Pulte’s Out the Window, which spotlighted his guitar, banjo, and backup singing. Davis also appeared on the Steve Miller Band’s Recall the Beginning and Marc Benno’s Ambush, on which he played slide. At his May 1972 with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Davis was joined in the studio by none other than John Lee Hooker, on-hand as a guest artist. Due to problems at the fledgling label, the resulting album, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ It’s a Sin to Be Rich, stayed in the can until 1992.
For Davis, though, the highlight of 1972 was the release of his most acclaimed solo album, Ululu. Critics hailed the title track and the cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever” as examples of the “ragged glory of unabashed rock and roll.” The core band featured Dr. John on keyboards, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums. Davis mixed originals – “Red Dirt Boogie, Brother,” “My Captain,” “Ululu,” and “Make a Joyful Noise” – with a spirited reading of “Oh! Susannah” and covers of George Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” The Band’s “Strawberry Wine,” and Leon Russell’s “Alcatraz.” He capped the album with the rollicking “Further on Down the Road,” which he’d written with Taj Mahal.
Early in 1973, Jesse played guitar and sang backup on Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, featuring many Roxy Music alumni, and joined a star-studded cast for Rod Taylor’s self-titled release on Asylum. He next played on Arlo Guthrie’s The Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, which also featured Ry Cooder and Clarence White. He also released his third and final solo album, the self-produced Keep Me Comin’, which was devoid of guest stars. Instead, Davis relied on studio stalwarts – drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Bob Glaub, and keyboardist James Gordon. He co-composed four of the songs with John Angelo, calling his “Who Pulled the Plug” one of “the great Okie classics.”
In reviews, Davis’ singing voice was compared to Leon Russell’s, which caused him to proclaim to Steve Rosen: “That’s a misconception – Leon Russell sounds like me! The truth is, Leon and I got drunk one night a little while back, and he finally says, ‘If you want to be a musician-turned-singer like me and Dr. John, but you don’t think you can sing, then just sing as loud as you can. Just turn it up as loud as you can stand it.’ So that’s what I did, and I found out that when you scream as loud as you can, you can really get off on it, just like playing a good guitar line or something.”
Asked about the music theory behind his playing, Davis responded, “I just play the notes that sound good. If you have to play a certain scale, then that’s cheating. You don’t even know what something’s going to sound like until you hear the note yourself. I just play what I like to hear—that’s all.”
In 1973, Davis listed his Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Gibson SG as his three favorite guitars. “The thing that I like about the SG is that the neck joins the body at the last fret, so you don’t have to mess around with it.” He explained that he favored the SG for slide, due to its thicker sound, and preferred the “thin metallic sound” of the Telecaster for slow blues. His collection at the time included another Telecaster with a humbucker pickup, a Fender Malibu, a Martin acoustic, a Yamaha 12-string, and a metal-bodied Dobro. He was using Ernie Ball Super Slinkies for the Tele and heavier Rock ’N’ Roll Regulars for the SG, and praised his pick of choice, a Fender Heavy, for its “strong, forward attack.” Jesse listed the Fender Vibro Champ as his all-around favorite amp in the studio, “because of the range of sounds I can pull from it.” He mentioned a Neumann 87 condenser as his favorite amp mike. Onstage, he preferred an Acoustic 155 for large venues and a Fender Bassman with four 10” J.B. Lansings speakers for more intimate settings.
Jesse’s celebrated collaborations with John Lennon began in 1974. He appeared first on the Walls and Bridges album, and then worked on what was to become Lennon’s Rock ’n’ Roll album. During the latter sessions, Lennon and Davis rolled tape on rock and roll classics by Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke, Link Wray, and Little Richard. Their version of Cooke’s “Stand by Me” provided Davis a perfect setting for melodic, multi-tracked slide lines reminiscent of George Harrison. The song was Lennon’s last hit of the decade. Davis also worked on Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, with Lennon producing. Critics were dumbfounded by the alcohol-fuelled release, with one writer describing it as “an utterly bewildering record that’s more baffling than entertaining.” The following year Davis was featured on Nilsson’s Duit On Mon Dei, also poorly received.
At other sessions, Davis appeared on Bert Jansch’s L.A. Turnaround, Brewer & Shipley’s self-titled debut, the Pointer Sisters’ That’s a Plenty, Gene Clark’s No Other, and Ringo Starr’s Goodbye Vienna, which featured the other three Beatles as well as Harry Nilsson, Robbie Robertson, and Steve Cropper. Davis was called back for Ringo’s Rotogravure sessions, attended by Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Dr. John, and the Brecker Brothers.
In 1975, George Harrison called in Jesse to be the second guitarist on his critically acclaimed Extra Texture album. Soon afterwards, four of the studio musicians who’d been at the sessions – David Foster, Danny Kortchmar, Paul Stallworth, and Jim Keltner – formed the studio band Attitudes and invited Jesse to play on their self-titled album, issued on Harrison’s Dark Horse label. Davis also played on David Bromberg’s “big band” album, Midnight on the Water, as well as on Jackie De Shannon’s New Arrangement, Eric Mercury’s self-titled debut, Keith Moon’s Two Sides of the Moon, teen idol David Cassidy’s The Higher They Climb, They Harder They Fall, and Dion’s Born to Be with You, which was given the wall-to-wall production treatment by Phil Spector. On Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing, Davis fit right in with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and received a songwriting credit. A lesser-known gem, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s Together in Concert, featured him playing folk, country, and blues solos in an unplugged setting.
The following year Davis joined scores of other musicians for the sessions for Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise, Geoff Muldaur’s Motion, and Tracy Nelson’s bluesy Time Is on My Side. He was the only guitarist on Van Dyke Parks’ The Clang of the Yankee Reaper, which included Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” and played on David Blue’s Cupid’s Arrows, Dunn & Rubini’s Diggin’ It, and Donovan’s Slow Down World. His best date of the year, though, came when Eric Clapton invited him to play on No Reason to Cry, which also featured Bob Dylan and The Band on various tracks. The stellar slide on “Hello Old Friend,” Clapton’s first Top-40 single in two years, was pure Jesse Ed Davis. “Eric always told me how much he admired my playing,” Davis remembered.
Sadly, 1976 was to be Jesse Ed Davis’ last year as major studio player. Drug and alcohol abuse, then prevalent among the musicians with whom Jesse was most closely identified, began taking a serious toll on his health. In 1977, Davis played on Long John Baldry’s Welcome to the Club and Leonard Cohen’s Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man. In 1978, he worked only on Ben Sidran’s Little Kiss in the Night, Brian Cadd’s Yesterdaydream, and Jack Nitzsche’s Blue Collar soundtrack. After his appearance on the 1979 A&M “concept” album Legend of Jesse James, there is no record of Jesse Ed Davis recording anything until 1985. During these years, Jesse reportedly lived day-to-day, battling his demons and occasionally undergoing treatment for his addictions.
Near the end of his life, Jesse Ed Davis went back to work with Indian activist/spoken word poet John Trudell, creating heavy “talk poems.” “I started out with just indigenous drums,” Trudell said, “but once I met the Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis in 1985, his incredible leads gave me the compulsion to rock the words.” They formed Graffiti Man, with Jesse playing guitar and keyboard in a four-man lineup. The band produced a mail-order cassette, titled A.K.A. Graffiti Man. Bob Dylan played it during intermission at his concerts and proclaimed it the “album of the year.” It was finally issued on CD in 1992. With heavy, bluesy guitar sweeping over an Indian chant, “Rockin’ the Res” was hailed as an anthem for a new generation.
Soon afterward, Davis suffered a stroke that temporarily paralyzed his picking hand. When he recovered, he joined up-and-coming slide guitarist Scott Colby on the acclaimed 1987 Slide of Hand album. “Jesse had a great touch for doing really emotional blues and country fills that were very sad and melancholy,” Colby said. In 1987, Davis and Trudell made a demo cassette called Heart Jump Bouquet, and these tracks are included in the Daemon box set John Trudell: The Collection 1983-1992. Warner Brothers’ 1988 Christmas album, Winter Wonderland, featured a final Davis track, “Santa Claus Is Getting Down.”
Jesse Davis spent his final days living in Long Beach, California, where he sometimes counseled at the American Indian Free Clinic. On June 22, 1988, he was found dead in a laundry room in Venice, California, reportedly of a heroin overdose. His body was returned to Oklahoma for a traditional Comanche burial. In 1998, his first two solo albums were issued on CD by Warner/Japan.
In 2002, Jesse Ed Davis was inducted along with Dave Brubeck and Patti Page into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. “Whether it was blues, country, or rock,” stated the official citation, “Davis’ tasteful guitar playing was featured on albums by such giants as Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, John Lennon, and John Lee Hooker, among others.” For a kid who used to imitate Elvis in front of a mirror, Jesse Ed Davis had truly come a long way.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.