Friday, March 5, 2010

Some Unsung Bluesmen

Last weekend, I picked up the Music issue of The Oxford American (which has only been on sale for about four or five months….okay, so I don’t get out that much). I enjoy reading every issue when I can, but the annual music issue is always special because that particular issue always includes a CD of music from southern musicians and always has a good blend of blues, soul, country, funk, zydeco, rock & roll, and roots music. It’s a fairly easy way to become acquainted with new acts of all genres that you might have missed otherwise. The issue also features short profiles on the artists featured on the CD. It’s definitely worth seeking out every year.

This year, The OA has started including an additional CD with music from a particular southern state, which makes it an even better purchase. For their inaugural year, the magazine focuses on music from Arkansas. Unfortunately, even though there have been a fair number of bluesmen who were born in Arkansas (Luther Allison, Robert Lockwood Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson, Louis Jordan), none of them are represented on the disc. Of course, other artists like Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Al Green, and Glen Campbell were left off, too. Apparently, the intent was to focus on lesser known musicians, but it’s not like the aforementioned bluesmen are household names.

Anyway, that’s not the reason I’m posting this. The reason is because of one of the bluesmen who did make the grade on the CD……Larry Davis. Davis is known as the original performer of the song, “Texas Flood,” which Stevie Ray Vaughan made his own in the early 80’s. A lot more people have heard SRV’s version than Larry Davis’, but the original was a pretty strong number in its time. Fenton Robinson, a longtime friend and associate of Davis, played lead guitar on the original, which was released on Duke Records in 1958. Here's one of those photo/videos from YouTube of Davis' version of "Texas Flood."

Davis was regarded by many, including himself, as one of the best blues singers there was. He was certainly not lacking in self-confidence. In the short profile on Davis in The OA, Jim O’Neal recounts a story from Willie Cobbs (another Arkansas bluesman), who remembered that in Memphis one time, Davis needled B. B. King, “Everybody in this town tells me I can sing better than you,” to which B. B. replied, “Well, I'm taking my non-singing ass over to do a show at the auditorium tonight. Where are you going?" Despite that exchange, Davis was the first artist to release an album on King's short-lived Virgo label, an album which featured a large number of B. B. King covers. King also spoke highly of Davis in the notes on the back cover of the album.

Over time, Davis also developed into a fine guitar player. He recorded somewhat erratically over his career, but all of his releases that are in print are excellent. His last recording, Sooner or Later, was released in 1992, about two years before his death from cancer, and features some of his best performances. "Goin' Out West" was one of the best tracks on the disc and showcases his guitar as well as his vocals. If you're not familiar with Larry Davis, you owe it to yourself to check him out.

While we're here, let's catch a video of Davis' friend Fenton Robinson from the 1970's. Robinson was dubbed "The Mellow Blues Genius" by his Japanese fans and his jazz-tinged blues guitar was wonderful to hear. Robinson, like Davis, never really caught a break though he did record a bit more (including a three-disc stint with Alligator). His signature song, "Somebody Loan Me A Dime," was done by Boz Scaggs in the late 60's and Scaggs ended up with composer credits, resulting in a long legal battle. He also ended up doing some time in jail for vehicular manslaughter in the 70's. He passed away in the late 90's, one of the more underrated bluesmen of his time, but "Somebody Loan Me A Dime" is widely recognized as a blues standard today, and has been covered by dozens of artists.

Closing things out today is a track from that famous non-singer, B. B. King. This is an instrumental, "Blues Boy Tune," from his Blues on the Bayou CD of the late 90's. Who knows how far he could have gone if he had only been able to sing as well as Larry Davis.

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