Jump to content

Reverend Gary Davis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reverend Gary Davis
Davis in the 1960s
Davis in the 1960s
Background information
Birth nameGary D. Davis
Also known asBlind Gary Davis
Born(1896-04-30)April 30, 1896
Laurens, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedMay 5, 1972(1972-05-05) (aged 76)
Hammonton, New Jersey, U.S.
  • Guitar
  • vocals
  • banjo
Years active1930s–1970s

Gary D. Davis (April 30, 1896 – May 5, 1972),[1]: 285–6  known as Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Gary Davis, was a blues and gospel singer who was also proficient on the banjo, guitar and harmonica. Born in Laurens, South Carolina and blind since infancy,[2] Davis first performed professionally in the Piedmont blues scene of Durham, North Carolina in the 1930s, then converted to Christianity and became a minister. After moving to New York in the 1940s, Davis experienced a career rebirth as part of the American folk music revival that peaked during the 1960s. Davis' most notable recordings include "Samson and Delilah"[3] and "Death Don't Have No Mercy".[4]: 108 

Davis' fingerpicking guitar style influenced many other artists. His students included Stefan Grossman, David Bromberg, Steve Katz, Roy Book Binder, Larry Johnson, Alex Shoumatoff, Nick Katzman, Dave Van Ronk, Rory Block, Ernie Hawkins, Larry Campbell, Bob Weir, Woody Mann, and Tom Winslow.[5] He also influenced Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Wizz Jones, Jorma Kaukonen, Keb' Mo', Ollabelle, Resurrection Band, and John Sebastian (of the Lovin' Spoonful).


Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina in the Piedmont region,[2] on a farm that was, by his recollection, "way down in the sticks; so far you couldn't hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day."[2]

Of the eight children his mother bore, he was one of two who survived to adulthood.[6] He became blind as an infant. He'd recall his grandmother telling him he got "sore eyes" when he was three-weeks old, and the doctors put something in his eyes that "cause[d] ulcers to grow" over the eyes and he ended up blind.[2]

He recalled being poorly treated by his mother and that his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother. Davis reported that when he was 10 years old, his father was killed in Birmingham, Alabama. He later said he'd been told his father was shot by the Birmingham sheriff.[7] His mother re-married and gave birth to a boy.[2]

He sang for the first time at Gray Court's Baptist church in South Carolina.[8] He took to the guitar and assumed a unique multi-voice style produced solely with his thumb and index finger, playing gospel, ragtime, and blues tunes along with traditional and original tunes in four-part harmony.

Bull City Blues historical marker, Durham, North Carolina

In the mid-1920s, Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina, a major center of black culture at the time. There he taught Blind Boy Fuller and collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene, including Bull City Red.[5] In 1935, J. B. Long, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists, introduced Davis, Fuller, and Red to the American Record Company. The recording sessions (available on his Complete Early Recordings) marked the beginning of Davis's career. He became a Christian,[5][9] and ordained as a Baptist minister in Washington, North Carolina,[8] in 1933. Following his conversion and after his ordination, Davis began to prefer inspirational gospel music.

In the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline, and Davis moved to New York.[5] In 1951, he recorded an oral history for the folklorist Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold (the wife of Alan Lomax). who transcribed their conversations in a typescript more than 300 pages long.

The folk revival of the 1960s invigorated Davis's career, and he performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Eleven songs from those performances were released on the 1967 album At Newport.[10]: 102  In March 1969, Davis' former student and driver, John Townley, who had since established Apostolic Recording Studio, persuaded Davis to his first recording studio session in five years. The resulting album, O, Glory – The Apostolic Studio Sessions would be Davis' final studio album, released posthumously in 1973.[11]: 235 

Peter, Paul and Mary recorded Davis' version of "Samson and Delilah", also known as "If I Had My Way", a song by Blind Willie Johnson, which Davis had popularized. Although the song was in the public domain, it was copyrighted as having been written by Gary Davis at the time of the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary. The resulting royalties allowed Davis to buy a house and live comfortably for the rest of his life, and Davis referred to the house as "the house that Peter, Paul and Mary built."[12] The Grateful Dead covered "Samson and Delilah" on their album Terrapin Station and credited it to Davis. They covered Davis' song "Death Don't Have No Mercy". Eric Von Schmidt credited Davis with three-quarters of Schmidt's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", which Bob Dylan covered on his debut album for Columbia Records. The Blues Hall of Fame singer and harmonica player Darrell Mansfield has recorded several of Davis's songs. The Rolling Stones credited Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell for "You Gotta Move" on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers.

Davis died of a heart attack in May 1972 in Hammonton, New Jersey.[13] He is buried in plot 68 of Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.


Many of Davis' recordings were published posthumously.

Year Title Label Number Notes
1954 Blind Gary Davis – The Singing Reverend Stinson SLP 56 First LP, recorded April 1954, with Sonny Terry, red vinyl
1956 American Street Songs Riverside RP 12–611 Side A, Pink Anderson, Carolina Street Ballads; side B, Rev. Gary Davis, Harlem Street Spirituals, recorded January 29, 1956; also released as Gospel, Blues and Street Songs, Riverside RLP 12-148 (1961), Original Blues Classics OBC 524 and OBCCD 524-2
1957 Pure Religion and Bad Company 77 (UK) LA 12/14 Recorded June 1957 in New York City; also Folklyric 125; reissued as Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40035 (1991) with 2 additional cuts
1960 Harlem Street Singer Bluesville 1015 Recorded August 24, 1960; also Original Blues Classics 547, Fontana 688-303-ZL (UK, 1965); renamed Pure Religion! and reissued as Prestige Folklore 14028 (1964) and Prestige 7805 (1972); remastered and reissued as OBCCD-547-2 (1992); reissued as Fantasy 24704
1961 A Little More Faith Bluesville 1032 Recorded August 10, 1961, at Van Gelder Studio, EngleWood Cliffs, NJ; also XTRA 5042 (UK, 1967), OBCCD-588-2; reissued as Fantasy 24704
Say No to the Devil Bluesville 1049 Also XTRA 5014 (UK, 1966) and OBCCD 519-2
1964 The Guitar & Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis Prestige Folklore 14033 Instrumental tracks, recorded March 2, 1964, Van Gelder Studio; also Fantasy OBCCD 592–2; reissued as The Blues Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis, Prestige 7725
Rev. Gary Davis/Short Stuff Macon Xtra (UK) 1009
Pure Religion! Prestige Folklore 14028 Also Prestige 7805 (1972), reissue of Harlem Street Singer
1967 Rev. Gary Davis at Newport Vanguard 73008 Recorded 1965
1968 Bring Your Money, Honey Fontana (UK) SFJL 914 Recorded Cambridge, Mass.
1970 Reverend Gary Davis 1935–1949 Yazoo L-1023 Also Yazoo CD 2011 (1994) as The Complete Early Recordings of Rev. Gary Davis and Document DOCD 5060 (UK, 2003) with 2 extra tracks
1971 Ragtime Guitar Transatlantic (UK) TRA 244 Recorded 1960–1971; also Kicking Mule 106 (1974), Sonet SNKF 133 (1977) and Heritage HT 309 (UK, 1985)
Children of Zion Transatlantic (UK) TRA 249 Recorded 1962, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.; also Kicking Mule 101 (1974), Sonet SNKF 152 (1978), Heritage HT 308 (UK, 1985); also on Blues & Ragtime, Shanachie 97024 (1993)
The Legendary Reverend Gary Davis, New Blues and Gospel Biograph 12030E Also Blue Moon BMLP 1.040 (c. 1987)
The Legendary Reverend Gary Davis, Blues and Gospel, Vol 2 Biograph 12034E Recorded March 17, 1971
1972 When I Die I'll Live Again Fantasy 24704 Reissue of Prestige/Bluesville 1015 and 1032
1973 Lo I Be with You Always Sonet (Sweden) SNKD 1 Also Kicking Mule cassette tape (no number, 1984); reissued on Blues & Ragtime, Shanachie 97024 (1993)
O, Glory – The Apostolic Studio Sessions Adelphi 1008 Final studio album, recorded March 1969; reissued as Genes GCD 9908 (1996) with additional tracks
At the Sign of the Sun Heritage (UK) N/K 1962, San Diego, Calif.; also HT CD 03 (UK, 1990)
1974 Let Us Get Together Sonet (Sweden) SNKF 103 Also Kicking Mule cassette tape (no number, 1984)
1976 Sun Is Going Down Folkways FS 3542 Recorded 1966
1984 I Am a True Vine Kicking Mule no number Cassette tape
Babylon Is Falling Kicking Mule no number Cassette tape
1985 I Am a True Vine Heritage (UK) HT 307 Recorded 1962–63, New York City; also HT CD07 (UK, 1991)
1988 Blind Gary Davis Document (Austria) DLP 521 Recorded live, spring 1966, at Al Matthes, Toronto
Blind Gary Davis 1962–1964, Recorded Live Wolf (Austria) 120,915
Blind Gary Davis at Allegheny College, Meadville, Pa., 1964—Afternoon Workshop Document (Austria) DLP 527
1989 Reverend Gary Davis Heritage (UK) CD 02 Reissue of Children of Zion and Ragtime Guitar
1993 Rev. Gary Davis: Blues and Ragtime Shanachie 97042
2002 The Sun of Our Life: Solos, Songs, a Sermon 1955–1957 World Arbiter 2005 Previously unissued session tapes and sermon from mid-1950s
2003 If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings Folkways SFW40123 Recorded 1953 by John Cohen
2007 Lifting the Veil: The First Bluesmen (1926–1956), Rev. Gary Davis and Peers World Arbiter 2008 Unissued session tapes from 1956 to 1957, recorded by Fred Gerlach and Tiny Robinson;[citation needed] liner notes quote a 1951 interview with Davis
Reverend Gary Davis Live: Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 Document (Austria) DOCD-32-20-14 Recorded May 8, 1964, Manchester, England
2009 Live at Gerde's Folk City, February 1962 Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop SGGW 114/5/6 3-CD set
2010 Reverend Gary Davis Field Recorders Collective FRC116 Recorded 1952, New York City, by John Cohen
2022 Let Us Get Together Sunset Blvd Records CDSBR7012 2-CD set. CD 1: Live in Portland, OR. CD 2: Live in Seattle, WA

[14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21]: 241 [22]

Personal life[edit]

In 1937, Davis married Annie Bell Wright, who was as religious and spiritual as Davis, and in 1944, they moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where Annie worked as a housekeeper. Later that year they moved to the East Bronx on 169th street. He became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church and acquired the nickname "Harlem Street Singer." They moved to Jamaica, Queens in 1968.[2]

On May 5, 1972, while on the way to a concert in Newtonville, New Jersey, he had a heart attack and died. He is buried at the Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York. His widow, Annie Bell Wright-Davis, died in 1997.[2]


While he was alive, Davis' music was recognized by musicians of the era as exceptional. Bob Dylan called him "one of the wizards of modern music," while Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead said Davis had "a Bacchian sense of music which transcended any common notion of a bluesman." Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane suggested Davis is "one of the greatest figures of 20th-century music."[11]

He was posthumously recognized alongside Blind Boy Fuller as Main Honorees by the Sesquicentennial Honors Commission at the Durham 150 Closing Ceremony in Durham, North Carolina, on November 2, 2019. The recognition was bestowed for their contributions to the Piedmont blues.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Harold, Ellen; Stone, Peter (April 30, 2005). "Reverend Gary Davis". ACE. The Association for Cultural Equity. Retrieved March 27, 2024.
  3. ^ Eder, Bruce (n.d.). "Rev. Gary Davis: Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved February 16, 2021.
  4. ^ Grossman, Stefan (1974). Rev. Gary Davis Blues Guitar. Oak Publications. ISBN 9781783234592.
  5. ^ a b c d Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 105. ISBN 1-85868-255-X.
  6. ^ "Reverend Gary Davis | Association for Cultural Equity". The Association for Cultural Equity. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
  7. ^ "Rev Gary Davis". Arbiterrecords.org. January 31, 2013. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  8. ^ a b W. K. McNeil, Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames, 2013, p. 97
  9. ^ Smith, Chris (2003). Meet You at the Station: The Vintage Recordings (1935–1949) (Media notes). Reverend Gary Davis. Document Records. OCLC 489027245. Retrieved February 11, 2013.
  10. ^ Colin Larkin, ed. (1995). The Guinness Who's Who of Blues (2nd ed.). Guinness Publishing. ISBN 0-85112-673-1.
  11. ^ a b Zack, Ian (2015). Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis. Chicago, United States: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-23410-6.
  12. ^ "David Bromberg: "I Belong To The Band," and "Tryin To Get Home" plus an interview about Gary Davis". YouTube. July 17, 2020. Archived from the original on December 12, 2021. Retrieved March 6, 2021.
  13. ^ Doc Rock. "The 1970s". TheDeadRockStarsClub.com. Retrieved May 29, 2014.
  14. ^ "Riverside Records Discography Project". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  15. ^ "Prestige Records Discography Project". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  16. ^ Wirz, Stefan (December 2, 2010). "Prestige/Bluesville Discography". American Music. Retrieved December 4, 2010.
  17. ^ Wirz, Stefan (August 16, 2010). "77 Records Discography". American Music. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  18. ^ Wirz, Stefan (August 2, 2010). "Kicking Mule". American Music. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  19. ^ Davis, Gary; Tillig, Robert (2010). Oh, What a Beautiful City: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis. Pacific, Missouri: Mel Bay Publications. pp. 151–152. ISBN 978-0-7866-8258-4. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  20. ^ Henderson, Alex (2003). "Reverend Gary Davis". In Vladimir Bogdanov (ed.). All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues (3rd ed.). Milwaukee: Hal Leonard. pp. 142–143. ISBN 0-87930-736-6. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  21. ^ Coltman, Bob (2008). Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-6132-9. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
  22. ^ "The Field Recorders' Collective". Fieldrecorder.com. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. Retrieved January 28, 2011.
  23. ^ Durham 150 (November 2, 2019). Durham 150 Closing Ceremony Program – via Archive.org.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Mann, Woody (2003). The Art of Acoustic Blues Guitar: Ragtime and Gospel. Oak Publications.
  • Reevy, Tony; Weaver, Caroline (July 2002). "Street Sessions, Piedmont Style". Our State.
  • Stambler, Irwin; Stambler, Lyndon (2001). Folk and Blues, the Encyclopedia. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Tilling, Robert (1992). Oh, What a Beautiful City! A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis. Paul Mill Press. ISBN 9780786682584.
  • von Schmidt, Eric (2008). "Remembering Reverend Gary Davis". Sing Out! 51(4)67–73.
  • Zack, Ian (2015). Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226234106.

External links[edit]