When Rolly Met The Rev. Gary Davis

Recently, I re-posted an article I wrote a decade ago about my meeting and brief time with the Rev. Gary Davis, which happened in the winter of ’69-70. This was a landmark moment in my life as a guitarist. As you may read below, I was able to glean the feel and fingerings of more than a few of the Reverend’s fantastic guitar arrangements during the two hours he spent showing me stuff. I was already fairly competent, so it was the perfect moment for me to absorb a lot of music in a short period of time. Equally importantly, the meeting triggered a long study of the Reverend’s style, supported by meetings with other RGD students, including Andy Cohen, Alan Mattes, Tom Hartman, Nick Katzman, Ernie Hawkins, and others; folks who were glad to trade their takes on the Rev’s pieces for my own. Then there were Stefan Grossman’s transcriptions, and my own wearing-out of the available LPs. But mostly there was the memory of those hands, and that sound.
If you’ve never seen or heard the Reverend, here’s a little sample:

And a bit of the style that I absorbed from him over the years, played on a Gibson J200, for that signature RGD sound.

Here’s the article I wrote:

In the winter of 1969-70, I was co-chairing the Kent State Folk Festival in Kent Ohio. We ended up booking Rev. Gary Davis, largely because Folklore Productions, which handled many of the good folk acts at that time, had no one else available, and because I’d heard a recording of “12 gates to the city” and was impressed. Manny Greenhill warned us not to give the Reverend any booze. When my friend Don Hernstrom and I arrived to meet the plane, the Reverend was nowhere to be seen. We finally asked a stewardess if anyone was still on the plane. She gave us a withering look and sent us back, where we found the Reverend (who was accompanied by his 13 year old grand-daughter) asleep in his seat with an empty fifth of whiskey portruding from his pocket. We woke him up and got underway. He was affable enough, but kept saying, “I shoulda brought my gun…” with references to what he’d do if he didn’t get paid the agreed-upon amount.

(Years later I read James Taylor’s account of his first gig. He’d opened for the Reverend at a club on Martha’s Vineyard and, when the owner refused to pay Davis and Taylor the amount agreed upon, Davis, [he was BLIND, remember], had indeed pulled a revolver and waved it around, maybe even shot once or twice, until the payment was received.)

Anyhow, the Reverend made it clear, in terms that echoed Muhammad Ali, that he was “the greatest”, and no one had ever been better. That evening, as we waited backstage for his performance, and he listened to several student acts performing folk, blues, and singer/songwriter stuff, he seemed a bit more despondent. The quality of the acts was technically pretty good, and the Reverend said to me something to the effect of “I USED to be the greatest, but I am not now what I once have been…”

Well, I led him onto stage for the final set of the night, not knowing quite what to expect. He was playing his Bozo 12 string. I think he’d quit using the six because his coordination was going a bit and he felt the 12 sounded fuller. He started out with “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. He looked like he might totter over at any second, but the voice and the guitar were big and strong, and the audience was transfixed. This was a bunch of white-bread college kids who thought “folk music” was Judy Collins and “blues” was Cream.
Davis went on with one amazing rendition after another, filled with good humor and spirit. At the end of his set, these amazed college kids gave him SEVEN encores, and wouldn’t let him off the stage. My eyes brim up a bit as I write this.

The next morning, we arrived at the Reverend’s lodgings (campus guest housing) early and hung out with him until his afternoon workshop. Every time a young woman (the place was crawling with pretty coeds) would enter the room, the Reverend would say, “Ya know….the doctor says…….if I don’t get a purty girl to kiss me every day……I’m gonna DIE!!” Damned if it didn’t work every time! He was having a great old time, collecting kisses from one young sweetie after another.

I had a Gibson “country western” model at this time, and I played a bit for him (at his request). He kindly said, “You’ll be alright…you just keep on”. He took the guitar from me, brought it up to about an inch away from his face, and said, “Hmmmmm….mahogany!” I guess he had that little bit of sight. Then we went off to his 2 hour workshop, where he sat in the student union basement and played for 3 hours straight. I was just amazed by his hands, and the music that came out of his guitar. There was counterpoint and melody and bass movement, but his left hand seemed always to be holding a chord. It totally transformed my vision of how the left hand should operate. To this day, that weekend probably did more for my guitar playing development than any other 48 hours in my 39 years of intensive guitar playing.

At the end of the afternoon, we had two hours to kill till we left for the airport. Reverend Davis had already been playing guitar all day long, but he turned toward me and asked, “Well, what do you want to learn?” I was dumbfounded by his generosity, but recovered quickly, and started naming tunes: Buck Dance, Slow Drag, Talk on The Corner, 12 Sticks,….he went through them all pretty patiently. I didn’t ask questions because I figured he probably was just a great “ear” player, but when I had trouble following him on the downward
chord sequence in Slow Drag, he finally, exasperated, said “C, Bb6, F with an A in the bass, and Ab!”…so much for my stereotypes about old illiterate blues guys…

After two hours of this, we took the Reverend to the airport and sent him off to New York. I think it was about a year later that he passed away. I envy those guys who got to study with him for years in New York, but I also value the brief time I spent with him, and I worked hard to make the most of it for a long time afterward.

I saw a lot of the old blues guys perform: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, and others. None came close to Gary Davis, in my opinion. And none was more beloved. He was a man of great spirit, and he WAS the greatest.

Happy Holidays to you all!

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Posted on December 24, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree completely. Sadly, I never met, caught or heard him live. Discovered him in Glasgow, Scotland, when I bought his instrumental album blind cos it looked interesting a few years before he passed. I was just beginner, struggling with the picking a bit and he simply blew me away. I’ve subsequently taken lessons in Pitts with Ernie Hawkins and Mary Flower in PDX. Ernie is the finest Davis stylist out there these days, for my money. But the Rev remains unsurpassed!

  2. Fantastic story … Love it!  Thanks Rolly!

  3. I love the story of your experience meeting RGD. Not the first time I read it but it’s riveting and inspiring. Thanks for sharing that!

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