He’s got some Blind Willie McTell and some Fats Waller, some Buddy Guy and some Taj Mahal. He’s got some Zora Neale Hurston and some Garrison Keillor. But most importantly—Guy Davis is a bluesman. The blues permeate every corner of Davis’ creativity. Throughout his career, he has dedicated himself to reviving the traditions of acoustic blues and bringing them to as many ears as possible through the material of the great blues masters, African American stories, and his own original songs, stories and performance pieces.
Davis’ creative roots run deep. Though raised in New York, he grew up hearing accounts of life in the rural south from his parents and especially his grandparents, and they made their way into his own stories and songs. Davis taught himself the guitar (never having the patience to take formal lessons) and learned by listening to and watching other musicians. One night on a train from Boston to New York he picked up finger picking from a nine-fingered guitar player.
His influences are wide and varied. Musically, he enjoyed such great blues musicians as Blind Willie McTell (and his way of telling a story), Skip James, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, and Buddy Guy, among others. It was through Taj Mahal that he found his way to the old time blues. He also loved such diverse musicians as Fats Waller and Gustav Holst. Zora Neale Hurston and Garrison Keillor have influenced his writing and storytelling.
Throughout his life Davis has had overlapping interests in music and acting. Early acting roles included a part in the film Beat Street and on television in One Life to Live. Eventually Davis had the opportunity to combine music and acting on the stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1991 in the Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes collaboration Mulebone, which featured the music of Taj Mahal. In 1993 he performed Off-Broadway as legendary blues player Robert Johnson in Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. He received rave reviews and became the 1993 winner of the Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award.
Looking for more ways to combine his love of blues, music, and acting, Davis created material for himself. He wrote In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters — an engaging and moving one-man show. The Off-Broadway debut in 1994 received critical praise from the The New York Times and the The Village Voice. Davis also performed in a theater piece with his parents, actors/writers Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, entitled Two Hah Hahs and A Homeboy. Of Davis’ performance, one USA Today reviewer observed that his style and writing “sound so deeply drenched in lost black traditions that you feel that they must predate him. But no, they don’t. He created them.” Davis’ writing projects have also included a variety of theater pieces and plays – Mudsurfing, an award winning collection of three short stories, The Trial (an anti-drug abuse one-act play that was produced Off-Broadway in 1990). Guy also arranged, performed, and co-wrote the music for an Emmy Award winning film, To Be a Man. In the fall of 1995, his music was used in the national PBS series, The American Promise.
Over time, Davis concentrated more and more on writing and performing music. In the fall of 1995, he released his Red House Records debut Stomp Down Rider, an album that captured Davis in a stunning live performance. The album landed on top ten lists all over the country, including in the Boston Globe and Pulse! Since then Guy has released 8 albums on Red House, many of which have won him blues and independent music awards, from his breakout album Butt Naked Free to his acoustic blues treasure Chocolate to the Bone. Recognized for his creative balance of traditional blues and contemporary sounds and topics, Guy’s 2004 release Legacy was recognized as one of the best of the year by Rolling Stone, NPR and DownBeat (reader’s poll). Along with a mix of new and old blues songs, it featured the acclaimed song “Uncle Tom’s Dead,” a spirited and good-natured musical debate between Guy and his then 13-year-old son, Martial, on the relative importance of rap versus blues. Exploring contemporary Chicago-style blues, Skunkmello caught the attention of traditional and contemporary blues fans and was hailed as “the most outstanding blues album of the past few years” (DownBeat).
Guy’s album Sweetheart Like You, is a more personal album with songs about family, love, and the hard paths life takes us down. The record features some of Guy’s finest songwriting as well as fresh takes on Bob Dylan’s “Sweetheart Like You,” Lead Belly’s “Follow Me Down,” and Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied.” Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, Sweetheart Like You continues to keep traditional blues alive while breathing a freshness into this classic sound.