While Blind John Davis never achieved the name recognition of many of his peers, he played two vital roles in blues history. As house pianist for Lester Melrose’s Chicago-based Wabash Music Company in the 1930s and ’40s, he accompanied Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Memphis Minnie, and many others on 78s issued by RCA, Blue Bird, Columbia, and Vocalion. Then, in 1952, he became one of the first bluesmen to tour Europe, accompany Big Bill Broonzy.
Decades later, Davis found his most appreciative audiences in Europe, where he performed many tours as a solo artist. Omnipresent cigar clenched between his teeth, he’d typically ask, “Name somethin’ that I might know.” As shouts for “Pinetop’s Boogie,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Kansas City,” “Summertime,” and other familiar numbers boomed from the audience, John would chuckle appreciatively and launch into a request. His delicate fingers fluidly teasing the keys, he’d effortlessly reveal the surety and grace that made him such a popular accompanist during the Blue Bird era. Crooning with a wizened, raspy-around-the-edges voice, he showcased his spontaneous sense of humor by tossing odd quotes into his solos or sassily resting one hand on his hip while the other raced across the keys. Between songs, he’d tease his audience and dispense gentle bits of wisdom. While well-versed in pop tunes, swing, New Orleans jazz, boogie woogie, and ragtime, he’d most often be asked to play the blues.
Born John Henry Davis in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on December 7, 1913, he moved to Chicago at age three. His father worked as a molder; his mother had danced in minstrel shows. At age nine Davis lost his sight. When Prohibition kicked in, Davis’ father became a bootlegger, opening a string of “good time” houses and speakeasies, where his son became enthralled by the sounds of boogie-woogie piano. At 14, Davis recalled, he asked his father, “‘Pa, if I learned to play piano, would you pay me?’ He said yeah, so out of spite, I learned to play piano.”
Davis began by learning “runnin’ bass” from older musicians and then delved into ragtime, swing, and other popular styles. He played house rent parties and formed his first group, Johnny Lee’s Music Masters, in high school. His next band, Johnny Davis’ Rhythm Boys, toured extensively for several years. Davis launched his career as a session musician and arranger in October 1937, playing on Tampa Red’s “You’re More Than a Palace to Me.” He went on to play on more than a hundred records, including such stellar sides as Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too,” Lonnie Johnson’s “He’s a Jelly-Roll Baker,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Sloppy Drunk Blues,” and Memphis Minnie’s “Down in the Alley.” Davis’ first three 78s as a leader, in 1938, featured young George Barnes on electric guitar. Barnes, later a renowned jazz guitarist, rejoined Davis on his 1949 and 1951 Blind Johnny Davis Trio records for MGM.
Davis made his first foray into Europe in 1952, touring with Big Bill Broonzy and recording an album for Vogue. As the surging, visceral styles of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Howlin’ Wolf began taking hold in Chicago, Davis mostly worked at all-white nightclubs and lounges around Chicago, including an eight-year stint at the Whirlwind on West Armitage. He occasionally played festivals, notably the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, and the University of Chicago Folk Festival, but didn’t record again until 1973, when fans of his prewar recordings convinced him to tour the Continent. One of his best latter-day albums, 1977’s Stomping on a Saturday Night, was recorded at Club Popular in Bonn, Germany, for Chrischaa Records and reissued in the U.S. by Alligator Records. Davis continued to play cocktail lounges, parties, weddings, and occasional blues gigs.
Blind John Davis made his final recordings for the L+R and Red Beans labels before passing away in Chicago on October 12, 1985. Our interview took place on June 13, 1979.
Have you been to Europe lately?
Oh, yeah. I just got back on the 3rd of June, and my house burned down on the 4th. I’m staying in the same place, but I’m looking very hard for a place. Places are so hard to find right now in Chicago.
When did you start playing piano?
Well, I started monkeying around with the piano when I was about 14. I started playing professional when I was around 17.
Did you learn to read music?
Yeah, I read music. I write music. I went to blind school when I was a child. I went to the Jacksonville, Illinois, boarding school. I write Braille and I read Braille. See, I lost my sight when I was nine years old. That was 1922. It happened through blood poisoning. I stuck a rusty nail through my foot, and my grandma put those old black remedies on my feet. She kept me from getting lockjaw, but it set in the weakest part about me, and that was my eyes. But I learned to read music after I got to be a man. My friends was goin’ to school, and they would teach me music. So yes, I write music, transpose, and everything else.
What led you to the instrument?
I don’t know. After I lost my sight, my dad bought me a piano. I liked music, period. So I started to follow it up. My father had two or three night spots, and he had guys that played piano, that worked for him. I got my inspiration from some of those fellas.
Did any of them record?
No, back in those days they didn’t record.
Did you teach yourself, or did someone help along the way?
I taught myself the most of it.
Was your father a moonshiner?
Yes. My dad and my uncle made moonshine. They made beer and bathtub gin for many years. My parents never knew the Depression, because my dad was a molder by trade, and he worked at Griffin Wheel Foundry making train wheels. We had these three spots, and they made this whiskey and everything. My dad fixed up many baskets and sent them to different friends of his.
When you used to play at your father’s night spots . . .
No, I never played in my father’s night spots. I was too young. I learned my music in the later years, in the 1930s.
What music did you learn to play?
Well, the old slow blues and – it wasn’t called “boogie woogie” at the time, it was called “runnin’ bass.” In later years they give it the name of “boogie woogie,” but it was nothin’ but the runnin’ bass. I heard a lot of fellas play it before it was even given the name of boogie woogie. [Here’s John playing “My Own Boogie”]:
Describe your earliest band.
The first band I was playing with was my band. I built my band, me and a trumpet player. He was going to high school; his name was Leander Walker. So we decided, let’s get us a band. We got us about a five-piece band, and we called it the Johnny Lee’s Original Music Masters. Yeah, that’s what we called ourselves. We played the roadhouses, speakeasies, all those kind of places. Anywhere we hung our hat was home sweet home.
How long was the average roadhouse gig?
Let’s see now. We started about nine at night, and sometimes we would go to eight or nine the next morning. We’d only take 15- or 20-minute breaks, because at that time it wasn’t much of a salary. Our biggest money was through our cigar box, our kitty. People would put money in the kitty, so we was gonna work real hard, you know. We’d pass the kitty or a hat. We’d make more in tips than we would in salary. My God, I worked five nights a week for ten dollars a week, from nine ’til three or nine ’til four. This was back in Prohibition days. But you could rent a four- or five-room house for about ten dollars a month.
How old were you when Johnny Davis’ Rhythm Boys started up?
I was about 22, I guess. We were playing the suburbs of Chicago.
Were there differences between the ghetto and suburban audiences?
I never played in the ghetto audiences – well, yes, I did too. I played for a lot of “chitlin’ parties” – that was what they was callin’ house rent parties. People would take their rugs up off the floor so they could dance and wouldn’t dance the rug out. I played for a lot of those. Now, I made good money for those. I’d make about three dollars a night, all I could eat and drink. [Laughs.] That wasn’t bad at all, not then.
Would you bring the band?
No, I’d play by myself, or sometimes the people would get big-hearted and say they’d give us seven or eight dollars, and I’d bring two or three pieces.
Were you playing original songs?
I was playing the popular songs of the time – Bessie Smith’s numbers and Ma Rainey’s numbers. Just, you know, all different old original blues. Blues was my first music. I was playing 12-bar blues, 4-bar blues.
I guess I was about 24 then. I got to be chief of staff at the Wabash Music Company. I made good money then; I made about $75 or $100 a week whether I recorded or not. But I recorded with all the big recorders, like Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red. That was Lester Melrose’s company, and we recorded for RCA, Blue Bird, Columbia, Vocalion.
How did you get involved with session work?
What happened was I wanted to make records, so I calls and I finds out Melrose’s phone number. Then I contact him, and he tells me to meet him on the South Side of Chicago. So I meets him out there, and he takes me to this fellow Washboard Sam. And Washboard Sam was a very difficult person to work with, because he would do a song like this today, and you go back tomorrow and he done changed it. Then he’d fault the musician. So he was a terrible guy to work with. Him and I couldn’t hit it off.
So at that time this Wallace Simpson and this Prince of Wales had just gotten married. And Tampa Red had made a number, “She’s More to Me Than a Palace Is to a King.” So they take me over to Tampa’s house, and Tampa had made this number. It was in a minor key. So Tampa’s wife was sick at the time, in the bed. So when I got there, Melrose introduced me and he tells him, “Tampa, this man might can play your number.” Tampa said, “No, I done had three or four guys up here, and they couldn’t play it.” So I says to Tampa, “Well, mister, play it. Let me hear a little bit of it, and I’ll see if I can play it.” He played a little of it, so when I sit down, I played it. His wife hollered out of the bedroom. She said, “Tampa, that’s the one!”
So ever since then, I been with Tampa. And right now I’m Tampa’s power of attorney. He’s in a nursing home in Chicago, and I look after him now. I had him put close to me, and I bring him to my home about two or three times a month. I go and see him and see that he get his cigarettes, and he can have a couple cans of beer a day. So everything is beautiful that way.
What kind of shape is he in?
Well, he’s in good shape. He’s in beautiful shape. He’s began to fool with his guitar again, and he’s in good voice. So if he keeps improving, maybe in about the next six or seven months we might come out with something. Man, if we do, we can almost write our own ticket. He’s senile, and he don’t remember too much, you know. But now if I start a conversation, he’d remember everything we talk about. But if I go to see him now and you go in the next 15 or 20 minutes and asked him when he saw me, he’d say, “Well, I don’t know when I saw John.” It’s one of those things.
Tampa sure was a star.
Oh my God, yes. And he’s the one that give me my break! I’m runnin’ all over Europe, Canada, and every place, and he’s the one that give me my start. So you know I gotta be right with him.
Back in the 1930s, what kind of pianos did Melrose have in the studio?
There’d be $4,000 and $5,000 grands in there. Oh my God, yeah. They was great pianos.
During this era you reportedly played on over a hundred records.
Oh my God, yes. Big Bill, Doctor Clayton, the original Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie, the Yas-Yas Girl [Merline Johnson], Lonnie Johnson. I played with everybody that was somebody.
Who was the best musician to work with?
In my opinion, I think that Big Bill Broonzy was the greatest male blues singer that I ever heard. He just put his heart into it, and he was just a great singer.
[Laughs heartily.] No, I don’t know what you’d call it. Well, I guess you would say that. I don’t know how much of a preacher he was, but him and I used to run together, and we didn’t know who could drink the more whiskey! So I figure he had put his preachin’ down, but he was a beautiful person.
Who was the hardest person to accompany?
The hardest guy to play behind was Washboard Sam. His last records, the last recordings he made [in 1964], I made it with him. He had done got to be a better fella then. That was before he passed. It was a recording for Denmark that couldn’t be sold in America.
How did sessions work in the 1930s? Would someone call you to the studio?
No, I’ll tell you how that was. Tampa Red had a great big house, and he had a big rehearsal room. And I was there every day, because him and I were just that close. I was at his home every day the Lord sent, and twice on Sunday. I’d be there when those different guys would come in from all parts of the country. They would hear me, then they say, “Well, I want him to work with me.” Then Lester Melrose would say, “Let’s put John with such-and-such a person.” I even played piano for Sunnyland Slim.
He’s a piano player!
Yeah, but I played piano for him. I played blues for him because they wanted me to. See, I play all types of piano. I play all types of music. I play everything. I play some semi-classic, I play jazz, I play ragtime. I’m just an all-around piano player. That’s why I’m working all the time.
What about Memphis Minnie?
Now, she was a difficult kid too! [Laughs.] Yeah, she was a difficult kid. But she made some nice numbers. She wanted to have her way. She would play a number this way for a few minutes. Then she’d lay her guitar down, come back and pick it up, and she’d put another chord where she had the other chord. People would change songs when we got to the studio.
How long would an average session with someone like Memphis Minnie last?
Let’s see. The session was about two hours. They’d play the song down. I listen to it, because I have a very good ear, and then I’d put the piano music to it.
What did a session date pay?
When it first come into the union, it would pay around $26, and then about $8 for overtime. I got paid from $75 to $150 a week, just straight salary. Whatever session come up, I would get so much out of that.
Would you typically get credited on the 78?
Yeah, my name is on so many of them.
When you started recording under your own name by 1938, you worked with George Barnes on guitar. What was that like?
Oh, that was beautiful. George Barnes was a great guitarist. I would say George was in kind of a class to himself, because he played a lot of beautiful guitar. But he played some of everything; he just didn’t play the blues. He played just like I did – all the popular songs, numbers of that type.
Was Barnes already using an electric guitar?
Yes, he was. He was one of the first ones. We never worked in the clubs together, though, because I was always gone. And then when he got to be a big shot with Decca, I saw him a couple of times, but I didn’t know he was sick. His brother was a guitar player too – Paul Barnes. George was a great musician.
What did you do during the World War II?
My band and I toured all over the country. That was called Big Johnny Davis’ Band. I had five pieces, and I wasn’t playing blues then. The onlyest blues we was playin’ during those times was “Sugar Blues,” “Wabash Blues,” “Memphis Blues,” and stuff like that. At that time, they wouldn’t have understood “Every Day” and “When I Lost My Baby” and stuff like that. We was playin’ mostly all pop numbers: “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Twilight Time,” “Body And Soul,” “Stardust,” all that kind of stuff. “When Your Love Is Gone.” We played jazz music too.
Did you like the big bands?
Oh, yeah. When I was in France I played with Sidney Bechet, and I played with Milton [Mezz] Mezrow. And I played a couple of weeks with Louis Armstrong – that was around 1933 and ’34.
When did you quit touring with Big Johnny Davis’ Band?
Me and my band, we broke up in Nashville, Tennessee, about 1948. Then I had the Blind John Davis Trio with Georgie Barnes and Ransom Knowling on bass. So I been a lone wolf ever since – ’course I had a fella that worked with me off and on for about 27 years, Judge Riley. He played bass and drums.
When did you first go to Europe?
My first time to Europe was 1952. I was one of the first blues [musicians] to tour Europe. Big Bill was the first, and I was the second. I went to Paris.
Did you record on that tour?
Yes, I did. And they owe me money now. I recorded for Vogue. But my house burnt and the contracts was burnt up, and I didn’t have nothin’ to go upon. That’s the way that went.
How was the blues scene in Chicago at this time?
Well, the blues scene had pretty near died out in Chicago. There were quite a few blues spots, you know, clubs and things.
You worked with Kansas City Red around this time.
Yes, I worked with Kansas City Red out in Chicago Heights, at the Black and Tan. This was after I come back from Europe.
You also worked with Jimmy Reed. These were a different style of bluesmen than the guys you’d worked with earlier.
Yeah, that’s true. Jimmy was a very good bluesman. What I liked about his playing, he had a style of his own. He had no copy of no one. I liked his voice.
What happened later in the 1950s?
That’s when I took my band on the road. We worked Mexico, New Mexico, California, Denver, Ohio, Wyoming, Utah. Oh my God, we just worked everywhere. We had two cars, a Plymouth and a Buick. My bookings were through Frederick Brothers in Chicago. The money was good for those times.
What did you do during the 1960s?
I was playing at places like Toy Cellar, Bourbon Street, the El Dorado, the Hucksters, Chicago supper clubs. I was working out in Cicero at Mr. Vees. Oh, I worked.
Took you twenty years to get back to Europe after your first visit.
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s certainly true!
How was your reception then?
Oh, it was beautiful.
Had European audiences changed over the years?
Well, I’ll tell ya. It has been quite a change, because a lot of the youngsters now, they really are blues lovers. The last couple of times I was over in Europe – I just got back – they got some artists on the blues I have never heard of myself, and I’m 65 years old. These are the old guys – they from way back. I never heard of ’em. This last time I was over in Europe was my sixteenth time. I was over there three times in one year.
How do today’s piano players stack up to the guys when you were coming up?
Well, so many of them don’t say but anything. Because now if I play a song, my piano says the words. But they’ll play a song, and they’ll play one set of chords and sing 40 different songs. That’s the way that goes. I don’t think piano players are getting better over time. Just like wind instruments and this disco and junk like that. No, they’re not true musicians, because when I joined the union, you had to go through tests and everything like that. You had to come up to expectations to qualify. But you can go down and buy a guitar now and go down and join the union. Play two chords, and you’re a musician.
Are you left-handed or right-handed?
I guess I’m all handed! [Laughs.]
What part of your repertoire is hardest to play?
Well, I’ll tell you something, man. None if it’s no harder in my repertoire, for the simple reason I wiggle my fingers, and it seems they light in the right spots. I couldn’t tell you if you was gonna give me a million dollars how I do it. I couldn’t tell you, because I don’t know myself. Mm hmm.
What does a performer owe his audience?
I don’t think I owe ’em anything but to entertain ’em to my best ability. And I think they owe me a little consideration of listening. If they like it, tell others. If they don’t, don’t say nothin’.
Why are European audiences more interested in blues than American audiences?
Well, they brought it back. It was pretty near dead in America. The European people brought it back. You have to give them credit for that.
Yeah, but I never cared for that rock and roll neither. I just didn’t. Man, they got all these amplifiers and things. And my God, it sounds like they’re hitting the drum with the piano leg. It upsets me!
What do you think about piano synthesizers?
That’s not too bad. I’ve never played one. I hope too.
Did you play organ?
Well, I’m playing quite a bit of organ [at home], but I don’t have a chance to really give my organ a workin’ out, because I’m always gone.
Do you prefer any brand of piano?
Favorite kind of piano? Well, I tell you: I like any piano that’s in good shape. But I don’t like electric piano. It’s too tinny for me.
What are your plans for the future?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m gonna kind of slow down a bit, you know. I got married not too long ago – a year ago the 4th of February. ’Course, me and the girl has been together about four years anyway. So I’m gonna kind of slow down. I’m teaching now at the Chicago Music Company. When I find me a place of my own, I think I’m gonna set me up a studio in my basement, and I’ll do a lot of teaching. These long six- and seven-week tours – I don’t know, I think I’m gonna cut that out. I’m fixing to put out a new album of Big Bill’s numbers.
How’s your new album doing?
Stomping on a Saturday Night? Well, it’s going good [on Alligator] and it’s going very good over in Europe. That was recorded in Bonn, Germany, in 1977.
Is that a good sampling of what you like to play?
Oh, I don’t know. I like to play what people like. See, when I go to a place, I’ll play this, I’ll play that, and I can tell when the people is going along and what they prefer.
Any advice for young piano players?
Stick with it, stick with it. It’s a hard thing, but it pays off. Stick with it. And tell all the young musicians: You never know it all. Don’t give a damn who you are – Duke Ellington, Joe Bushman, and all those guys – you never knows it all. Because right now I can sit down to my piano and monkey around with it for an hour, hour-and-a-half, and I’ll run into something that I didn’t know before. You never know it all! Just know enough to make it lovely for yourself.