Blind John Davis discusses Chicago blues
BROADCAST: Sep. 20, 1977 | DURATION: 00:26:56
Blind John Davis, Chicago blues pianist, discusses his time playing in Germany and at the Blue Note jazz club, chitlin' parties, growing up on the West side of Chicago. He also recalls meeting and working with musicians like Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. Music has been removed from this recording for copyright reasons.
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Studs Terkel All over the world, it seemed whenever musicians gather or young people in different societies, when they speak of jazz, they often speak of Chicago blues. Chicago blues, a lot of names come into play. But there's one name that should come into play more often than it does, though he's very well-known in European countries, very well-known as Blind John Davis. I had the delight of, uh, working with him once at the old Blue Note with Baby Dodds and Big Bill Broonzy on Monday nights, and we called those "Monday Blues", and Blind John Davis has lived in Chicago ever since, oh, 1916 on the West Side. He'll talk about that, and we think of Chicago blues or, for that matter, blues from Mississippi, where he came from originally as a kid, we think of John Davis and his piano, and there's an album of his just came out by Alligator, and it's called, it's called "Stompin' on a Saturday Night", and we'll hear some of John's works. He's my guest, and he'll be reflecting this morning, reminiscing and talking about himself and the blues. In a moment after this message. [pause in recording]. John Davis, you remember -- where was that, John?
Blind John Davis Yeah.
Studs Terkel It was Bill who suggested you that time. Frank Holstein wanted to keep Monday nights going, 'cause generally the bands play there, but they're off on Monday night, and Bill said, "You got to get Johnny Davis."
Blind John Davis That's right. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, yeah. In 1913 December 7th. My father was a[ motor?] by trade. He was a [motor?] by trade. And, uh, we, we figured up another trade later years.
Blind John Davis Yeah, during the Depression. My dad had a couple of nightspots and, you know, and I used to hear the different guys play piano and, one thing about it, so -- and I was a very jealous kid of my dad, so I'd see him pay those guys off, so I just asked him one night after he got to paying James Patterson off, piano player, I says, "Say, Pa, if I learn how to play the piano, would you pay me?" He said, "Aw, yeah. You learn how to play, I'll pay you." So I gave him a many sleepless nights, you know, on the piano.
Blind John Davis Oh, yes. I lost my sight when I was nine years old. I lost my sight when I was nine years old -- I guess I was about 13 when I got interested in it and playing for sure, then the kids in the neighborhood after I began to play a few numbers and the kids in the neighborhood, I was the first one that they sent an invitation to, that party supports pretty near everybody then. There was, there was somebody, they had a piano. Oh, yeah.
Studs Terkel Chitlin
Blind John Davis Ye-ess.
Blind John Davis Well, I tell you what to do. This thing just like now that's Friday night, my grandma, she would, she had a, she had, uh, big pot there, bigger than, bigger than most of their restaurant pots and she'd put on about 30 pounds of chitlins and cook up spaghetti and, uh, potato salad, she'd have chicken and fish, fish fried fish and everything like that, then they would take up the rugs over the floor 'cause they didn't want them danced out! Set them upside the bed, in some of the house parties they'd have a bed in the rooms, and they'd set the beds upside the wall. Oh, man, they'd have a ball!
Blind John Davis No, man, on a Friday, those different big factories at that time around the neighborhood, fish started coming in for chitlins, and chicken and fish around noontime. Some of 'em would call up, they would have it delivered to these factories and [things?], and then the party would go then. Oh, my God, it would go until -- some of the guys would leave the house Monday morning. The party would go
Studs Terkel What about -- so we'll hear some of that later in some [unintelligible], well even now, because I like the way you sing, too, and at the Blue [Note] you'd sing, and there's every day -- we know Basie's band plays it, but you do it your own way, "Every Day I Got the Blues". This is you.
Studs Terkel All right. [pause in recording] And young German audience again in Bonn there. I'm thinking about the blues piano that you play and boogie. We think of boogie-woogie, we think of a certain period, don't we?
Blind John Davis Yeah, but I'll tell you something about boogie. You see, way before, before Pine Top [Smith], way before him, I remember it was ah, guy from New Orleans, he was, he run on the train, and every time he's gonna be in Chicago, he would stay at my dad's, and he could play about three or four numbers. And that man, he played a bass, and he called "running bass," a running base. It was a boogie-woogie. It was a beautiful boogie number. It was just great. And he could, he could really -- then sometimes he'd call it a rolling bass. It was just, just fantastic. It was just great.
Studs Terkel Well, how would you describe it? You said, you speak of the bass, and that Pine Tar preferred it to those who have [innocence?], a man named Pine Top Smith, and we'll hear him in a moment from John. Boogie-woogie, how would you describe it? You said rolling bass, someone said it's the right hand supplying the muscle, left hand supplying the soul. But, how would you describe
Blind John Davis Well, I'll tell you. To make it very effective, it's got to be -- you got, you got to, you got to -- both hands is have to kind of know what the, what the other was going to do. That's the way it's got to be. And now you can uh, you can play uh, boogie bass, with, ah, octaves. You can play it with octaves. A boogie bass, and you can play, then this another bass that you can play kind of a chopping bassline, then, always several different kind of basses of boogie. But it's, it all winds up to the same thing, but they all has a different effect, and they all has a, you know, different tone.
Blind John Davis Yeah.
Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, Albert and I were very good friends. Yeah, Albert and I were very good friends. I worked there, I worked at the Club DeLisa, my band and I, before Albert went in, so when after Albert went in, he worked here for quite a while, then, Red Sanders closed the place. Or he was there about, I guess about 25 or 26 years as [a better?].
Studs Terkel "Mend Your New Suit". Well, here's John Davis and Pine, "Pine Top's Boogie-Woogie" you played in Germany. [pause in recording] One of the lines when Pine Top says "There's a little girl with a red dress on."
Studs Terkel Yeah?
Blind John Davis Yeah.
Studs Terkel And dancing, always dancing to it. There's one thing about you, John--John Davis my guest--is that, you always get the audi-- I noticed that when you worked the old Blue Note those Monday nights or listening to, of this recording of you in this little club in Germany. You always have the audience participating with you almost all the time.
Blind John Davis Well, I, I don't know. I guess it's, I guess, uh they can feel what I'm doing, you know? And they, they enjoy it. They enjoy and I enjoy, you know, right along with them. Yeah, that's beautiful.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of you in Chicago. The changes that you've experienced since you've been here, since you started. Came up here in 1916 and when you learned to play a few years later, you know, that the different -- you've lived in the same area pretty much all your life,
Studs Terkel That's
Blind John Davis I worked there. I worked there with Bill, and also Bill worked for quite a while at Gatewoods [Tavern]. There in the 2400 block on Lake. Then we worked together over on Hastings and Racine at [Waxey's?] Tavern. Oh, Bill and I did quite a bit of work together.
Studs Terkel Well, we haven't -- heard you do for a long time, I didn't, I remember you played once in a while. You'd fooled them there at the Blue Note, and some would ask for songs and some would say, "Summertime", thinking they'd hook you or something, but you would do your "Summertime".
Studs Terkel That's John Davis. By the way, we should point out this record from which you're hearing is available here, you know, just about all the record stores, certainly those that carry jazz, and just about all of them do, it's called, you know, "Blind John Davis", and it's "Stompin' on a Saturday Night", orange color and this marvelous photograph in there, surrounded by a lot of listeners. Put out by Alligator Records, and it's a very exciting one, with some excellent liner notes, too, in the back. John Davis, reflecting, playing, and singing. In a moment we'll resume more of the conversation of Johnny Davis and more of his piano. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with John Davis and the piano in Chicago and blues, and of course how can we talk -- how can you talk about without bringing in memories of friends, Tampa Red you mentioned, of course, Big Bill.
Blind John Davis I will tell you something. It's a funny thing, you know, I loved Tamper [sic] because Tamper [sic] has always been great with me, and he's the guy that really give me my break with records. You see, I call, uh, this manager of, uh, the records. I called him and I asked him about me getting a chance to make records. I really didn't know how to go about it. So he told me, says "Well, meet me at a certain number, so I met him at a certain number and this guy, I just couldn't understand what he was playing. He, he would write out a number and ah, go back the next day, he'd be done changed it at rehearsal, so I just got a little disgusted with him, him and I couldn't get along, so
Blind John Davis Yeah. So he, uh, I guess he figured "I'll get rid of him. I'll take him 'round to Tampa." See, because Tampa writes some very difficult stuff. So at this time, this, uh, Wallie [sic - Wallis] Simpson and this Prince of Wales deal was on, and Tampa had then wrote a number, "She's More to Me Than a Palace is to a King". And it was a minor number. So his wife was sick at the time, Frances Whittaker, she was sick at the time. She was in bed, so I asked Tampa, I said, "Well, I've seen a little bit of it for me, so I'll see if I can do it." He says, "I don't know." He says, "I've had several up here and they couldn't do it," says "I just think I might forget it or either go ahead and just do it by myself," so, I said, "Well, let me hear a little of it and see what I can do with it." So he sing about eight bars of it, and I said, "What key you're in?" He says, "Well, this is F minor." Said "F minor?" I says, "Okay, let's try it again." So let's try it. So he started again, and I fell right on into it. And his wife, even though she was sick, she hollered out the room, she said, "Tampa, he's the one!" And so that was it. I was in then.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking a week -- I was looking for some Tampa records, I haven't, and I goofed up. I have some at home but not here. But I was thinking that song when Wallie [sic - Wallis] Simpson and Prince of Wales was all in the, Duke of Windsor always in the news, this song, you remember how -- a line of that goes, you remember a lyric from that thing?
Studs Terkel You know, one of the things since you mentioned Tampa and I'll ask you about how you met Bill in a moment. Someone, I notice some of the songs that I know you wrote, and that Bill wrote, "Down Below" has the name of this manager as though he wrote it, you know. A lot of that went on, didn't it?
Studs Terkel I know. This is part of the -- what happened when artists came from the South here, Black artists, that is, and here and this happened to poor white artists, too, and they were taken. And so in order to get it published or any -- this other guy would take the credit and [almost?] most of the dough. This happened so often.
Blind John Davis Well, I'll tell you. When I first met Big Bill, he wasn't playing music. He was working every day with my father and my uncle and my cousin. They was working at a foundry in Melrose Park, and, uh, Bill, he would come over to our house -- see, my dad, he worked in the day, and uh, my ma, she would sell the stuff, you know, the whiskey, you know, and the beer and stuff, and, uh, when my dad come home at night, he'd taking a rest, and he would take over then, and course, we sold out by the gallons, you know, the four and five and ten gallons, you know, at the time, 'cause we made it, and, uh, Big Bill used to come to our house. Sometimes he'd come on Friday and Big Bill wouldn't leave until Saturday sometimes, uh, uh, Sunday
Studs Terkel Sunday!
Blind John Davis Oh,
Studs Terkel Everything. But all that time, he was playing music, too. He'd pick it up and -- this is one, here's Bill. I came across a 1939 record and you're accompanying Bill, and it's called, 1939, "Lookin' Up at Down". Remember that one? We're going to hear the words of this one. [pause in recording]
Studs Terkel John Davis talking about a friend of his who's recently died, too. This was a -- Big Bill, 1939, and "Lookin' Up at Down", he's, "I'm so low even the miners are looking down at me, I'm lying deep in the mine," he wants to go to the moon.
Studs Terkel When I think of you, John, so many others come to my mind, your colleagues, I think of a woman. A woman blues guitarist and singer who, you wouldn't say it, the feminists would get mad today, say, she used to have -- she had the power of a man. [Where though?] the women's move wouldn't like that today, they would say it's patronizing, but the fact that she did! Memphis Minnie Lawlers.
Blind John Davis Well, I was, I was, really, I really, because to hear her play, you would think it was another man. Yeah, you'd think it was another man playing, because she was real strong, yeah, she was
Studs Terkel She came one day up to the Blue Note, Big Bill had to go to Europe, is why he got her as a pinch hitter. That's -- I think you were unavailable, tried to get you, you were playing elsewhere at the time, and she got up there, why, she just wowed that audience, thinking.
Studs Terkel And what happened was Bill, uh, called up -- no, he -- it was about nine o'clock, and Bill long ago, we'd start the show about nine, nine-thirty at the Blue Note on Monday nights with Baby Dodds and -- no, let this -- before you joined, before Baby Dodds, and there was another program we did, like "Come for to Sing", and Bill isn't there at nine. So I call up home, Rose there and she said, "He's on his way," and I say, "Okay, great." And then she says, "To England. To London." We didn't know. But in the meantime, Bill gave us a cue in advance, he gave us a whole list of names in case he can't make it, he had Tampa Red, and Tampa played a few times, and this one night we got Memphis Minnie, and she came last minute and she just wowed the place. Well, back to you, John Davis, and the piano; and this album, by the way, that's available in just about any music store. John Davis, and we will hear a couple of more from your album, "Stompin' on a Saturday Night" that Alligator puts out, "Moanin' the Blues". Who, whose is this? How'd you come across this one?
Blind John Davis Well, I just, well, I'll tell you one thing about it, this a little, the history of this, that that song. My wife, she'd taken sick and she had to go to Houston, Texas, to her people. And I was just layin' there in the bed one night all alone. Nobody but me and my cat and dog, and I just set up in the bed and I started writing. I got my slate and stylus, you know, that's Braille, you know. I got my slate and stylus and I started [thinking?], so I was real low. I'm telling you, I was low. So I started thinking, I said, "Well," and I thought, talk about moaning the blues, I got 'em tonight." And I started writing that song, and, uh, it has been, it has given me a lot of good. A lot of places I play, they really like that song. "Moanin' the Blues".
Studs Terkel I guess there's nothing like a slow blues. Oh, that's so good. I got the feeling, isn't it there. You know, I was thinking it brought back similarity to a song, another song you wrote called, uh, "No Mail Today".
Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah, that was -- you know, that's a number I really believe would have really made it, you know, if it had had any pushing, you know? Because everybody ever heard that number, they still talk about it, and if I record again, I'm gonna do that number again. See, because I couldn't do it for nobody under five years, 'cause he had it contracted.
Studs Terkel "No Mail" -- you know who loved "No Mail"? Bill Leonard. Bill Leonard, who covered night life and jazz for the "Chicago Tribune", would come every Monday night to the Blue Note for "I Come For to Sing", and "The Monday Blues", and he always asked for "No Mail Today", I looked for the record, it was a 78 and I think it fell somewhere and I busted it or I can't find it, and you've got to re-record that.
Blind John Davis Yeah!.
Studs Terkel Hunter?
Studs Terkel So this is by way of a, greeting after a long, long separation, my colleague of, for many years, many Mondays, Blind John Davis, and the album of his, of which you're hearing a number of pieces is called, with a nice orange, orange cover, is called "Stomping on a Saturday Night", Alligator the, is a label, and it's available in just about all the jazz stores. And John, it's good seeing you again.
Studs Terkel Soon as you're working somewhere where, you know, in locally, as you often do, we'll have to plug that place and come see you. Make people feel good. So "When I Lost My Baby", we'll hear this, and I say to you, John, thank you very much for being my guest [today?].
Studs Terkel There's always something unexpected. This is a postscript, John Davis. Lying on the table here was an old 78, "Magic Carpet", an old label, and John I mentioned it to you just now, John Davis, this is a postscript, and you said, "Hey, that's the one George Barnes" was accompanying you on.
Studs Terkel Ransom Knowling at the bass and Barnes at, this is by way of a tribute to George Barnes, whom John just discovered, was told died a couple of weeks ago. That marvelous guitar man, of course John Davis has played with them all. And here's one, it's called Blind Johnny Davis Trio, and it's you and Georgie Barnes' guitar, Ransom Knowling