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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 That was [did in Bonns?].

Studs Terkel Bonn, Germany.

Blind John Davis Yeah.

Studs Terkel I remember that, that was the audience of young German jazz fans who

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. They love it!

Studs Terkel Now, when did you hit Bonn? When did, when did you hit Germany?

Blind John Davis Well, my first time in Germany was in 1973. Yeah, I was there three times that year.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of reactions to you just anywhere you play, and because I'm thinking of that one, a series of Monday programs at the Blue Note? Remember?

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah. Can't forget that. There were some beautiful days. Beautiful days.

Studs Terkel Baby Dodds at the drums.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah. Baby was a great favorite of mine of the drummers.

Studs Terkel And Big Bill, of course, was there.

Blind John Davis Oh, as you know, Big Bill and I were just like brothers, we really, we really had a good time.

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 Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel Let's go back to beginnings, John. You and the piano, and the blues piano and boogie. And how did it begin? You were -- originally you, you were born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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.

Studs Terkel During the Depression.

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.

Studs Terkel How old were you when you started learning? By this time, you, you were sightless.

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 So you play the house parties?

Blind John Davis Oh, my God, yes. I played house parties, chitlin parties, and

Studs Terkel What kind of parties?

Blind John Davis Chitlin parties.

Studs Terkel Chitlin

Blind John Davis Ye-ess.

Studs Terkel Suppose you describe, because if we're talking now about the Depression period, though you weren't hit too hard by that, 'cause your father had these businesses going

Blind John Davis Yeah, that's true.

Studs Terkel But describe a house party or a chitlin party.

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!

Studs Terkel The people would pay, they'd come in from the neighborhood, all over.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah, they'd come in all over. Yeah, they'd have a good time.

Studs Terkel And they'd pay like oh, a certain price for the chicken and have some beer, of course,

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah. Have a little home brew, have a homebrew, yeah.

Studs Terkel How long this party go on? 'Til, 'til what? They start about 10 o'clock?

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 Oh, really? So it'd go for a whole

Blind John Davis It'd start Friday.

Studs Terkel Friday about noon, and then it would go to about, 'til Sunday and Monday morning.

Blind John Davis Yeah, 'til about four or five o'clock Monday morning, then they'd be running like a bunch of rabbits. To get home to change clothes to go to -- go to meet, go to meet the man then.

Studs Terkel So what would I -- would piano players all - they'd take turns playing shifts. Oh, yeah.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah. They'd take shifts, yeah.

Studs Terkel And you'd play and there'd be dancing.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah.

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.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah.

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.

Studs Terkel They all have that, also that traveling effect as though it was a train or something, something moving, an effect of movement.

Blind John Davis Yeah.

Studs Terkel Well, Chicago had, of course, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons at the time. You knew them, didn't you?

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 Now, Pine Top Smith came from Pittsburgh, didn't he? He played Chicago for a while, didn't

Blind John Davis Yes, he played Chicago for a while, but truthfully speaking, I didn't know too much about Pine Top because I was quite young when he

Studs Terkel He died.

Blind John Davis Yeah, when he passed. I was quite young when he passed.

Studs Terkel I was thinking, uh, "Pine Top's Boogie". That's one of the classics, isn't

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, that's have been -- been "Mend Your New Suit" put on that.

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."

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, "Come over and stand by Mr. Pine Top." Yeah.

Studs Terkel I guess that during house parties or

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Be some fine little chicks in there, too, man.

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,

Blind John Davis Oh, yes. I've lived on the West Side all my life. And I lived on the South Side about twice, for about three or four months.

Studs Terkel Then Bill used to work, when I first heard him somewhere in the West Side. Silvio's.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, Silvia's was at Oak and Lake

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 And of course so did Tampa Red.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel Who is one of those remarkable men who is also taken for granted, has been ill for a long time.

Blind John Davis Oh, yes. But he's doing much better now.

Studs Terkel You, of course, you've never -- you keep seeing him all the time.

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah.

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".

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, God, they really loved that, too, overseas. [pause in recording]

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

Studs Terkel This Tampa.

Blind John Davis No, no!

Studs Terkel No, the other guy!

Blind John Davis This other guy. So, uh, I guess Melrose say, "Well"

Studs Terkel Melrose, should point out Frank Melrose was a manager, and more of this in a moment.

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 Yeah, that's how you got lined up with

Blind John Davis Yeah, that's the way I got

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?

Blind John Davis No, I don't remember none of the lyrics, but [to her?].

Studs Terkel "She's more to me

Blind John Davis "Than palace is to a king." [Sings the melody]. Then, I forget now exactly how it went, but it was a very complicated number, and the other piano players, they couldn't cut it, so.

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?

Blind John Davis Oh, yes, yes, no, he didn't, oh, no.

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 Oh, yeah.

Studs Terkel What about Bill? When did you first meet Big Bill?

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 He'd stay. Sunday in the day or something like that. Him and my dad and my uncle and my cousin, they worked together every day.

Studs Terkel It's interesting, Bill, I know he did all sorts of hard work, he was a foundry man.

Blind John Davis Oh,

Studs Terkel He worked as a

Blind John Davis -- Saw. Sawmill.

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]

Blind John Davis Gone for about three years.

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.

Blind John Davis You know he was down!

Studs Terkel John, you were saying that piano -- you're listed down here as the accompanist, and you're saying, "No, it probably wou--" you mentioned Joshua Altheimer?

Blind John Davis Yeah, that's who that is. That's not me.

Studs Terkel You could recognize that, yeah. Funny how some of these labels are all -- but you remember the time you work with Bill, though, aside from the Blue Note, all those

Blind John Davis Oh, yeah, yeah, sure. Yeah, I did quite a bit, bit of work with Bill.

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 Yeah, Minnie was good. She was great.

Studs Terkel When you first came across Minnie, were you surprised that this, a woman jazz artist, blues artist who was so strong?

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.

Blind John Davis Yeah. Minnie was, Minnie, Minnie, she was quite a showman, too,

Studs Terkel Oh, and how.

Blind John Davis Yeah, Minnie was quite a showman.

Studs Terkel We gotta hear her do, this is Minnie, Memphis Minnie Lawlers, and "Killer Diller". [pause in recording] It was a strong guitar she played there, too.

Blind John Davis Yeah, beautiful.

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 It came out of that moment loneliness there.

Blind John Davis Yeah. Oh, yeah.

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 Who? This other guy. The agent

Blind John Davis Yeah. Walter Melrose.

Studs Terkel Yeah, well, yeah.

Blind John Davis So I couldn't do it under five years. So it's been 25.

Studs Terkel It was your number, though, you wrote

Blind John Davis Yeah, I wrote it! Yeah.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Well, there we go. That's part of the old story. Somebody

Blind John Davis -- Yeah,

Studs Terkel Oh, boy. That's an old story.

Blind John Davis I wrote so many of 'em. I wrote "Jersey Cow".

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 Oh, yeah, I will. Next time I record, I'm going to do that.

Studs Terkel Because of this, "Moanin' the Blues" had that similar feel to it.

Blind John Davis Same, yeah. That's

Studs Terkel What's one to end the pro-- you like "When I Lost My Baby", that's from this album, too.

Blind John Davis Yeah!.

Studs Terkel Now, where'd this come from? Is this yours, too?

Blind John Davis No, "When I Lost My Baby", if I'm not mistaking, I think Ivory Joe wrote that.

Studs Terkel Hunter?

Blind John Davis Yeah, I think he wrote that number.

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.

Blind John Davis It's been beautiful and lovely.

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?].

Blind John Davis Oh, it's been beautiful. It's been a pleasure.

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.

Blind John Davis Yeah, George Barnes and, uh, oh, we made, uh, a whole lot of records together him and I, and Ransom Knowling.

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

Blind John Davis -- Bass,

Studs Terkel At the bass. "Magic Carpet". And we end with this, and we fly off with this one.

Blind John Davis Yeah, good!

Studs Terkel On this one.