01. Red Dirt Boogie, Brother 3:44
02. White Line Fever 3:03
03. Farther On Down The Road (You Will Accompany Me) 3:14
04. Sue Me, Sue You Blues 2:45
05. My Captain 3:23
06. Ululu 3:40
07. Oh! Susannah 2:45
08. Strawberry Wine 2:13
09. Make A Joyful Noise 3:51
10. Alcatraz 3:15
Bass – Donald "Duck" Dunn
Drums – Jim Keltner
Guitar, Vocals – Jesse Davis
Organ, Piano – Mac Rebennack
The term “musician’s musician” gets bandied about a lot, but in the case of the late Jesse Ed Davis, “guitar hero’s guitar hero” might be more accurate. His tasty slide on Taj Mahal’s rendition of “Statesboro Blues” provided the blueprint for the Allman Brothers’ later version; he recorded with three of the four Beatles and was in the house band for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangla Desh; when Eric Clapton wrote “Hello Old Friend” he deferred to Davis to supply the lyrical slide; and when a budding blues man named Pete Anderson heard Jesse Ed’s country licks on Taj’s souped-up take of “Six Days On The Road,” it set the course for his fruitful association with Dwight Yoakam.
After playing on Taj Mahal’s first three classic albums, Davis amassed a resume of sessions that included Albert and B.B. King, Harry Nilsson, Gene Clark, Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, and Rod Stewart, as well as standout solos on Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow” and Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” Of the latter, guitarist David Grissom says, “The solos were a huge influence on me – such expressive playing and beautiful, pure tone. I love the way he built the solos and the way the band played with him.”
In the early ’70s, Davis released three solo albums, Jesse Davis, Ululu, and Keep Me Comin’ – all now collectors items, with heavyweights like Leon Russell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, and Gram Parsons returning the favor and accompanying him. The first two albums, recently issued on a single CD by Wounded Bird Records, offer even more evidence of Davis’ incredible versatility.
A full-blooded Kiowa Indian, Davis played in country star Conway Twitty’s band in his native Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles and quickly picking up session work with fellow Oklahomans, backing Gary Lewis. J.J. Cale recalls, “All the guys I played with were from Tulsa, but Ed was from Oklahoma City. A singer named Jimmy [a.k.a. “Junior”] Markham started using Ed, and he became part of our clan. He was so good, people started using him. We were all just playing nightclubs in North Hollywood or West L.A. for $10 and all the beer you could drink. He had his white Telecaster, and he was one of the first guys to cop onto the slide guitar, like ‘Statesboro Blues.'”
When Taj Mahal’s band, the Rising Sons, broke up in ’67, producer/engineer Gordon Shyrock introduced the singer to an aggregation of Okies jamming at the Topanga Corral. With Rising Son Ry Cooder, Taj brought Davis, drummer Chuck Blackwell, and bassist Gary Gilmore into the studio to complete his self-titled debut. When Cooder departed for a solo career a year later, the quartet stayed in place and recorded Natch’l Blues.
“That was the one that really got me,” says Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. “When he played, it was always understated; you always wanted more.” Blackwell concurs: “That was the first time I ever heard a guitar player play like that. He played with real touch. He didn’t just bang it every time; sometimes he’d turn it up loud, and then he’d play real soft. Then if he sustained or punched, he could play a little harder – instead of full-out hard all the time. He controlled his dynamics with his touch, and he had a crying, haunting deal I just never heard. For melodic blues, he’s my favorite.”
Davis’ main setup was his white Tele through a tweed 4×10? Bassman with JBLs, although he’d sometimes use a Vibro Champ in the studio. As Mahal pointed out in his VG interview (October ’04), Jesse was one of the first guitarists to experiment with a Leslie. “He used it a little bit on Natch’l Blues and a little more on Giant Step. But he was not one for a lot of effects; he created most of the effects between his hands – like the volume knob with his little finger. He picked with a flatpick and two fingers.”
Of the Leslie sound, Hidalgo points out, “Jesse touched a lot of people. George Harrison had come to the U.S. and was hanging out with people like the Band and Jesse Ed, and then you see ‘Let It Be,’ and George is playing slide on a Tele through a Leslie. There was a connection there. Mike Halby, who I did Houndog with, knew Leon Russell and all the Okies, and he said that when Jesse would practice, all he would play was George Harrison solos.”
One of Davis’ most unusual gigs was when he became “the sixth Face” on tour. Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan explains, “In August, 1975, the Faces began rehearsals for what would become our last tour. Ronnie Wood had just come off a long Stones tour and, because Rod didn’t think he could handle being the sole guitarist again after playing with Keith [Richards], he took it on himself to hire another guitarist. Unfortunately for Rod, he brought in Jesse Ed Davis, who was not just a brilliant guitarist, but a character and a raver like Ronnie and me, and we warmed to him immediately. I knew his guitar playing from Taj Mahal’s albums and his slide guitar on John Lennon’s version of ‘Stand By Me.’ But having met this Native American, I discovered a gentle man who had a sly, rascally side that particularly appealed to Ronnie and me.
“Onstage, Jesse was brilliant at finding space amid the Faces thrashing and pumping to place his subtle guitar slides and licks,” Mac continues. “And backstage he was the perfect conspiratorial character to hang with – very amusing and easy going, and always up to something mischievous.”
In the late ’80s, Davis wrote and played the music for the poetry of Indian activist John Trudell; their band was called Graffiti Man. In February of ’87, the Graffiti band was playing L.A.’s Palomino club, and, thanks to some of Jesse’s old associates, it turned into one of the most star-studded jams in rock history, with Taj, Harrison, Dylan, and John Fogerty joining in.
After battling drug and alcohol problems most of his career, Davis died of an apparent overdose 16 months later, at age 43.
In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, permanently ensconced alongside guitar legends such as Barney Kessel, Lowell Fulson, Charlie Christian, and Elvin Bishop. The surviving three-fourths of the Natch’l Blues band (Taj, Blackwell, and Gilmore) reunited to perform at the ceremony.
As Gilmore sums up his friend and bandmate, “He was a fun-loving person, who loved to play music. That really was his life. He was great to play with in the band. He would come up with a lot of the arrangements, along with Taj, and the way he played was simple but with a lot of feeling. He didn’t overdo anything; his solos were more simple and soulful – the way I like to hear it.”
By Dan Forte
This article originally appeared in Vintage Guitar‘s August 2005 issue
Jesse Ed Davis was perhaps the most versatile session guitarist of the late '60s and early '70s. Whether it was blues, country, or rock, Davis' tasteful guitar playing was featured on albums by such giants as Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, John Lennon, and John Lee Hooker, among others. It is Davis' weeping slide heard on Clapton's "Hello Old Friend" (from No Reason to Cry), and on both Rock n' Roll and Walls & Bridges, it is Davis who supplied the bulk of the guitar work for ex-Beatle Lennon.
Born in Oklahoma, Davis first earned a degree in literature from the University of Oklahoma before beginning his musical career touring with Conway Twitty in the early '60s. Eventually the guitarist moved to California, joining bluesman Taj Mahal and playing guitar and piano on his first three albums. It was with Mahal that Davis was able to showcase his skill and range, playing slide, lead, and rhythm, country, and even jazz guitar during his three-year stint.
The period backing Mahal was the closest Davis came to being in a band full-time, and after Mahal's 1969 album Giant Step, Davis began doing session work for such diverse acts as David Cassidy, Albert King, and Willie Nelson. In addition, he also released three solo albums featuring industry friends such as Leon Russell and Eric Clapton.
In and out of clinics, Davis disappeared from the music industry for a time, spending much of the '80s dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. Just before his death of a suspected drug overdose in 1988, Davis resurfaced playing in the Graffiti Band, which coupled his music with the poetry of American Indian activist John Trudell. The kind of expert, tasteful playing that Davis always brought to an album is sorely missed among the acts he worked with.
His second album "Ululu" is far more a collector's record than an actual "turntable staple," it is a significant improvement from Davis' first solo outing. During the title track in particular, as well as a cover of Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever," Davis' voice achieves a ragged glory that makes the listener realize why sloppy rock & roll can be so much fun. Other standout moments include a version of the tune that Davis co-wrote with Taj Mahal, "Further on Down the Road," and the Davis-penned "Reno St. Incident." In all, it is the fun record that you would expect from a standout session player like Davis.
by Steve Kurutz
Backing Taj Mahal in The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, Jesse Ed Davis plays guitar like a stone cold badass. His face looks almost too at ease to be lucid and focused, yet his deliberate licks on the telecaster are perfectly understated and soulful. When the band drops out during “Ain’t That a Lot of Love,” Davis takes a coolly restrained solo that’s all punchy rock licks but the antithesis of gauche shredding. As he finishes with a climactic, wailing note, his facial expression barely hints at a smile of satisfaction. He’s a satisfying foil to Taj’s bombast. The Oklahoma born, Kiowa bred guitarist got his start playing with Conway Twitty, got famous playing with Taj, and racked up an impressive list of studio credits throughout his career. He was one of the most tasteful guitarists from that late ‘60s high period of electrified blues rock—not a rock star but a rock stylist.
His self-titled 1971 album is awash in celebrity talent comprised of who’s who cast of characters ranging from bonafide rock stars to fellow crack session players—Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Gram Parsons, Merry Clayton and Clydie King all make appearances. While Davis’ songwriting may not jump out — at times coming across like a vehicle for the next jam — the ace ensemble captures an impressive, swampy, Muscle-Shoals vibe that at times recalls Dr. John’s early Night Tripper material or Link Wray’s “Shack” recordings.
And indeed Mac Rebbenack is credited with playing piano on Davis’ next solo LP, Ululu. Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn is in the Ululu band too, and its sound is a bit tighter and more focused on Davis’ guitar playing. There are fewer originals and Davis shares a writing credit with Taj Mahal on “Farther On Down the Road (You Will Accompany Me),” but the highlight is his dusty take on Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever.” Here, he stuffs a rag in the muffler of Haggard’s truck—it’s less pokey, a straight-ahead roadhouse rollick. When he asks in the opening line “I wonder just what makes a man keep pushing on?” Davis’ ragged, untamed voice sounds desperate, a little frantic. Like his guitar style, Davis’ voice sounds soulfully low-key. It’s easy to imagine coming from mouth of that straight-faced performer in the Rock and Roll Circus. The song is short, sweet, and Davis’ trebly slide guitar is featured prominently throughout, and, really, that’s what we want to hear.