Nick Bollinger considers the legacy of Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.
The recent documentary film Rumble uncovers the sometimes secret role Native American musicians have played in the history of American pop. It’s full of surprises, and worth seeing. Among other things, it reminded me of the late Oklahoma-born, Native American guitarist Jesse Edwin Davis III.
Davis had a powerful personal sound: cleanly articulated licks with a bluesy bite. For a while you would hear that sound in some lofty places. Guitar geeks had already caught on to him through his work on the early Taj Mahal albums, but it seemed the whole world had by the time he appeared as part of George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh and later as lead guitarist on John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album, along with records by Bryan Ferry, Gene Clark, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen, among others.
It was during that period, in the early 70s, that Davis made two solo albums for Atlantic, which are gathered together in this reissue. While they are certainly worth hearing, they display both his strengths and his limitations.
‘Every Night Is Saturday Night’ is the track that opens Jesse Davis, the first of his two Atlantic albums, made in 1970. It’s a song that promises a party, and with a huge ensemble of horn players, backing singers, percussionists it is clear there were plenty willing to take up Jesse Ed’s invitation. In fact there are so many musicians playing on the damn track (which goes on for more than seven minutes) that it just about disguises the fact that Jesse, while a superb accompanist, isn’t actually much of a frontman, and the singing is prosaic at best. But if the vocals are tentative, his fretwork makes up for it in eloquence.
The two albums are studded with celebrity guests: keyboards are covered alternatively by Dr John and Leon Russell, Eric Clapton steps up at one point to trade licks, Gram Parsons is among of the chorus of backing singers and George Harrison contributes ‘Sue Me Sue You Blues’, a song he wouldn’t record himself for another couple of years.
But some of the best songs here are the ones Davis wrote himself, including the heartfelt gospel-blues ‘My Captain’, with piano by Leon Russell and reliably great guitar from Jesse Ed.
There’s a lot of blues and boogie in this set, and early 70s jam-o-rama. There’s also a fair dose of country, including a version of Merle Haggard’s ‘White Line Fever’, which hints at Davis’s early career as a sideman for the country star Conway Twitty. And there’s a lovely version of ‘Farther On Down The Road’, originally heard on Taj Mahal’s Giant Step album, which Taj and Jesse Ed wrote together.
After the two Atlantic discs, Jesse Ed Davis made just one more album under his own name. For a while he returned to his former role as a sideman; but from the late 70s there is a big gap in his discography, as though he had just disappeared.
The truth, sadly, was that he had succumbed to drug addiction, which ultimately killed him in 1988. But not long before, he had returned from whatever twilight zone he’d been dwelling in to work on a record that ranks among the best of his career: John Trudell’s Graffiti Man. It combines the spoken words of Native American poet Trudell with some of Davis’s most stinging guitar. Initially released on cassette only, it was reworked and released as a CD not long after Davis’s death, and is worth hearing. You sense that in this project, digging deeper than ever into his Native American roots, the guitarist had found a place he was truly comfortable.
As for the two Atlantic albums, these are now available again, after a long absence from the shelves, as Red Dirt Boogie. And while Jesse Ed Davis may not have been the most commanding frontman, the whole thing radiates a love of music and the fun you can have making it. And he really was a hell of a guitar player.
Red Dirt Boogie is available on Rhino