Blues Heroes | CeDell Davies

Fat Possom just has to be the best name for a record label ever.

They’re an American independent record label based in Oxford, Mississippi. They started out by recording relatively unknown blues artists from the North Mississippi region: their most famous being R.L. Burnside.

My personal favourite artist recorded by Fat Possum is CeDell Davies. I first heard his music when I was researching one of his fellow Possum artists Asie Payton.

The first song I heard from CeDell was the first one on this playlist:

CeDell Davies playlist on Spotify

My immediate thought was:

“Whoa, that’s a cool sound! Is that slide guitar, or something else?”

I hadn’t heard anything like it, so I had to know more.

When I looked up the biography details of CeDell Davies, I discovered why his guitar sound was so unique.

I also uncovered an incredible life story.

Cedell Davis with butter knife slide guitar

Born Ellis CeDell Davies in 1926, Arsansas. His mother was known as a faith healer and his father ran a Juke Joint. CeDell showed his musical roots from a very young age in the form of a Diddley Bow (a one-stringed instrument made by nailing a wire to a wall).

Pretty soon he was learning guitar and harmonica, and sneaking off to listen to the music being played in Juke Joints.

Age 10 years, he was unlucky enough to contract Polio. He was left partially paralysed and unable to walk without crutches. Worse yet, he could no longer use his right hand. His solution to this was to turn his guitar upside-down and play with his left hand instead.

He swiped one of his mother’s silver knives and started to use it as a slide:

“Almost anything you could do with your hands, I could do with a knife.”

He told David Ramsey in the Oxford American magazine:

“It’s all in the way that you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.”

In the documentary Blues Back Home (watch clip below) he describes his life as a musician playing all around Helena (a Mississippi river port), including street corners, when he wasn’t lucky enough to have a gig in a Juke Joint or a Honky Tonk.

“Bobby and I used to go around to the clubs, and if they were crowded, the owners would say they didn’t need no band. So we’d offer to play four or five numbers for free, and the owners would say O.K. …

After we’d gotten everyone out onto the dance floor, we’d just stop right in the middle of the scene, take down our stuff and be moving out the door. And the people would say, ‘Isn’t there gonna be no band?’ And then they’d start leaving. Then the owner would stop us and ask what we’d charge to play…and that’s how we’d get the job.

Soon he was appearing on the famous live blues radio show King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk, another slide guitarist.

Cedell DavisIn 1957 he was badly injured during a gun brawl in an East St Louis bar. His leg suffered multiple fractures and this time he was left dependent on a wheelchair.

“Whether I could walk or not, I had to find my place in this world, and I found it.”

He continued to play in St. Louis until he was invited to play a regular gig at the Jack Rabbit, Pine Bluff in Arkansas.

He came to the national and international blues arena after Robert Palmer became his admirer.

Palmer described him thus:

“A virtuoso with the table knife. The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.”

His very first gig in New York City was attended by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and he continued to collect many other guitarist admirers during his lifetime.

CeDell Davies was married twice and had two children, as well as helping to raise stepchildren. He died age 91 from a heart attack on Wedesday, 27th October 2017.

His style of blues evolved into an earthy, urban gritty blues that I will never tire of listening to.

In his words:

“I play blues the way it is. It tells it all.”

 

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