From Belafonte to the blues: Guy Davis' uncommon life
NEW YORK (AP) — The blues, at its best, strikes a common chord: Guy Davis unspools everyman's tale with earnest, engaging ease — but his own story is uncommon.
This down-to-earth bluesman wears the larger-than-life mantle of his late parents: activist-actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
The New York native travels the world sharing music steeped heavily in America's South, invoking an era of his ancestors.
"Blues music, to me, is the music of survivors," says Davis. "I grew up in a home where we talked, we listened, we sang. ... There were stories heard in my family that involved racism, lynching."
Today, Davis contemplates incarnations of age-old themes: "Killings in the name of personal hatred ... political hatred ... religious hatred."
"I'm a musician; my friends are musicians," he says. "Maybe we can help to generate a positive spirit, one of brotherhood, opening up. ... The solution can have to do with love ... reaching people by telling stories."
The musician and actor, who's also got a fun-loving side, spoke to The Associated Press about his life and career while hunkering down to work on his 11th album and heading to this weekend's Rockland-Bergen Music Festival in Tappan, New York.
"I couldn't be a politician. I can tell lies, but I tell them for entertainment," he jokes.
His voice — gritty, sensuous, filled with longing, resignation and a spritz of raunchiness — cleaves to his rhythmic fretwork as he enshrines the masters and weaves musical stories of his own.
Music, says Davis, referencing the writer Kurt Vonnegut, is the only thing needed to prove that God exists.
Family and friends influenced Davis. As a "wee lad," he was fascinated by his aunt's guitar. "I put my hand in the hole and tried to ... rip the strings out. I was trying to find the music."
His family's record collection was bountiful: "Uncle Harry" (Belafonte), Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, Odetta, Eartha Kitt and Fats Waller.
Folk legend Pete Seeger was a cherished family friend and mentor. (Davis was about 11 when he told Seeger in a condescending tone that his own musical tastes skewed toward James Brown.)
Young Guy also absorbed Klezmer in the '60s from musicians playing Broadway with his dad.
"My sisters and I might have been exposed to things not everybody gets exposed to," he concedes, recalling:
— A visit from a barefoot neighbor (Sidney Poitier).
— His parents risking arrest for their beliefs.
— Ossie Davis, in robe and slippers, at the dining-room table at 5 a.m. "My dad's word processor" at the ready: two yellow legal pads, pencils, erasers and tape in a cut-down oatmeal box.
Talent is "a mighty fine thing," he taught his son. "Craft means doing something whether you feel like it or not ... giving people everything you have."
— Ruby Dee, a steely disciplinarian, uncharacteristically defeated by her teen's "snarky remark."
"My dad came downstairs and said my mother was crying. He said, 'Maybe you don't need a mother.'
"Did I fall down ... sobbing? Yes, I did," says Davis.
Last September, Davis sang his touching "Love Looks Good on You" at his mother's memorial service. "Little old couple, holdin' hands, their grandkids grown but they're still makin' plans ..."
"Yes, I do need a mother," he says now, his voice trailing off.
To the Davis kids, life seemed "very ordinary": homework, piano practice, family chores.
He got a few guitar lessons — including one from Huey Long of the Ink Spots.
But mostly, searching out the sweet spot that resonates in his belly and spine — "that is how I was meant to learn."
Now, he shares the blues at schools, engaging kids with harmonica, "whoopin' and barkin'."
Davis loves the give-and-take of smaller venues, where people "look into your face ... see your eyes." He tours for Light of Day, a Parkinson's disease foundation supported by Bruce Springsteen.
The Rockland-Bergen festival, which supports numerous causes, was founded by musician Joe D'Urso, who's on the boards of the Light of Day Foundation and the Harry Chapin charity, WhyHunger.
Davis, 63, envisions that in 20 years, he'll be "this old guy they wheel out on the stage," opening for some "kid rock star" who discovered "the magic" from him.
The uncommon everyman laughs. He's got a plan.
"I'll have to really suck up to these kids."