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Author Topic: Carl Davis Shoe-Shine Jug Band Man  (Read 2074 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Carl Davis Shoe-Shine Jug Band Man
« on: December 01, 2006, 12:08:29 PM »
At the lyrics forum Johnm has been discussing the role of guitarist Carl Davis in the recordings of Texas Alexander. What follows is the result of an interview conducted in the early 60s by Ralph W Miller (transcribed by John Bentley) and published in Bob Koester's magazine Jazz Report (vol. 5 no. 4, 1966/67 p. 24-25). The type written/mimeographed JR is impossible to OCR so I've scanned it from the reprint in Blues World 42 , Spring 1972, p.8.

Carl Davis: Shoe-Shine Jug Band Man
Some years ago, during one of his frequent journeys through mid-America, Ralph W. Miller was introduced to an elderly coloured gentleman who shined shoes in the lobby of the Hotel Lorraine in Toledo, Ohio. Ordinarily there would be nothing spectacular about such a meeting between two affable persons; but on this occasion it was an extraordinary confrontation. Mr Miller, a part-time jazz researcher, was shaking hands with an eighty-years-old Carl Davis. Carl was, of course, a one-time member of the musical fraternity whose activities had remained shrouded in some mystery since the earliest days of blues research. During their ensuing chat Ralph was able to penetrate superficially into Carl's musical history. Unfortunately Carl's memory had deteriorated somewhat due to his age' and this precluded an in-depth study of his part in the musical scenario. The eighty years had fallen kindly on his shoulders, but intricate details such as particular dates eluded him. Nevertheless, in the course of their talk Ralph was able to glean some rather important information concerning the octogenarian's past life. Here are highlights from their conversation:

Carl was born to a family of sharecroppers in Rison, Arkansas, roughly nineteen miles from Pine Bluff (as the crow flies, so the saying goes), on March 5, 1886. His boyhood was typical of that of other children born into the same circumstances. When he was about eighteen he began teaching himself to play guitar. Apparently he made rapid progress gaining proficiency on his instrument; for it was only a short time before he travelled the couple of hundred miles from his home to Shreveport, Louisiana, and spent the next few years there singing and playing his self-taught blues. He also accompanied numerous blues singers around the area, but was not destined to record until years later.

During his time in Shreveport he formed a close friendship with Charles (Chicken) Jackson who doubled on washboard and jug and they played together locally. How it came about was not made clear, but Carl also adventurously ambled into New Orleans and spent quite some time playing guitar with the (Oscar) Papa Celestin band, certainly dispelling any doubts about his musicianship. One of his comments regarding the time spent in the Crescent City was, "The greatest thing I ever heard was Buddy Bolden's horn. This I heard as a very young man, on my first trip to New Orleans. I never heard another horn the equal of his."

Apparently he was quite impressed with the sounds of the musicians who would some day be referred to as 'immortal'.

His recollections of hearing King Oliver and Kid Ory, and of hearing Jelly Roll Morton playing piano in one of the bawdy houses, were high points in the conversation. Others with whom he came into contact were Bud Scott, "the best banjo and guitar man I ever heard", and Clarence Williams, a friend of many years' standing, until distance prevented them keeping in touch with one another.

From the mid-1920's until the early '30's Carl spent nearly all his time playing with various small skiffle groups associated with carnivals that toured the South. Prominent among blues singers he accompanied in these years was Hattie Burleson. A good bit of his time on the carnival circuit was spent in Texas, and it was in Dallas, in 1935, that the Dallas Jamboree Jug Band sides were recorded with Carl playing guitar and taking vocals. Other members of that recording group were: Charles (Chicken) Jackson, washboard and jug; a second guitarist whose name Carl had forgotten; and a string bass player remembered only as "Shorty". Carl also remembered that a clarinetist was with them in the studio, but could not recall his name. An interesting sidelight to his career was that Carl (stated he had) accompanied Texas Alexander on Okeh 8751, Rolling Mill Blues/Peaceful Blues, sides so often previously attributed to Lonnie Johnson.

Following the 1935 recording date, Carl again joined a carnival and toured throughout the South, finally leaving the group in Baltimore where he and Charles Jackson played in bars and clubs for several years with small bands.

After leaving Baltimore, Carl played with a band that had originated in Atlanta. The leader, he remembered, was called "Fat Head" Williams. This group played quite a lot around the Illinois area. In 1945 Carl left Williams to settle in Toledo, and for a time played in bars and clubs in and around that city. Some few years later he gave up music and went to work in the roundhouse of a local railroad company, eventually to retire and live within the proceeds of his Social Security income and what he could pick up shining shoes.

During his early travels, Carl had spent about a year in and around the Memphis district. While there he devoted his off hours to learning to read music, which he readily accomplished. And it was then that he also learned to play very acceptable piano.

Ralph's conversation with Carl took place several years ago (when Carl was living at Apartment 2, 575 Lincoln Street, Toledo, Ohio) and as there has been no recent contact, Davis may now be deceased; we don't know. But certainly he will always remain one of the very important contributors to the history of blues and jazz. We hope these few notes have done him justice.
« Last Edit: December 01, 2006, 12:10:50 PM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Carl Davis Shoe-Shine Jug Band Man
« Reply #1 on: December 01, 2006, 06:50:59 PM »
Thanks very much, Bunker Hill, for re-printing this article for us.  It was a real eye-opener.  I would never have guessed in a million years that Carl Davis was born as early as 1886.  He is by far the most modern-sounding player born that early that I have heard.  At least on the sides on which he backs Texas Alexander there is not a hint of a Pre-Blues sound, and that makes him virtually unique for players born that early that I have heard.  Wouldn't his birthdate make him a contemporary of Frank Stokes and Henry Thomas (both perhaps a bit older, or possibly much older in Thomas's case)?  Perhaps the time he spent in New Orleans put him on the cutting edge of the way Popular music was evolving then, and expunged some of the more country sounds characteristic of his Arkansas upbringing.  I don't imagine we will ever know answers to so many questions that it would interesting to pose to Carl Davis, but the information contained in the piece you posted is plenty to mull over as it is.
All best,

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Carl Davis Shoe-Shine Jug Band Man
« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2006, 02:44:32 AM »
I don't imagine we will ever know answers to so many questions that it would interesting to pose to Carl Davis, but the information contained in the piece you posted is plenty to mull over as it is.
What was published were just the "highlights" of the conversation. For all we know there might be material that was considered inconsequential at the time but today might find very insightful. John Bentley was still active a decade back, I'll ask around and see if anybody is still in contact with him.

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