It was with feelings of great relief that I read that the 1996 Critics’ Award for ‘Comeback Artist of the Year’ in LIVING BLUES was none other than Sam Davis. All I could think was “It’s about f***ing time”, and then “It couldn’t happen to a nicer and more deserving guy”. (Val Wilmer will probably second me on that!). Then I started thinking about when I met Sam in 1971, about what might have been, and how it almost happened then.
That year I met singer/songwriter/guitarist Dan DelSanto (O&S # 53) during the time that I was teaching general biology to first-year university students. I had already begun the field-work in the Southeast with Bruce Bastin, work that became my main compulsive mania as I continued it actively for at least a decade and has been my main blues interest ever since*. My trips down South were usually possible only during the summer holiday period, but I wanted to keep my “field-work” hand in at other times as well while up North. I later spent some time in and around NYC chasing after folks there, with some successes (Larry Dale, Bobby Harris, Bob Gaddy, Jimmy Spruill, a.o.). At home in Ulster Co., NY I had Dan’s local help.
DelSanto was the front man then for The Arm Bros., a bluegrass/C&W band of note (no pun intended) in the Lower Hudson River Valley of New York State. He lived in the city of Poughkeepsie (the birthplace of I.B.M.), a place with a reasonably large Black population. I asked if he knew of anyone like the folks I had been chasing after down in the South. He remembered a 12-string guitarist named Shakespeare who played in the streets, but nobody could tell us what had happened to him or where he had gone. We were never able to find him, no matter how hard we tried. Dan had also been told of one Sam Jones, a jazz guitarist, and we took the time to find him and talk with him a bit. (I regret now that I neglected to do any follow-up there, but I was still blues blinkered then and not using studios at that point.) A couple of years later, he sat in with Eddie Kirkland (O&S # 49, 50, 51) and his band at a gig in the Poughkeepsie ghetto and he could play circles around almost anybody out there, but with real feeling and touch. I should have taken him into a studio then, but the timing was not right. And then Dan heard about Sammy Davis.
What he was told was a bit vague – that Sam was a pretty good harp-player; had worked with a Hooker; worked construction; and could be reached by leaving a message at The New York Deli on Market Street (before they “malled” it… more recently ripping it up again!). Dan did the skut-work for me, locating him and setting up a meting at Sam’s apartment one Saturday in the Fall of 1971. His place was on the top floor of a three-storey walk-up row house in the middle of Poughkeepsie’s semi-ghetto – I had my tape recorder, et al; Dan his Martin guitar. We spent an informative time with Sam as he spoke of his Mississippi childhood, traveling to Florida and playing with Earl Hooker (meeting him there and recording for Henry Stone as “Little Sam Davis” along with a drummer named Tony), moving to New York and settling in the Hudson Valley. Sam then wanted to play for me, so out came the recording mics and Dan’s guitar.
They did four tunes – Sam would lead and Dan would follow as best he could – the repertoire ran from Rice Miller/SBW II to Jr. Walker. Sam then took Dan’s guitar and did a song with that (“Stormy Monday”) – he played left-handed with the guitar standard-strung. They closed the afternoon with the two of them improvising on a swingy number. I felt then that Sam was much more than pretty good, and hoped to be able to do more with and for him later. At that time, I had been trying to get labels interested in my tapes, but the last blues boom was dying and nobody seemed too interested. So I foolishly ventured into the void myself with Trix Records (and the rest is history! O&S # 37, 54, 55). In the beginning I put out some 45s to let the world know what was there (with about as much success as Sun Ra and his El Saturn singles!). One of them was “Someday Blues”/”Sam’s Swing” by Harmonica Sammy Davis. The sales of all six singles were underwhelming and few seemed to care about all this talent I had been fortunate to be able to record. So I decided to put out some LPs instead!
In 1972 I had become slightly involved in the Spring Weekend musical festivities at The State University College at New Paltz, NY where I taught. Through some students that I knew I was able to get Larry Johnson, Baby Tate, and Eddie Kirkland onto one of the day-long programs (headlined by The Persuasions, and The Lovin’ Spoonful). I got Eddie together with the rhythm section from The Arm Bros. (a/k/a The Italian-American Blues Band) for that festival appearance, plus some studio recordings a few days later. And I asked Sam to come to the studio and play on some of the tunes one day – that’s how he shows up on “The Devil (… and other blues demons)”, my first Trix studio LP (of only two issued so far, the other being Robert Lockwood’s [O&S # 39, 40] “Does 12”).
Just outside the town of New Paltz in the hills of the Shawangunk Mountains there was a club known as Smitty’s after its Black owner, the late Wilber Smith. The Arm Bros. played there a lot and Smitty put two of “my” singles (by Eddie Kirkland, and Sam Davis) on his jukebox… a famous first (and last) for the label! After the Kirkland sessions, I helped get Sam together with some other area musicians, including pianist Larry Kaye and drummer Fred Gumaer, to play local jobs. Val Wilmer came for a visit then and was greatly impressed by Sam. To her ears he was the best thing to happen to the blues harp since Little Walter after seeing and hearing him at Smitty’s place, and she said so in a subsequent piece for MELODY MAKER on Sam. I had plans to get him into a studio within a few months, for he was incredibly good. But it was not to be.
One night Sammy and his band were playing at Smitty’s and I went up there to enjoy the music. Part way through the night Sam got a call at the club from Vassar Brothers Hospital – they told him that his wife had just died of the cancer for which she had been hospitalized. He fell apart, literally, on the spot as I watched, for she had been the focal point of his life. To this outsider, it was the most emotionally devastating thing that I have ever personally witnessed. For Sam, his wife’s death literally shattered his life and he went into a gradual descending spiral – he left the club that night to go over to the hospital and never really came back. The late Little Eliot Lloyd (Paioff) got involved with Sam a bit later on and tried to keep the music going for and with him, but it didn’t help. Eventually Sam disappeared completely with rumors that he’d died, that he’d gone back to Mississippi, that he’d fallen into a bottle. Even Eddie Kirkland tried to help, as much as he admired Sam as a person and a musician – he could go places in Poughkeepsie that I couldn’t, but no sign of him at all. Until now… at last.
The more recent story of Sam is well told by WVKR-FM DJ Doug Price in the notes for his new and wonderful Delmark CD. Truly a notable comeback and I no longer have to think “if only…” It has finally happened for Little Sam Davis and I wish him a long and productive career in the world of blues music. He deserves it.
* This lead to my being regarded as the “world authority” on the Piedmont/Southeast blues style, a fact that got me permanent residency here in Australia. That was through the “Distinguished Talents” sub/side category for those in sport or the arts. Needless to say, I do NOT fit into the former! So it was all not for naught!!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #118, Apr 1997 – p. 17.
Sam also found a connection with Don Imus, NYC’s first popular radio “shock jock” and appeared many times on the show with some of his musicians. He also became connected with Levon Helm in Woodstock, playing at his place on week-ends. A more recent stroke has occurred; I have no knowledge of how he’s doing today – Doug Price hadn’t any information the last time I was in touch with him. I trust that he’s well and being taken care of by Fred Scribner (his guitarist): He had a second CD released pre-stroke by Fred that is almost as good as the Delmark. His voice shows signs of diminishment through age and/or cigarettes, but his harp playing was still strong. You just never know where you’ll find great talent… Poughkeepsie, NY?! (2008)
This is a link to a very good documentary on Sam: https://vimeo.com/49407752
Latest info is that Sam has recovered well enough to begin playing at Levon’s once again… both are survivors of similar serious illness. Let’s hope he keeps being OK. (2010)
Sadly, Sam has had more strokes and is now living in an assisted care home near Middletown, NY. (2011)