ODDENDA & SUCH: #98

Little Sam Davis

Sam Davis is one of the “almosts” in the ranks of post-war blues harmonica-playing artists. Mississippi-born (Winona – 28 Nov, 1928), he became a wanderer at fourteen, tired of Mississippi sawmills and cotton farms. He played music as a side line and was liked for those abilities – Sonny Boy’s “Good Morning, Little School Girl” being one of his more popular songs. That eventually took him to Florida where he worked at another sawmill and also in local orange groves. While there he hooked up with guitarist Earl Hooker in 1952/3 with whom he recorded four songs for Henry Stone’s Rockin’ label[1]. Sam became part of Hooker’s band for nine years (along with a drummer, remembered only as “Tony”). Earl also recorded an additional half-dozen sides for Stone as the leader of the trio on that same April day. After more time picking beans and cutting sugar cane, Sam left Florida, touring and playing into Chicago, and also with medicine shows. Eventually (and for reasons unknown to me) he ended up in Poughkeepsie, NY, best known as the home of IBM! Go figure.

I came into the picture as a result of my friend (the late) Dan DelSanto, of Arm Bros. fame: he became fascinated by my field-work efforts of the time in the Southeast and thought he’d see who he could find in his city. He knew that there had been a street musician known as “Shakespeare” who played a 12-string guitar, but no luck locating him there at that point in time. Eventually one of his black friends hipped him to the presence of Sammy and the two of us went to his upstairs apartment off Main Street in late 1971. An interview ensued and then some music was played: Dan had his Martin and Sam had some harps! I got about seven songs from this duo; they’d never played together before and I’m sure Dan was not then too familiar with much of Sam’s repertoire, but it all “worked” just fine. I even put out a “45” single by them… “Someday Blues”/“Sam’s Swing” (Trix 4505) back in 1972 as I was gearing up to become a full-fledged record label. I foolishly thought that singles would be a way to alert folks to what I had available on hand before I began issuing LPs. It seemed logical and reasonable at the time! Sam also later recorded with Eddie Kirkland on a few cuts on Eddie’s album, “The Devil (and other blues demons)” that was issued on Trix 3308.

It seemed that it was all coming up Millhouse for Sam – he got a band together, played gigs in the Hudson Valley, was interviewed by Val Wilmer for MELODY MAKER in the UK, and it all looked good. I even had ideas for some studio recordings with a band album for my label. One of the places that Sam played was known as “Smitty’s”, owned by one Wilber Smith[2], a black man who liked music and made the best damn fried chicken! It was located out west of New Paltz, NY in the Shawangunk Mountains (Catskill foothills) – New Paltz was a college town and so there was a decent potential audience for his club and its music. He had Dan’s bluegrass/C&W band as regulars at the time, and also booked Eddie Kirkland, and Sammy at different times.  It is where Val saw and heard Sam perform and she dubbed him in MELODY MAKER as the best she’d heard since the (then) late Little Walter Jacobs. Like Walter, Sam played a mean chromatic harp as well the usual Marine Bands!

One night I was there at Smitty’s, listening and talking with Sam and some of the other musicians, when he got a surprise telephone call. It was from the hospital in Poughkeepsie and he was told that his ill wife had just died of cancer. And then Sam literally fell apart in front of my eyes as I watched helplessly. Folks like myself and Little Eliot Lloyd tried to keep him focused on the music, but to no avail… he was shattered. Not long after that, Sam disappeared totally from the Hudson River Valley, not to be seen again. Not even Eddie Kirkland could find out what had happened to Sam!

Jump cut to 1988 and my friend Doug Price and his long-lived blues radio show on WVKR-FM from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. He had been playing a couple of Sammy’s fifties sides and asked over the air if anyone knew what had become of Sam. Someone did and he was even back in town! Sammy began to play “out” again and hooked up with one Fred Scribner, a guitarist – a fine album was assembled from recordings done in 1993 and 1994 to be issued by Delmark Records in ‘95 (“I Ain’t Lyin” – DE 682).

Other musical highlights for Sam were his regular appearances on the radio show “Imus in the Morning”, a show on which Scribner had already been a regular, but with that connection, Sam became a regular guest on Don Imus’s show for years. (Don is cited as once saying that Sam had more harmonicas than teeth!) That gave rise to his being heard by Levon Helm (who also played on Imus’ show) and being incorporated into his Midnight Rambles at his barn in Woodstock, NY[3]. One of Scribner’s guitar students apparently introduced the two at one point in time!

Levon was the only non-Canadian member of The Band, having come out of Arkansas, and he had first-hand knowledge of “American” roots music, like blues. They had plans to record with Aleck “Rice” Miller (a/k/a “Sonny Boy Williamson II”), but he passed before they could get it together. Sam’s music must have pleased him no end – Sammy was a part of the touring “Rambles” show as well, including going to The Ryman in Nashville. There are videos of him with Levon’s groups in Woodstock and Nashville[4]. Occasionally there ARE second acts to some people’s lives! As of this time of writing, Sam is the only living musician of those I recorded back in the seventies: he had strokes in 2008 and 2009, and now lives in a nursing/rehab home near Middletown, NY where he is taken care of and where Fred visits him from time to time.

I guess one could say (if one did such rankings) that Sammy was in the second tier of post war harp players with George Smith, Jerry McCain, Mojo Buford, Snooky Prior, a.o. after Walters Jacobs and Horton, and “Sonny Boy” II. Such “grading’ is common for such folks as W.E., but it does no real harm. He was a good singer, and better harp player, and an all-around good person. Sam is yet another example of the fact that there are WAY more musicians than we could be aware of and that many of them are even better than those we do know of. Sam is one who was “caught”: He worked at the blues coal-face for decades and produced much good music… and we know of/about him mainly through serendipity, or sheer dumb luck! Little Sam Davis is proof that being recorded was usually accidental and that there were way more greats than those who happened to make records. But, it’s the records that most of us know about, so we must be satisfied with that… not much choice in the matter, is there!

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                        Sydney, 2018

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Sam Davis recording session –

Sam Davis – vo/hca/gtr-1                                                                                                                 Dan Del Santo – gtr

Poughkeepsie, NY: 31 Dec, 1971

1       71-0177   Shake & Finger-Pop     03:38                                                                                 2       71-0177X   Lowlands          05:01                                                                                             3       71-0178   Baby, Scratch My Back         02:56                                                                         4       71-0179   Sam’s Swing        03:54                                                                                             5       71-0180   Stormy Monday -1       03:35                                                                                 6       71-0181   Your Funeral & My Trial      02:44                                                                      7       71-0182   Someday Blues    03:30                                                                                         8       71-1077Y   You’re So Fine    (frag)      01:11

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                                    Sydney, 2018

I have been advised by Doug Price of WVKR-FM that Sam passed recently at the age of 89 (18 Feb, 2018) VALE

  • 2/20/18, 3)45 AM Noted blues musician Little Sammy Davis dies in Middletown at 89
     
    By Matthew Nanci
    Times Herald-Record
    Posted Feb 18, 2018 at 8:48 PM
    Renowned blues musician Little Sammy Davis died Friday (the 16th) at a Middletown nursing home. He was 89. His nearly 60-year career spanned Mississippi, Chicago and the Hudson Valley. Davis often jammed with drummer Levon Helm in Woodstock.
    Highlights of his career include playing for millions on “Imus in the Morning,” winning a W.C. Handy award and having a full-page portrait in the coffee-table book “State of the Blues.”
    Davis began playing harmonica as a boy in Winona, Miss. He was raised by his grandmother in a one-room shack and learned to play the instrument that
    would become his livelihood from listening to Sonny Boy Williamson tunes on a crank-up Victrola.
    In 2011, Davis was inducted into the New York State Blues Hall of Fame.
    Fellow hall-of-famer Fred Scribner, a former member of the Levon Helm Band and a driving force behind Davis, remembers his longtime friend as funny and inspiring.
    Scribner said Davis had a “magical” personality, and there was a charm to him that brought positivity and good luck wherever he went. “He was a very precious treasure to the community and to the blues world and to the world in
    general,” Scribner said. “He made the world a better place.”
     Scribner called Davis’ death a huge loss for music. “He was just an incredibly creative human being,” Scribner said. “I watched him create things on
    the spot that were just pure art.”
    Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

 

[1] “Goin Home to Mother”/”1958 Blues” (Rockin’ 512) and “She’s so Good to Me”/”Goin’ to New Orleans” (Rockin’ 519).

[2] See the cover of Dan’s album, “White Feathers in the Coop” for pictures of Smitty!

[3] There is a DVD/CD package of some of Sam’s performances at the Rambles with Levon’s band (including Fred Scribner). “The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume One, Starring Little Sammy Davis”; (Levon Helm Studios). Highly recommended. Thanks, Levon… I know it’s a bit late!

[4] There is a DVD/CD package of some of Sam’s performances at the Rambles with Levon’s band (including Fred Scribner). “The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume One, Starring Little Sammy Davis”; (Levon Helm Studios). Sammy also appears As a side-man on Vol. 2. Highly recommended. Thanks, Levon… I know it’s a bit late!

[5] Plus, there is also a documentary video on Sammy on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/49407752… highly recommended to one and all.

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4 Responses to ODDENDA & SUCH: #98

  1. Denis Minervini says:

    Thanks for that Pete…I believe you were the person who introduced me to Sammy up in Lake Hill…long time ago. Hope all’s good with you.

    Best,
    Denis

    Like

  2. John Rocklin says:

    Pete, can you e-mail, message or call me,( best), at 570-335-4228. I really need some help in correcting Sammy’s Wikipedia page. I can answer some of your questions such as what brought Sam to the Hudson Valley. (apple picking)

    Like

  3. Joe Fitzpatrick says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for filling in some of the missing pieces Pete. Hope you all are well…Greetings from your old Cottekill neighbor.

    Like

  4. Jack Murphy says:

    Pete- great piece, thanks for giving us all a more complete bio of Sammy. We were lucky here in the Hudson Valley to have had him for so long.

    Like

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