Arkansas bluesman CeDell Davis, who didn't let a childhood bout with polio or an accident that left him unable to walk stop him from forging his own unique version of the blues, died Wednesday evening in Hot Springs. He was 91.
"He didn't understand the word 'quit,'" said friend, band mate and manager Greg Binns of Hot Springs. "Just until recently, he was planning gigs. He was always proactive. Sitting in that wheelchair, he did more at 91 years old than the average 30-year-old."
Davis lived a life that had the makings of the quintessential blues song. Over his mother's faith-based protests, he taught himself to play the blues as a child, overcoming physical impairments and inventing a new approach to guitar. As a young man, he played with blues pioneers and, starting in the 1990s, experienced a late-career surge that eventually found him touring the world and feted by members of rock bands Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and others.
Born Ellis CeDell Davis on June 9, 1926, in Helena, Davis was 4 years old when he was sent to live on a plantation near Tunica. By the time he was 7, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture website, he was playing harmonica and a one-stringed "diddly bow."
At age 9, Davis contracted polio and was left partially paralyzed. Toward the end of a nearly two-year stay at a Little Rock hospital, he paid a fellow patient $2 for a "Buck Jones Silvertone guitar." The polio left his hands too gnarled to form traditional guitar chords or play right-handed, the way he first learned, so he turned the guitar around and used a butter knife to make chords. The slide style he forged was raw and wild, lending a loose, metallic tone to his music.
By his early teens, he was playing juke joints and street corners in Helena, the stomping grounds of bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood Jr., Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Nighthawk. Davis moved briefly to St. Louis in 1945 but returned to Helena, where he performed with Williamson on the King Biscuit Time radio show on station KFFA. Starting in 1953, he began playing and touring with guitarist Nighthawk.
It was while playing a St. Louis club with Nighthawk that Davis was nearly trampled to death in a stampede after a fight in the club. His injuries -- both legs were broken -- prevented him from walking for the rest of his life. By 1961, he was back in Arkansas, living in Pine Bluff.
Some of his earliest recordings can be found on the 1983 release Keep It to Yourself: Arkansas Blues, Volume 1. His debut solo album, Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong, was released in 1993 on Fat Possum Records and produced by Little Rock native and writer Robert Palmer. Other albums followed, including The Horror of It All in 1998 and When Lightning Struck the Pine in 2002, with the latter record including fans Peter Buck of R.E.M., Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and other younger rock 'n' rollers.
A stroke in 2005 left him unable to play guitar but didn't stop him from singing, touring and recording. Though he'd been hospitalized off and on over the past two weeks, he was scheduled to perform at next week's King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena-West Helena.
His final album, Even the Devil Gets the Blues on Sunyata Records, with contributions from Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, was released last year and has been submitted to the Grammy Awards for consideration in the Best Traditional Blues Album category, Binns said.
"His voice is still strong on that last album," said Bubba Sullivan of Bubba's Blues Corner in Helena. "I couldn't believe it. By God, his voice was strong, man."
Obits on 09/29/2017
Print Headline: Butter knife gave guitarist his sound