Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Delta Bluesman Brings Oldtime Style to 'Unique'

The Nashville Tennessean, April 22, 1984. 

Cedell Davis and his slide
An old-style Delta bluesman, a jazz trumpeter and a Dixieland clarinetist make for a musically unique combination at the aptly named Cafe Unique on Batavia Street Thursday. 

That's not all: The bluesman is Arkansas' CeDell Davis, the trumpeter is Nashville's Gary Gazaway, and the clarinetist is New York Times pop music critic Robert Palmer. 

Actually, that combination is not as odd as it sounds. Gazaway is famed in Music City as a jazz and blues supporter. And Palmer is the author of Delta Blues, the single most important book on this soulful, simple style. 

"I wish I'd met CeDell earlier," says Palmer. "I'd already done the book when a bunch of the British blues scholars and me got together in Memphis, then Clarksdale, Miss., to give talks at the Delta Blues Museum. 

"Afterward, we all repaired to this joint, and CeDell was playing there that night. I sat in on clarinet and we had an impromptu session. He had this amazing style. Played like no one else. He's a great, great musician. 

"He came up to me on crutches and said, 'You're playing with me!' He really liked the way I played. That night, I was sounding like a blues harmonica player. By the time we finished, every-body was standing on the tables screaming. It was hot; it was wonderful. 

"Afterwards, I got his phone number, because he'd been there making no money in those Arkansas black juke joints." 

What Palmer had discovered was a living relic of a blues style that is as old as the South. Born in Helena, Ark., in 1927, Celle!' Davis taught himself to play guitar at age 7. But at age 10, he was stricken with polio and had to learn all over again. When he did so, he began playing left-handed, using a butter knife to fret the strings. 

His mastery over his disability resulted in a singularly sliding, rhythmic style that attracted the attention of blues legends Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson. In his youth, Davis performed with both. 

Broader acclaim has been harder to come by, however. Most of his career has been spent in obscure clubs around Pine Bluff, Ark., but now that situation is beginning to change. 

As one of the last musicians playing in the Delta blues style, the 50-year-old Davis has recently been in demand. His moaning, expressive voice, harmonica playing and unique guitar style have been heard on a few blues anthology albums, notably those from Chicago's Rooster Records label. 

Palmer has him on the road, too. In the past year or so Davis has appeared in Boston, New York, Providence and Memphis. He'll record his first solo LP this October, and a European tour beckons. 

"I like this life," Davis says. "I'd like to be a big-time musician, but the big time has al-ways passed me by. 

"This is the way I've always made my living. I hadn't ever really gotten any encouragement until now I just always wanted to be a musician; and I'm pretty good at it. I'm not at all shy, and I love the blues. 

Of his distinctive musical technique, he says. "I played that way at first because I had to resort to a knife. Then it just developed into my own style. 

"And finally I was doing it at the right place at the right time," he says of his "discovery." 

Davis has never been to Music City and is eager to see the town while he's here, he says. 

He'll have good companions to show him the sights. Cafe Unique's own Jimmy Otey will be playing piano with the traveling blues trio. He's a Nashville native who's played with everyone from Chubby Checker to Taj Mahal. 

Gazaway lives here when he's not touring South America with the likes of Airto or Flora Purim, so he too should be a good tour guide for Davis. 

Despite the friendship and the companionship of his fellow musicians, Palmer has kept his playing and his writing completely separate. He's one of the most famous music columnists in America, but he has never written about CeDell Davis. 

But maybe he doesn't have to. CeDell Davis' music speaks eloquently for itself.

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