The term “musician’s musician” gets bandied about a lot, but in the case of the late Jesse Ed Davis, “guitar hero’s guitar hero” might be more accurate. His tasty slide on Taj Mahal’s rendition of “Statesboro Blues” provided the blueprint for the Allman Brothers’ later version; he recorded with three of the four Beatles and was in the house band for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangla Desh; when Eric Clapton wrote “Hello Old Friend” he deferred to Davis to supply the lyrical slide; and when a budding blues man named Pete Anderson heard Jesse Ed’s country licks on Taj’s souped-up take of “Six Days On The Road,” it set the course for his fruitful association with Dwight Yoakam.
After playing on Taj Mahal’s first three classic albums, Davis amassed a resume of sessions that included Albert and B.B. King, Harry Nilsson, Gene Clark, Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, and Rod Stewart, as well as standout solos on Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow” and Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” Of the latter, guitarist David Grissom says, “The solos were a huge influence on me – such expressive playing and beautiful, pure tone. I love the way he built the solos and the way the band played with him.”
In the early ’70s, Davis released three solo albums, Jesse Davis, Ululu, and Keep Me Comin’ – all now collectors items, with heavyweights like Leon Russell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, and Gram Parsons returning the favor and accompanying him. The first two albums, recently issued on a single CD by Wounded Bird Records, offer even more evidence of Davis’ incredible versatility.
A full-blooded Kiowa Indian, Davis played in country star Conway Twitty’s band in his native Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles and quickly picking up session work with fellow Oklahomans, backing Gary Lewis. J.J. Cale recalls, “All the guys I played with were from Tulsa, but Ed was from Oklahoma City. A singer named Jimmy [a.k.a. "Junior"] Markham started using Ed, and he became part of our clan. He was so good, people started using him. We were all just playing nightclubs in North Hollywood or West L.A. for $10 and all the beer you could drink. He had his white Telecaster, and he was one of the first guys to cop onto the slide guitar, like ‘Statesboro Blues.’”
When Taj Mahal’s band, the Rising Sons, broke up in ’67, producer/engineer Gordon Shyrock introduced the singer to an aggregation of Okies jamming at the Topanga Corral. With Rising Son Ry Cooder, Taj brought Davis, drummer Chuck Blackwell, and bassist Gary Gilmore into the studio to complete his self-titled debut. When Cooder departed for a solo career a year later, the quartet stayed in place and recorded Natch’l Blues.
“That was the one that really got me,” says Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. “When he played, it was always understated; you always wanted more.” Blackwell concurs: “That was the first time I ever heard a guitar player play like that. He played with real touch. He didn’t just bang it every time; sometimes he’d turn it up loud, and then he’d play real soft. Then if he sustained or punched, he could play a little harder – instead of full-out hard all the time. He controlled his dynamics with his touch, and he had a crying, haunting deal I just never heard. For melodic blues, he’s my favorite.”
Davis’ main setup was his white Tele through a tweed 4×10″ Bassman with JBLs, although he’d sometimes use a Vibro Champ in the studio. As Mahal pointed out in his VG interview (October ’04), Jesse was one of the first guitarists to experiment with a Leslie. “He used it a little bit on Natch’l Blues and a little more on Giant Step. But he was not one for a lot of effects; he created most of the effects between his hands – like the volume knob with his little finger. He picked with a flatpick and two fingers.”
Of the Leslie sound, Hidalgo points out, “Jesse touched a lot of people. George Harrison had come to the U.S. and was hanging out with people like the Band and Jesse Ed, and then you see ‘Let It Be,’ and George is playing slide on a Tele through a Leslie. There was a connection there. Mike Halby, who I did Houndog with, knew Leon Russell and all the Okies, and he said that when Jesse would practice, all he would play was George Harrison solos.”
One of Davis’ most unusual gigs was when he became “the sixth Face” on tour. Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan explains, “In August, 1975, the Faces began rehearsals for what would become our last tour. Ronnie Wood had just come off a long Stones tour and, because Rod didn’t think he could handle being the sole guitarist again after playing with Keith [Richards], he took it on himself to hire another guitarist. Unfortunately for Rod, he brought in Jesse Ed Davis, who was not just a brilliant guitarist, but a character and a raver like Ronnie and me, and we warmed to him immediately. I knew his guitar playing from Taj Mahal’s albums and his slide guitar on John Lennon’s version of ‘Stand By Me.’ But having met this Native American, I discovered a gentle man who had a sly, rascally side that particularly appealed to Ronnie and me.
“Onstage, Jesse was brilliant at finding space amid the Faces thrashing and pumping to place his subtle guitar slides and licks,” Mac continues. “And backstage he was the perfect conspiratorial character to hang with – very amusing and easy going, and always up to something mischievous.”
In the late ’80s, Davis wrote and played the music for the poetry of Indian activist John Trudell; their band was called Graffiti Man. In February of ’87, the Graffiti band was playing L.A.’s Palomino club, and, thanks to some of Jesse’s old associates, it turned into one of the most star-studded jams in rock history, with Taj, Harrison, Dylan, and John Fogerty joining in.
After battling drug and alcohol problems most of his career, Davis died of an apparent overdose 16 months later, at age 43.
In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, permanently ensconced alongside guitar legends such as Barney Kessel, Lowell Fulson, Charlie Christian, and Elvin Bishop. The surviving three-fourths of the Natch’l Blues band (Taj, Blackwell, and Gilmore) reunited to perform at the ceremony.
As Gilmore sums up his friend and bandmate, “He was a fun-loving person, who loved to play music. That really was his life. He was great to play with in the band. He would come up with a lot of the arrangements, along with Taj, and the way he played was simple but with a lot of feeling. He didn’t overdo anything; his solos were more simple and soulful – the way I like to hear it.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s August 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.