CeDell Davis: Last Man Standing

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CeDell Davis (born Ellis Davis) may not be on the tip of your tongue when you are talking about legendary blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf, but damn it, he should be.

Much like Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford, Davis didn’t start his music career until later in life and didn’t achieve recognition until Fat Possum Records released his 1994 debut ‘Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong’ (produced by blues journalist Robert Palmer) when Davis was 67-years young.

The multi-instrumentalist was born in Helena, Arkansas, where he learned to play the harmonica, sing, and cultivated a unique style for playing guitar. He used a kitchen knife as a slide on his freeboard. Yes, a kitchen knife. Davis incorporated this unique style of playing out of necessity because he was stricken with severe polio at the age of 10. The disease left him with little control on his left hand, or fretting hand, and he used the knife to stabilize his playing. The “knife method” gave Davis a smooth and metallic sound to his guitar playing style.

Davis honed his skills playing in juke joints in the Mississippi Delta, earning a spot playing with Robert Nighthawk from 1953 to 1963. Hard times again struck Davis in 1957. A gun shot rang out in an East St. Louis club and a police raid ensued. The large crowd rushed out of the club in a hurry. Davis, already slow on his crutches due to his polio, was trampled underfoot and both his legs were broken. Subsequently, Davis has been in a wheelchair since the incident.

“His story will set you straight, as it certainly did for me. Lots of people talk about being tough when they play the blues (or rock & roll, hip-hop, and country for that matter) but CeDell more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, has literally lived and played the hardest blues around. He’s one of the toughest men in music, a fighter who will not quit, a man who has never surrendered,” Davis’ drummer and record label owner Barrett Martin said.

Davis parlayed his physical adversities into his music to create timeless blues songs. He’s released a handful of albums. In 2002, Davis joined forces with Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (The Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5), Alex Veley (Maktub, Minus 5), and Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season). All four are also in the band Tuatara. Martin released Davis’ album ‘Lightning Struck the Pine’ (which is included 2-CD package) on his label.

“I started working with CeDell back in the spring of 2002, when he was already 50 years into his music career. I was asked to put a back-up band together, and the idea was to have a group of rock musicians back up CeDell to show respect for the musical tradition that laid the foundation for almost every form of American popular music that has happened since the beginning of the 20th century. We recorded the whole thing in about three days in Denton, Texas, and I released the album in the summer of 2003 on my label Fast Horse Recordings. The result was the critically acclaimed album ‘When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine,’ which was followed by an extensive tour of the United States using the same back-up band as on the album, with CeDell parked in his wheelchair at center stage every night.”

Martin continued, “Every night on that American tour we would play for about four hours, playing music that drew from our various bands, as well as CeDell’s deep catalogue. At the end of every night, after CeDell had autographed numerous CDs (and slugged back numerous shots of whiskey), we would all get back on the bus, which was specially designed for a wheelchair. We’d ride through the night, and on those long drives CeDell would sip his beer (and more whiskey) and tell us tales of the Deep South back in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s… Well, you can imagine. On one of those late night bus rides, he told me that when he was a young boy he had seen the legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson play on a front porch in Helena, Arkansas. Johnson had played a lot of shows in Helena during those years, so perhaps the story is true, but regardless, that’s when CeDell decided to play the guitar and sing the Blues when he was just a boy, and that’s where the real story begins.”

CeDellDavis-LastManStandingNow, Davis is back once again working with Martin and his Sunyata Record Label for ‘Last Man Standing,’ a perfect title considering that at 88, Davis night very well be the last of the Delta Blues men standing.

The guitar-playing days are over for this son of plantation workers, but Davis still has his distinctive growling vocals to lead the songs. On ‘Last Man Standing,’ Davis is backed once again by Martin on drums and joined by Squirrel Nut Zippers alums Stu Cole (bass) and Jimbo Mathus, who also produced ‘Last Man Standing.’ The blues guitar mastery is being handled by the Binns brothers, Zakk and Greg.

“Now I find myself recording with the man again, but this time he is 88 years old and we are now in Water Valley, Mississippi, deep in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, we are very near the mystical place where the blues first began to form in the early 1900s, near the Dockery Plantation and the town of Clarksdale, where legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the famous crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. But there are other changes in the man. CeDell had suffered a mild stroke in 2005, and although he fully recovered, his guitar playing was impaired to a degree and he must now focus on his dusty and ancient voice, a voice with a rich and fertile timbre that sounds more like the Delta silt surrounding us than the man sitting in the wheelchair.”

‘Last Man Standing’ begins with a John Bonham-style drum beat to open “Catfish & Cornbread,” made famous by John Lee Hooker, and later Jimi Hendrix. The song has soul and groove backed with Davis’ Delta delivery. This sets the tone for the catalog of songs, culled from Davis’ 70 years in the blues. It also didn’t hurt that ‘Last Man Standing’ was recorded in a place as iconic as Davis’ voice and stories.

Davis, Martin, and crew recorded at Dial Back Sound, which was designed and built by the same Bruce Watson who previously reinvigorated Davis’ career. With faded whitewashed walls full of vintage amplifiers and guitars, the studio is built inside the parsonage of an old Methodist church next door. In addition to the perfect recording atmosphere, the church bares some skeletons of its own.

“Back at the turn of the century, when the reverberations of Reconstruction were still echoing throughout the post-Civil War South, the workers at the local steel mill began organizing to form a union. The preacher of our church, in his enlightened vision of humanity, allowed the workers to use his church for their organizing. That is, until the day when a strikebreaker thug from the steel mill walked into the church mid-sermon and bludgeoned the preacher to death with a piece of lumber, killing him where he stood in his pulpit. Like so many other murders in Mississippi, this one went unpunished and the killer walked free, probably to kill again as his kind are prone to do. But the spirit of the good preacher is with us, and he guides us in these sessions, and we know he is pleased with our work.”

At 88, Davis hasn’t forgotten what makes the basis for a classic blues song—women and the heartbreak they bring. He still has those preachin’ blues to the fairer sex on “Who’s Lovin You Tonight,” “Turn On Your Light,” (which has a bit of a Doors psychedelic groove to it) and “Need You So.” Sprinkled in between a few of the songs are pieces of Davis talking, as they kept the record button on as he regaled the musicians with stories of women he’s loved and lost, Mississippi, and Sony Boy Williamson on the tracks “Purty Women,” “Mississippi Story,” “Wind Up Grac-A-Phone,” and “Aint Fixin To Go.”

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“This album was mainly recorded with everyone playing together live, with CeDell singing along in real time. Only the keyboards and some hand percussion were overdubbed after we picked the takes. We work like the steel workers who tried to unionize here, playing for hours and eating bologna sandwiches and salt peanuts from the local country store. We wash it all back with iced beer, but on Sunday the beer runs out and we’re in Yalobusha County, a dry county. For the first time in my life, I have to make a run across the county line to buy beer on a Sunday afternoon. It is a mission, indeed, it is a holy mission, because CeDell can only sing with an ice-cold beer in his weathered hand. It’s exciting to break this religious law, because some laws are just made to be broken and this is certainly one of them.”

The stories, the music, it’s all here on ‘Last Man Standing.’ This double disc collection is more than just an album; this is a historic documentation of one of the great musicians who ever came out of the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.

“The standard 12-bar blues that we’ve all come to recognize as “the blues” is really the codified electric Chicago version of the blues,” Martin said. “But we’re not in Chicago, and we are not following any rules. Down here in the Delta there is only intuition and magic, so we “jump bars” and skip to new sections when CeDell decides to take us there. And that’s because 12 rigid bars do not allow for the emotion to hold sway, and so we follow CeDell, intuitively, respectfully, and we change quickly, like a boxer in the ring. The Delta Blues is a tough musical form, tough as the men and women who invented it, who lived it. It is a hard-swinging form, like a scythe that cuts across the tall grass, in big, arcing swaths, or a chain gang breaking stones in rhythmic unison. You can feel it in this place, and you can feel it in CeDell.”

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