Some music is just a part of the American cultural lexicon and when it comes to the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll, Billy Davis was the guitar player for a chunk of it.
Davis will be a special guest playing with Harmonica Shah on the Main Stage at the Black Swamp Arts Festival Saturday and there will certainly be some classic riffs coming out of his amplifiers.
“My first love was the Delta blues. My big break came with rock ‘n’ roll,” Davis said.
The 80-year-old Davis is probably best known for his work with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who wrote “The Twist,” famously covered by Chubby Checker. The band had a series of hits over a 10-year period, with more than 20 albums.
Right out of high school, he played for Motown founder Berry Gordy, backing up Smokey Robinson. He also learned some of his early guitar work from John Lee Hooker, who had been a family friend from Mississippi. That connection led to his lifelong friendship and collaborations with Jackie Wilson.
Davis received a lot of attention because of his stage presence, often working as an opening act for the Midnighters. During his shows he could dance with the other band members, but also do acrobatic moves like flips, while playing. Playing the guitar with his teeth was a technique picked up by a young Jimi Hendrix, who subbed in for Davis while he served in the Army.
Davis’ lifelong infatuation with the guitar and the blues started early.
“My brother and I were in a cab, I was maybe 8-years-old, and I hear a record by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup on the radio, back in the mid ’40s.”
The song that started it all for Davis was “That’s All Right.”
Some of his other influences included Baby Boy Warren, Sonny Boy Williamson and Eddy Burns.
He didn’t start playing electric guitar until he was 16 and had already moved from Bentonia, Mississippi, to Detroit.
Davis’ most well-known blues song is probably “Look At Little Sister,” as recorded by Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was originally recorded with Hank Ballard in 1959 on King Records in Cincinnati.
“It had a double solo that kinda sounded like a violin,” Davis said. “Stevie did a version of it. We did it together in Austin, Texas, in 1984. We played at a place called Antone’s.”
He and Hank Ballard played with the house band that night.
“I said, ‘who is that doing our record?’ It was Stevie. I put on my guitar,” Davis said.
“Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” may be the song with the most recognizable riff from his time with the Midnighters.
“I’ve got a little introduction on the song and it would bring the whole place alive,” Davis said.
He plays a custom HMR guitar named the Purple Ace, made of a purple wood from Madagascar.
“I get all the songs out of it I want. That’s what I’ll be playing in Bowling Green,” Davis said.