Ellis “CeDell” Davis, an Arkansas blues musician known for his slide guitar playing, died Wednesday night at the age of 91. The Helena native and long-time Pine Bluff resident had been in and out of hospitals in recent weeks due to heart related complications. Health problems dogged him throughout his life but also gave birth to the sound for which he became known.
He was forced to develop his unique slide guitar style – gripping a butter knife - after polio riddled his body when he was nine. Mississippi-bred guitar slinger Jimbo Mathis played off and on with Davis for the last 17 years.
“It’s unique because of his physical limitations. People have to understand, I’ve heard so many people talk about his guitar playing, but he basically has no hands or arms, you know?,” says Mathis. “He is a triumph of human will.”
“If you look at his technique…the slide is facing an entirely different way. The guitar is upside down, and strung upside down and backwards. The slide, the only way he was able to hold the butter knife, is facing up at an angle toward the top of the fret board, up and toward the headstock. So you’re getting these glistening notes that you never hear anywhere else. Because any other slide player, the slide is going to either be pointing straight up and down or the total opposite direction. It’s like a reinvention of the guitar.”
Music historian and host of the radio program Arkansongs, Stephen Koch, says CeDell Davis came out of the old guard of blues players. Born in 1927, Davis grew up on a plantation and even claims to have seen Robert Johnson play at his daddy’s juke joint. Koch says Davis was in the thick of it. He's one of the last of the era as his 2015 album "Last Man Standing" put in focus.
“He performed with slide guitar great Robert Nighthawk for years and he played or saw all the classic people we think of from the early days of the blues,” says Koch. “He was a living connection.”
And it was in 1957, playing with Robert Nighthawk, when tragedy befell Davis’s body once again. During a show in St. Louis a fight broke out and Davis was trampled by the crowd. After a spell in the hospital, Davis found himself unable to walk and wheelchair bound.
In the following years Davis moved to Pine Bluff but continued to play. Koch says he met Davis in the late 1990s, at a time when some of the titans of the alternative rock world were at his side.
“I met him through my friend Joe Cripps who did a CeDell album called “When Lighting Struck the Pine” that had members of REM and all these rock stars that CeDell had no clue who any of these guys were,” says Koch. “But that didn’t matter to him, he loved the blues and loved life. It didn’t matter if it was Peter Buck, or me, he treated you like a friend that was ready to hear some jokes. He had such a love of life and was a great human being.”
That sentiment was shared by the owners of the White Water Tavern in Little Rock.
A CeDell Davis show at the establishment was profiled by the New York Times in 1981.
The Whitewater Tavern, a rickety frame building on an unpaved Little Rock back street, is a typical juke joint. And last Saturday night at the Whitewater got off to a typical start, with a band of white longhairs playing loud blues-rock for an audience of rowdy young beer drinkers. But gradually musicians began drifting in, and the music changed.
First came CeDell Davis, a black blues guitarist in his early 50's. Mr. Davis was crippled by polio early in his life and learned to play the guitar the only way he could, by picking with his right hand and using his withered left hand to run a table knife up and down the strings. Over the years he has become a virtuoso with the table knife. He uses the edge of the blade when he wants one kind of sound and the flat of the blade when he wants another. The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patchedtogether guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.
Mr. Davis has never played the white college and folk-festival circuit. He works the juke joints in Arkansas and Mississippi, performing almost exclusively for black audiences. But the white musicians who were playing at the Whitewater had backed him before, and his idiosyncratic playing fitted into their souped-up blues rock with no trouble at all.
The newspaper caught up with him again in 2001 while taking a stab at assessing the state of the blues.
For his part, Mathis says he’ll miss his friend who he calls a “very intelligent, spiritual and loving man.” And he’ll also miss playing the blues with him.
“Second guitar is the key in the Delta blues, filling out those gaps,” says the founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, “and with CeDell it was such a dream to find what worked in behind him and bring that sound out. There’s no other guitarist that can play like him so I’ll never be able to play exactly that way again…the philosophy, simplifying and finding the real core of where the tone is.”
Mathis summed it up, “The blues is nothing but a man. And he was the real man.”
Davis, born in 1927, was to play next weekend at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in his hometown of Helena.