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Debbie Davies’ Blues Path
This story by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.
Although Debbie Davies was raised in a well connected
show business family with lots of music in their genes, nothing could
prepare her for the rigors of life as a blues musician. Like most
blues performers she had to put in her years and miles on the bus
and in the van, often finding herself behind the wheel, before she
reached her current plateau. Davies, a guitarist, singer, and songwriter,
and her band will make a stop at the Old Bay in New Brunswick on Friday,
Davies and her band perform throughout Europe and play about 250 shows
around the U.S. and Canada each year. Her latest album, "Round
Every Corner," was released by Shanachie Records last fall. The
album is a mix of classic cover songs — John Fogerty’s "Who’ll
Stop The Rain," Lowell Fulson’s "Room With A View" —
and her own original songs that could best be described as blues from
a woman’s perspective with all of the energy of rock ‘n’ roll. Despite
the rigors of touring, Davies and her band rarely perform a mediocre
show. Carefully constructed sets bring the music to several peaks,
with the best musicianship saved for the last tunes in each set.
Davies first made a name for herself in the late 1980s as part of
the late guitarist Albert Collins’ blues band, the Icebreakers. A
short, good looking white woman wearing cowboy boots and playing some
incredible guitar riffs in the midst of this weathered-looking crew
of African-American blues musicians, Davies had a way of trading guitar
licks with Collins, "the master of the telecaster," that took
that band to a higher level.
The daughter of singer and vocal arranger named Allen Davies, she
grew up in Los Angeles. Her father found work in television commercials
and recording with people like Frank Sinatra and Burl Ives. Her mother
was a schoolteacher and classical piano player. While her parents
encouraged her earliest musical endeavors, they didn’t understand
rock music or electric guitars, she says in a recent interview.
"I had the chance very early on to be in recording studios with
my father," she says. "I had the chance to watch pros work,
so I was exposed to the whole thing at a young age."
Davies, however, had no lasting interest in classical
music or playing piano. She just wanted to play blues guitar, and
she says she knew that much from the time she was 13.
"When I heard Eric Clapton play, I knew that was what I wanted
to do. My dad had this big collection of Ray Charles records and they
were my favorite albums that he had. But it wasn’t that accessible
to me. My folks got me an acoustic guitar, but they didn’t want any
part of electric guitars. It was totally out to them," she adds.
Davies attended Sonoma State University, north of San Francisco, and
graduated with a degree in psychology, although she admits the original
plan was to be a music major. "It wasn’t until I moved to northern
California and I started following my own dream, which was playing
blues guitar," she says. "It wasn’t something my family could
relate to. I really needed to do that on my own."
"I started out as a music major, but the equipment and the program
was very archaic, they had nothing modern. I took the basic classes
and realized, I don’t want to spend all this time practicing piano,
I want to play my guitar."
Davies was drawn to the still-vital San Francisco Bay area music scene
of the mid-1970s. It was there that she got her guitar playing chops
together. "The music scene in San Francisco then sort of symbolized
freedom," she recalls. "I lived in this small town in northern
California, called Cotati. There was a guy who ran a blues club there,
and everybody came through, and that’s when I started seeing all the
blues players live," she says.
"I was in my early 20s and I was reminded again that I wanted
to play blues guitar. He had everyone in there: Albert Collins, Albert
King, Etta James, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Buddy Guy and Junior
Wells, Gatemouth Brown — they all blew my mind, and I would spend
almost every night at this club. But during the day, I had this job
on campus in the music room and I had to rent out the instruments.
There was hardly anything to do, so that’s when I would sit there
and play guitar."
A self-taught guitarist, Davies recalls watching the veterans like
Albert King and Buddy Guy play at night and then pick up other techniques
by listening to their recordings.
Moving back to the Los Angeles area after graduation, she got to know
John Mayall’s guitarist, Coco Montoya, who in turn introduced Davies
to the legendary British bluesman and his wife, Maggie. Her first
big break was joining vocalist Maggie Mayall and her band, the Cadillacs.
They played around California and the West Coast for several years,
and that in turn led her to her stint with Collins’ Icebreakers. After
three years with his band, she decided to strike out on her own in
"Albert was always so encouraging to me. He was always telling
me to work on getting my own sound and my own style so I could lead
my own band," she recalls. "But it was difficult to leave
him because when I toured with him I was on his bus with the band,
and we were headlining big festivals. Then I went on my own and we
traveled in a funky old van and I did all my own driving. I didn’t
even have a booking agent at first, I did everything."
Davies moved to Connecticut from California in 1993,
shortly after she began leading her own quartet up and down the East
Coast and around the Midwest. She lives in the Bridgeport area and
has no regrets. Frankly, there’s a lot less driving and a lot more
clubs and blues festivals here than in northern or southern California,
she notes. "People ask me, `Why did you leave California for Connecticut?’
I say, `For my work.’ It’s so much more populated out here and there’s
always been a real blues scene in places like Boston and Providence,"
Now in her early 40s, Davies has recorded three albums for the San
Francisco-based Blind Pig label, "Picture This," "Loose
Tonight" and "I Got That Feeling." She signed with Shanachie
Records last year because her contract with Blind Pig was up and frankly,
they made her a better offer.
"I pretty much like to stay where there’s really fresh enthusiasm
for my music," she says, "I got that feeling from the people
at Shanachie and they wanted me to follow my own creative muse."
Now, within a matter of months, a flood of CDs that include Debbie
Davies will be released. Late this spring, Shanachie Records will
release her as-yet-untitled album with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band,
Double Trouble, recorded in Austin, Texas, home of Vaughan’s bassist
Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. Another album, "Homesick
For The Road," that pairs her with Louisiana guitarists Kenny
Neal and Tab Benoit, was just released last week on the Cleveland-based
Telarc Blues label. Yet another record, already out in Europe, pairs
her with Dallas blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh, as well as vocalist
Sugar Ray Norcia. It will be out by summer in the U.S.
All of these albums that include Debbie Davies should be a shot in
the arm for her career. Who knows? She may soon be headlining blues
festivals, this time leading her own band. "These albums offered
the chance to work closely with my peers in the studio," she says.
"It’s a great growing experience as an artist to be there right
next to somebody else’s raw talent. I’m just happy to have been included."
— Richard J. Skelly
Brunswick, 732-246-3111. $5 cover. Friday, April 2, 10 p.m.
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