A Profile of Morgan Davis By John Taylor
Jazz Report Magazine Summer 2004
Photo: Bill King

For a man who's dedicated his life to the blues, Morgan Davis seems like a pretty happy guy. But then he's coming off a banner year, with a Juno (Best Blues Album) and four Maple Blues Awards (Canada's answer to the Handy Awards) for Painkiller, his second outing on Electro-Fi Records.

Born in Detroit, Davis caught the blues bug in the time-honored way - covers by rock bands led him, via album credits, to the music's originators. Think of it as reverse history, with the Rolling Stones giving way to Muddy Waters, who, in turn, led the budding bluesman to the likes of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton.

Making his way to Toronto in 1968, Davis landed his first gig at a takeout restaurant. "We got $250 a week and all the fish and chips we could eat," he laughs. "Still, I was making a living playing music. It was a dream come true."

Like any itinerant musician, he played in a variety of aggregations, including the Knights Of The Mystic Sea (a 'disguise' of sorts during an era when blues was considered anathema.) "They'd ask us if we played dance music, and we'd say sure. Then we'd do blues all night long." Eventually, though, Davis tired of life in the city, and, in the winter of 2000, he packed up and moved to Nova Scotia. He hasn't looked back since.

"Music is important in the Maritimes. It seems like almost everyone plays fiddle or piano or something - music is very much a grassroots thing here, and the scene is very lively. And as far as touring, well, you can hop on a plane in Halifax and go anywhere, just like you can in Toronto."

Regional differences aside, though, Davis says the live music scene has changed in recent years. "Times are tough. The costs of touring are higher, and people just aren't going out the way they used to. So you have to get creative. I'm starting to do house parties, all kinds of different gigs. There'll always be people who want to hear live music. And playing primarily solo, as I've been doing for about eight or nine years now, I can play smaller venues and still make good money."

Does he miss working with a backing band? "I really don't have a preference," he claims. "Playing solo gives you a great sense of freedom - you can do exactly what you want to do. And I've gotten very particular about who I play with. It's got to be a great band or it's just no fun. Guest spots can be painful if the players don't know the material - I'm stuck with doing the same standard blues songs that everybody knows. And I want to represent my new album and my own songs. Fortunately, I have a great band out west, a fabulous band in Toronto, and a great band in the Maritimes. I have to line it up months in advance, but these players do their homework."

Doing one's homework is all the more important when the material in question doesn't always rely on familiar 12-bar convention. But Davis, highly regarded among his peers as a songwriter - one of those four Maple Blues Awards was for Songwriter Of The Year - believes strongly in writing about his own experiences.

"All of my songs are personal because all of my songs are true. As Willie Dixon said, 'The blues is truth.' And, if someone finds a grain of truth in one of my observations, well, that's what makes a song come alive. That said, though, I'm very particular. I probably throw away 10 songs for every one that I keep."

He's also acutely aware of what works and what doesn't. "If I see that a song just isn't connecting with the audience, I'll drop it. But the songs that do hit, man, I've played some of them for 20 or 30 years, and I don't get tired of them."

That may have something to do with his penchant for a light-hearted approach to lyrical concerns. "Someone told me a long time ago: Take the music really seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. True, quite a few of my songs poke fun at myself, but that's poking fun at human foibles, and hopefully people can relate to it.

"The blues is music of optimism," maintains Davis. "Many people have this misconception that it's all cry-in-your-beer and feeling sorry for yourself. But really, it's exactly the opposite. It's a celebration of triumph over those hardships. I've got problems, you've got problems, and together we'll get over them. And humor helps."

While he's excited about many of the younger artists who are shaking things up with a fresh vision and an innovative approach, Davis decries the homogenization of the blues, the bands and the labels that are just cranking it out according to formula. "The beauty of the blues lies in injecting your own personality into it. I mean, put a record on, and in two notes I can tell that it's Albert King or Little Walter or Howlin' Wolf. But, now, there are a lot of players who follow the guys who came along later, with no connection to the source, to the originators. And something's lost if you don't go further back and learn where it really came from.

"When I was first learning about the music, all the compilations were taken from the best 78s they could find," he recalls. "And a lot of the old stuff was still undiscovered, was still to be found. Consequently, there was much less material available, and for the people who knew about it, it was almost like a secret club.

"I remember the day the first picture of Robert Johnson was published in Rolling Stone magazine. Finally, you could look at him, you could listen to his music and you could see his fingers. To me, that was an overwhelming experience.

"Now it seems like there's a blues revival every few years. Every once in a while, someone comes along and brings a new level of visibility to the blues. But, in between all those revivals are the guys who are pulling the wagon, who are doing it all the time, whether it's fashionable or not. The blues are always there."

Davis is doing his part to ensure the tradition isn't lost to time. He's developed a History Of The Blues workshop that's proving particularly successful on the festival circuit. "I went through my record collection and got bits and samples of all kinds of music, from African to field hollers to early blues, tracing the regional development of Delta and Piedmont blues, Kansas City and Chicago, and cramming it into a 90-minute presentation," he explains. "When I first started, it was three hours long, and I realized maybe that was a bit much. Obviously, in that time, you're only going to touch the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it'll give people an overview. It's very interactive and lots of fun. And, it's immensely popular. When I did it at the Fredericton festival, they set it up for 40 people and 300 showed up."

The old cliche says that blues is a marathon, not a sprint. And, there's little question that most blues artists improve with age. But it's never been the most lucrative of pursuits, and rare are the blues artists who gain anything approaching fame beyond a core audience. What is it that keeps Davis on the blue highway? "Everything I want to say, I can say in the blues," he muses. "It's such a diverse field of expression."

And he doesn't see that journey coming to an end anytime soon. He's been enthralled by the blues for well over 30 years now, has logged countless miles and played more gigs than he could possibly remember, but, says Davis, "I've just begun to explore it. I have so much more to learn."

This article was reproduced with the permission of
Greg Sutherland, JAZZ REPORT Magazine,
Summer Edition 2004.


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