Versatility was integral to the musical mindset of John Davis. Although he was world-renowned as a blues pianist, he was proud of his innate ability to play ragtime, a little jazz, even a schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley ditty or two. And he did it all for more than half a century. Born in Mississippi, Davis was in reality a Chicagoan, having moved there before the age of three. He lost his eyesight after stepping on a nail when he was nine, but that didn't stop him from learning the 88s as a teen. That way, he could pick up a few bucks by playing in his father's "sporting houses."
Davis held down the enviable position of house pianist for prolific record producer Lester Melrose from 1937 to 1942, rolling the ivories behind the illustrious likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Tampa Red, and Memphis Minnie for Bluebird, Columbia, Decca, and any other firm the powerful Melrose was connected with. After World War II, the blind pianist assembled his own trio, recording for MGM in 1949-1951. He traveled to Europe with Broonzy in 1952 in what may well have been the first overseas jaunt for any American blues artist.
The pianist remained musically active after that but seldom recorded domestically, saving most of his studio energy for his European tours (a jaunty, typically eclectic 1985 album for Chicago's Red Beans label being a notable exception). Davis' suave, genteel approach didn't jibe with the rough-edged Chicago blues of the '50s, but his sophistication was timeless. ~ Bill Dahl
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