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Home / Browse / Time Period / World War II through the Faubus Era (1941 - 1967) / Davis, Ellis CeDell

Ellis CeDell Davis (1926–)

Ellis CeDell Davis is a blues musician and recording artist who helped bring blues from its rural Southern roots into the twenty-first century. He employs a unique slide guitar style and performs the traditional Delta blues he learned growing up in and around Helena (Phillips County). Although he was a longtime professional musician, recordings of his music were not available until 1983. Since then, he has recorded several albums and become a favorite with a new generation of blues fans.

CeDell Davis was born on June 9, 1926, in Helena, where his mother worked as a cook but was also known as a faith healer. At age four, Davis went to live with relatives on the E. M. Hood Plantation near Tunica, Mississippi. There, he befriended Isaiah Ross, who went on to blues fame as “Doctor Ross.” The youngsters learned music together, and by age seven, Davis had learned harmonica and rudimentary guitar skills he honed on an improvised one-string instrument called a diddley bow.

Davis returned to Helena in the mid-1930s. He contracted polio at age nine and was left partially paralyzed. After nearly two years in a Little Rock (Pulaski County) hospital, Davis could walk only with crutches and had limited use of his arms and hands. He had to relearn guitar, and this greatly shaped his unusual style and sound. Although right handed, Davis plays with his left hand dominant, in nonstandard tunings, fretting the strings with a table knife used as a slide. The resulting sound has become Davis’s trademark, though it can seem out of tune to some listeners.

At fourteen, Davis began making a living performing at juke joints and on street corners in Helena. The older bluesmen in the area influenced him. In the 1940s, Helena was home to Robert Lockwood Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson, Roosevelt Sykes, and a host of blues greats. Davis worked with many of the local artists, most notably slide guitar great Robert Nighthawk.

After a brief stay in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1945, Davis returned to Helena and the Delta. He continued to play locally and was an occasional guest on King Biscuit Time and other programs on Helena’s KFFA radio. In 1953, Davis began a ten-year stint with Nighthawk.

Davis followed Nighthawk to St. Louis in 1957, joining a network of Arkansas natives working there, including Williamson, Sykes, and Frank Frost. Soon after moving to St. Louis, Davis was involved in a serious accident. While he performed at a nightclub with Nighthawk and drummer Sam Carr, a fight broke out. Panicked patrons trampled Davis, who suffered severe injuries. He stayed in a hospital for months and has been wheelchair bound since. Davis stayed in St. Louis four more years, continuing to work with Nighthawk, Carr, and Frost.

He returned to Arkansas in 1961, settling in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where he lives today. In a 2000 interview, Davis said he has been married several times and has three children and several stepchildren.

Despite a lengthy and accomplished career, Davis did not record until the late 1970s, when folklorists included his music on the compilation album Keep It to Yourself: Arkansas Blues, Volume I, released by Rooster Records in 1983 (and rereleased in 2006 by Stackhouse Records with the help of Helena-West Helena’s Delta Cultural Center). His reputation was enhanced by prominent mention in musician and critic Robert Palmer’s widely read Deep Blues, originally published in 1981. Davis and Palmer became friends and playing partners. Palmer produced Davis’s 1993 solo debut, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong. Davis then became active in recording studios, releasing the albums The Horror of it All, CeDell Davis, and a greatest-hits collection over the next few years, all on Fat Possum, a record company based in Oxford, Mississippi.

His belated recording debut and subsequent follow-ups made Davis a regular on the blues festival circuit. He has toured the United States and has performed or recorded with an eclectic array of musicians, including jazz great Ornette Coleman, Bruce Hampton, and Palmer. He is still active in music; members of rock bands R.E.M. and Screaming Trees appeared on his most recent release, 2002’s Lightning Struck the Pine.

In 2001, Davis’s “She Got the Devil in Her” was covered by Buddy Guy on his Sweet Tea album. In 2004, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Blues from the Delta Cultural Center, which also features Davis memorabilia.
Davis performed in Little Rock in October 2012 with several noted musicians, including Barrett Martin (formerly of Screaming Trees) and Peter Buck (formerly of R.E.M.). While he did not play the guitar, as a stroke has left him without the use of his right arm, he sang from his wheelchair.

For additional information:
Bogdanov, Vladimir, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds. All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003.

Cochran, Robert. Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Pearson, Barry Lee. “CeDell Davis’ Story and the Arkansas Delta Blues.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 33 (April 2002): 3–14.

Terry Buckalew
Delta Cultural Center

Last Updated 8/7/2013

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