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Jesse Ed Davis, center, with Tulsa native and fellow guitarist Jimmy Karstein, left, and noted session musician Donald “Duck” Dunn, right, at Stax Records in Memphis in 1968.
Photo by OKPOP MUSEUM/OKLAHOMA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
In the 1960s and ’70s, Jesse Ed Davis—a Kiowa, Comanche, and Muscogee (Creek) guitarist from Oklahoma City—became known as one of the greatest musicians of rock’s golden era.
By Ryan LaCroix
Published July/August 2013
For a decade in the 1960s and 1970s, Oklahoma City native Jesse Ed Davis was seemingly omnipresent in rock and roll. He played a purple paisley Fender Telecaster with blues great Taj Mahal in the 1968 film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, a performance Eric Clapton called “brilliant.” He performed at the historic Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, rocking an electric guitar next to Clapton and George Harrison. Throughout the 1970s, he was featured on several solo albums or side projects with members of the Beatles. His guitar prowess made him a sought-after session musician.
“For a long time in Los Angeles, he was the Telecaster guy,” says Davis’ Northeast High School friend Michael Brewer of the folk duo Brewer and Shipley. “If you needed a Telecaster player, he was the guy you called.”
Versatility came naturally to this Kiowa, Comanche, and Muscogee (Creek) guitarist, who played country with Willie Nelson, soul with Marvin Gaye, blues with John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, pop with David Cassidy and Neil Diamond, and folk with Arlo Guthrie. He was so prolific that even those closest to him were unaware how much he worked.
“He played on a lot more stuff than even I realized,” says Davis’ former roommate Jimmy Karstein, a drummer who toured with Clapton and J.J. Cale. “And I thought I knew a lot of stuff he had done.”
Born in Norman in 1944 to a Dixieland-drumming father and a piano-playing mother, Davis first became interested in music by tying a rope around an old Stella guitar and mimicking Elvis Presley and Jimmy Reed songs in front of a mirror. After graduating from high school in 1962, he joined Conway Twitty’s band on a thirty-three-night Dick Clark American Bandstand tour. He later left the road to attend the University of Oklahoma to become an English teacher, but his desire to play music took him off that career path.
“I’d sit in English and look out the window and just be thinking about guitar riffs all day long,” Davis told Hit Parader magazine in January 1970. “In the middle of class one day, I walked out, went down to the administration building, and dropped out.”
Within the week, Davis arrived in Los Angeles and met up with Levon Helm, whom he had met while touring with Twitty. Helm introduced him to another Oklahoman, Tulsa native Leon Russell, who landed Davis session gigs—most notably playing guitar on The Monkees’ 1966 number-one hit “Last Train to Clarksville.”
Davis’ main gig for several years was serving as guitarist on the blues circuit with Taj Mahal, which was where others began taking notice of his prowess.
Notably, Duane Allman was inspired to play slide guitar after hearing Davis play “Statesboro Blues” in 1968. Three years later, the Allman Brothers would record arguably the most famous version of that song, a track Rolling Stone named one of the “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”
The best musicians of the time also called on Davis for his talents. Bob Dylan’s 1971 song “Watching the River Flow,” produced by Russell, features a blistering Davis guitar solo. Clapton also asked for his help, most notably on the Top-40 track “Hello Old Friend” in 1976. Collaborators were consistently wowed—not only by Davis’ technique but his love of the instrument.
“Guys would try to check his fingering, but he’d turn his back and dash off these impossible licks, looking over his shoulder like, ‘Don’t you wish you could do this?’” said Jackson Browne, whose 1972 hit “Doctor My Eyes” featured a memorable Davis solo, in a 1997 interview with Mojo magazine.
Initially encouraged by Clapton, Davis struck out on his own in the early 1970s and recorded three solo albums. Though he was known as a talented guitarist, vocals were not Davis’ strong suit. He often was compared vocally to Russell, who gave him some unique singing advice.
“Leon says, ‘If you want to be a musician-turned-singer like me and Dr. John but you don’t think you can sing, then sing as loud as you can. Just turn it up as loud as you can stand it,’” Davis told Guitar Player magazine in March 1974, “so that’s what I did.”
His songs “Reno Street Incident,” “Tulsa County,” and “Washita Love Child” contain several nods to his Oklahoma upbringing. On “Red Dirt Boogie Brother,” he proclaims he “ain’t an Okie from Muskogee” but rather “a red-dirt boogie brother, all the time.”
Steady session work began to dry up for Davis in the late 1970s—a byproduct of the popularity of disco, punk, and new wave. He moved to Hawaii and dropped out of the spotlight for a number of years before re-emerging for his final music project, the Graffiti Man band, with Santee Sioux poet and civil rights activist John Trudell.
“I thought, ‘There’s nobody else that can put music behind this Indian poetry besides another Indian,’” Davis told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “I had all this music inside me that just came gushing out. I can’t tell you how great a release that was.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan called Davis and Trudell’s collaboration, AKA Graffiti Man, the best album of 1986. The next year, Dylan, Harrison, and John Fogerty joined The Graffiti Man Band for an impromptu performance at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
Davis died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of forty-three. The respect he had earned across the musical spectrum showed again several years later, when Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings paid tribute to Davis with their 1993 song “Oklahoma Wind,” which alludes to the musician.
Although Davis was never a star in a solo capacity, his legacy as one of rock music’s greatest guitarists is strong.
“He belongs right up there with the best of them,” says Karstein. “Anytime you’ve got a list of great guitar players, Jesse’s name should be on there.”
Get There: Davis’ three solo albums are available for purchase on iTunes. A vinyl reissue of Taj Mahal’s 1968 album The Natch’l Blues, featuring Davis on guitar, was released by Sony Records in April 2013.