Ever since the blues began, its history has been riddled with untimely deaths from many of the genre’s leading lights. After supposedly selling his soul to the devil, Robert Johnson met with a mysterious death that still baffles biographers. He was 27. And Bessie Smith passed at the age of 43 after a tragic accident on the same Highway 61 that was part of the “crossroads” that Johnson made famous.
Flash forward to a cold December night on Chicago’s South Side when one of the city’s most promising, up-and-coming blues guitarists was gunned down in an attempted robbery. The victim’s name was Eric “Guitar” Davis. He was just 41 years old and had recently signed a contract with Chicago-based Delmark Records.
In addition to his bright future as one of the blue’s new standard bearers, Davis was a loving father and partner. Leslie Bell has been his lady ever since Davis pulled a U-turn to talk to her some thirteen years ago. They had three children, all with a gift for music like their dad and grandfather before them.
Although Davis’ newly-erected tombstone reads “The Future of the Blues,” his musical roots ran deep as he grew up the son of a musician in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. As a youth, Davis served as a drummer for the likes of Junior Wells, Lefty Dizz, BB King and others. He lacked the confidence to pick up an axe until a guy named Buddy Guy told him that guitar players “get the girls.”
While a blues musician might get the accolades, the local club dates and air miles to play for enthusiastic overseas audiences, benefits like life insurance, annuities and monthly pension pay outs are virtually nonexistent. That’s why the blues community will rally around Davis’ family at a sold-out show at Rosa’s Lounge on Sunday, January 19 beginning at 6pm.
Since the lineup reads like a veritable who’s who of the blues, it’s not surprising that the show has been sold out for a few days now. Performers including Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Jimmy Burns, Mike Wheeler, Big Jim, Toronzo Cannon, Deitra Farr, Matthew Skoller and others will be taking the stage. Davis’ back-up band, the Troublemakers, will be the house band for the evening. It will also be heartwarming to see Eddie C. Campbell on stage after suffering a severe stroke while on tour in Germany last year.
If you’re among the many who are kicking yourselves for not ponying up the $25 to see this show at Rosa’s, then fear not. The show will be broadcast on Gigity TV for a minimum $6 donation, which will go to the Davis family. The family will also benefit from online auction proceeds that included everything from a plaque signed by Buddy Guy to prints of Prince, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and others.
Last February, Rosa’s was the scene of another star-studded blues benefit for the aforementioned Eddie C. Campbell. Deitra Farr said that Rosa’s owner, Tony Mangiullo, “always steps up” and helps support causes that are near and dear to the blues community’s collective heart. She also praised Amberly Stokes of Rosa’s for her yeoman efforts in organizing this worthy event for Eric Davis’ family.
With Sugar Blue just returned from a tour of Malaysia and Farr slated to play in Dubai, followed by Siberia, it’s amazing that so many will be descending on Rosa’s to play in Davis’ honor on a chilly Sunday night in Chicago. As Farr noted, “the blues can take you to some mighty strange places.” Davis, like so many blues artists, had also attracted quite a foreign following thanks to his vibrant stage presence, hot licks and hybrid blend of blues, hip-hop and other influences.
While the blues can be a vagabond business, Davis kept his family close when he played locally. Prior to a Midwest date, he would call the club to see if his kids could accompany him. They’ll be carrying on his legacy on Sunday night as 9-year old Isiah (drummer), 11-year old Jemyria (bass) and 13-year old rapper Ivory are scheduled to take the stage at Rosa’s.
Due to the rapid graying, not to mention the recent passing of so many blues musicians, the death of such a promising artist of Davis’ caliber cuts deep. Farr said that “I expected great things out of him” and that she is “still having trouble” dealing with Davis’ untimely death.
Although the entire blues community is still coming to grips with Davis’ death, the Gigity broadcast will illustrate the life affirming power of music and people coming together for the common good of a fellow friend and artists’ family.