“Every interview I did during my career it was like, ‘What’s it like to be a girl?’ I had to say, ‘You know, I’ve never been a boy, so I can’t answer that.’ It’s not an easy career.”
Most of Debbie Davies’ career has been a struggle against a world she feels looks at female electric blues guitarists at best as an anomaly and at worst as inconsequential. Bonnie Raitt once told me that that had never been a problem for her because being female meant she had little competition. “Exactly, exactly,” says Davies. “That’s the thing. I remember when those were the only two, Bonnie Raitt and Rory Block playing blues that were out there on the road. They were the only two. So, (with me) that does make three. The problem, the average person sees it as an anomaly because they’re hardly ever seeing it.”
Just obtaining an electric guitar at age 12 in 1964 was an issue for a girl who was inspired to play watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. “It was not something that was available to girls back then. My parents couldn’t see it. There was no way they would do it. There were no other girls playing. So, it didn’t happen. I messed around the best I could. I loved my acoustic and learned songs and played.
“It was like a dream to play electric, but it was a dream. I wanted to play like crazy, and my dad bought me a shitty guitar. That was when I was 12, and he said, ‘If you learn, I’ll give you a decent instrument.’ And so I did. I learned a few chords and whatnot, and he took me to a friend’s music store, a friend of his. He took ’em out, and I picked out a Martin, the best. And I’m sure they weren’t as expensive back then in ’65 as they are now. So, I happened to see Glen Campbell. He was playing a Martin, so I feel I made a real good investment.
“I put myself through college. I always worked, and I realized the dream hadn’t gone away, so I got myself my first electric and just did whatever I could to learn to play it. It was a Gibson 330. It was a 64-330, and this was in 1977.
“My parents, first of all, were musicians, but they didn’t dig rock and roll because my mom was a classical musician. My dad was more into the jazz side of it, and just from a whole different era. My dad was a musical genius, and everything he did was perfection. He sang, and he wrote in the Hollywood studio scene, and it was so different back then. It was all about harmonies and pleasing notes. So, rock and blues was a new thing. So, that was not something that they took to and stuff that wasn’t stuff a female would do. It was a conservative time for a lot of white parents. That was just the generation I came from. The parents were from that thinking. So, yeah, as time went by, I moved away and was doing my own thing. They were just from the era where if you didn’t get married and have kids and do all that, they kind of looked at you like you had two heads.”
If being female and playing electric guitar was an anomaly in the 1970s and early ’80s, playing blues guitar with an African American blues icon like Albert Collins was beyond her parents’ imagination for their college educated daughter they expected to get married and have babies. But at age 36, Davies began a three-year stint from 1988 to ’91 touring with The Ice Man as the only white female in an otherwise all male African American band.
“I was a player, and I’d been working my own band, and I was very rebellious when I was young. My family was conservative, and everything was so different back then. So, it was rebellion, and it was like I’m gonna do what I wanted to do no matter what and just power through it and keep going. This kind of toughness, you know.
“I was embraced in that world. It was a lovely time, a lovely experience. I would never want to say I identify with the black experience. I am not black, but as far as living in a world that puts you in a box and wants you to stay in your place, yes, I was totally able to connect on that level. I can totally sympathize. I was young and vulnerable during the civil rights movement, and I was moved by that. All those things were happening when I was a youth, the civil rights movement and then the women’s movement. It’s been a big part of my consciousness all my life.”
Davies found working for Collins to be a great adventure. “I was just going forward. Living the dream. To me, I wasn’t even trying to think about how weird it could be or if it would be uncomfortable, and one thing that was really fortunate for me in that was that three of the guys in the band, well two of them at least, had been on the road with Ike and Tina Turner for like 13 years. So, the drummer Coco Richardson and the trumpet player was Gabe Fleming, they had (toured) with women on the bus for years. So, for them it wasn’t a weird thing. So, they were accepting, and I was carrying my weight and partying with them and laughing and having fun.
I was learning to take licks off records and that’s what the guys around me that could play would say to do. So, you’re doing this whole process, and you’re learning the blues and feeling the blues, but actually going on the road with these guys is like you’ve stepped through the door. You’re in the world.
“So, that was a tremendous thing, traveling with those guys and traveling through the south where they were from. You know, playing gigs. We did both kinds of gigs. We did both chitlin circuit gigs and white clubs and lots of black clubs. It was so much fun. After a show, maybe Albert would take the bus out into the country and go to some guy’s house for a fish fry. Everybody would be out there partying every night. I just embraced it and loved it. I didn’t know then how much I know now, as to what an incredible experience it was, I mean a unique experience, but I knew at the time it was definitely special, and great. It’s just become more of that as time has gone by.”
Two months before Albert Collins died in November, 1993, Debbie described to me the pure joy she felt being in such a privileged environment with her mentor. “The groove Albert brings to it every note is phenomenal, and I learned a lot from that, just how much these guys give physically and emotionally from the performance each night. And I love that. It feels so good that I had the opportunity to sit, rap and jam with lots of old guys, the real guys and that’s rare and real special opportunity that I was afforded working with Albert, and I’ll never be able to replace that.”
Four years later in 1997, the value of the Collins experience had sunk deeper into Davies’ psyche. “The thing that amazed me the most being on the road with Albert was that I knew everything that had gone on all day. Maybe we’d had a flat tire. We’d been up all night. This and that, just how beaten up he was maybe at a certain point, and to get on stage, and just feel the electricity come out of him. Like where is this coming from? No matter what happened to him how he just switched gears and did the show and that was like something that really impressed me, and I really learned it was like, oh, this is the difference between wannabe and the real deal.”
After her stint with Albert Collins, Davies did a three-month tour on the road opening for Jimmy Buffett with a band called Fingers Taylor and The Ladyfingers Review. “ Jimmy (Buffett) gave him that option to put his own band together, a gift to him. This feller Fingers decided that he wanted an all-female band for his backing band, and he just went around the country and tried to get the best female blues people, and so Janiva (Magness)and myself and Nancy wright and some other ladies, we ended up in the band with Fingers Taylor and we did a three-month tour with Jimmy Buffett.”
After that, she worked John Mayall’s wife in Maggie and the Cadillacs. Had she gotten over feeling that she was an anomaly as a female guitarist?
“No, it was still definitely an anomaly. I mean, there was only in that little time period there that labels began to sign – not just indie but larger labels – began to sign women. Like when I was playing with Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs, we had original material. We were touring with John, but we couldn’t get a record deal to save our lives. We weren’t just doing little girly gigs. So, pretty much at that time to get a record deal was an anomaly. You got a record deal if you were like the Go Gos.
“But when I was out there making my own records, it was pretty much Sue Foley and Joanne O’Conner. That was it. We were the indie girls on guitar. We always had Bonnie Raitt, who was in the pop world as a mentor, but it’s really funny because I thought it would maybe be kind of a mix of girls who hadn’t been seen on guitars, but really it was like a generation, and half later. It really took a while. Then, all of a sudden maybe in the last 10 or 15 years they started being a lot more female players out there, an getting deals and doing the whole thing.”
Davies went solo in 1993 and has become veteran road warrior ever since. No longer an anomaly, she still finds the rigors of the road and pleasing her audience may not be that much more freeing even if no one looks at her today as though she had two heads.
“So, watching that change (about gender roles), and that 180 change is a thrill to me. Women have choices now. They’re not in a box. It’s not like are you gonna get married or are you gonna be a mother or a teacher? That’s thrilling. I think women in general, and black people in general, there’s still a struggle for equality. Now you’re talking about people being prejudiced, so that’s a constant struggle to try and work toward the general population being clear in their thinking, you know?”
I gave her some quotes from our 1997 interview about making it as a solo act, and she basically rubber stamped those quotes, saying it’s pretty much the same. “You have the basic finances of the thing. The record company is not helping us out financially. Nobody is. I finance everything I do. The vehicles, players, the instruments, the motel rooms. So, you gotta keep that going on.
“You gotta still be able to please the clubs even though you might have goals that are outside of the clubs, even though you might be writing stuff that’s a little bit different than this, you gotta do that. So, this type of career is a constant series of compromises which you always hold your ultimate goal in front of you, and you try and get there.
“What you gotta do is find the best players you can that also has a traveling personality with the band. I mean, it’s a chemistry, and sometimes the best player you can find on any particular instrument might be a guy who is hard to deal with once you get out there on the road. He might be a terrible roommate for anybody he’s got to roommate with. He might be irresponsible. He might be getting too high.
“So, there’s a series of compromises. You might say, ‘I’m gonna let this guy go, and hire this other guy I’ve worked with who, he’s not quite the monster on the instrument that this guy is, but we’re gonna have harmony out there.’ When you have harmony between people even though somebody may not be the best player you can find on that instrument. But you’ve got harmony, you’re gonna make better music anyway.
“My biggest challenge in life is to keep myself together so that I can do everything I have to do. To keep my energy and health is a constant battle because I work every day. I don’t even have a day off. Don’t let anybody tell you sow biz is any light weight deal because it’s not. And that’s why a lot of people are real assholes out there, real sharks and rip-offs because it’s like only the strong survive or however you want to say it. Oh, yeah, you’re financing your own thing, doing your own driving. You’re doing your own road managing. You’re doing it all and then you’re getting on stage.”
The only fundamental difference in 20 years is the age factor. “If you’re really tired, a drive seems like it takes forever, but not if you’re not tired. That’s kind of my experience. It has to do with where you’re at. But they always say time speeds up when you get older, so I’m sure that’s happening.
“I’m definitely not a kid, and I’m definitely not trying to pound the pavement at the pace I used to do and that’s ok. I mean, I was touring really hard for like 30 years. You don’t end up being the same kind of body as somebody who just didn’t have to work that much, and played tennis all those years. So, yeah, I treat myself like I have to treat myself. I work. I do some runs out there that I’m not trying to keep the pace of young kids. It’s just not part of being myself.”
Jim Gaines of Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan fame produced Debbie Davies’ I Got That Feeling CD for Blind Pig in1997. At the time she said, “My conversation with Jim was, ‘I’m working with you. You’re a world class producer.’ James worked with all these people. Stretch me. Pull some stuff out of me. So, there was some experimental stuff going on on the album like there probably always will be. Each project will be a little different, and each project you try and grow and work with different people.”
In 2002 she recorded Love The Game with Duke Robillard. She puts both producers on a high pedestal. “I’ve been pretty fortunate because I worked with Duke Robillard, and that’s a different kind of experience. Jim’s produced rock stars, and Jim’s really high budget kind of thing that I was fortunate to be able to do that, and I worked with awesome players. It was all atmosphere, and then when I worked with Duke Robillard in a beautiful studio, it was another great experience because Duke is actually a player on my instrument, and he’s a musical genius.
“So, yeah, that was another phenomenal experience, just the nicest man. So, that’s another thing for a producer. You want somebody who can really do it but keeps his cool and just likes the vibe. Jim Gaines and Duke Robillard set the vibe with laughing. They’re funny.
“That’s part of it, too. They know exactly what they want, and they can work with you, the artists. What amazed me about Duke was he had ideas. He would say, ‘You know that song the guitar part,’ and then he’d name some record that came out in 1963 by some guy. He did his fingertips on all of that, and the memory of all that stuff hasn’t gone away for him, everything he’s learned. It’s like cataloged, and he can pull it up and it’s just incredible. I’ve never met anybody like that. Then, he can say, ‘Yeah, let’s do something like that. He’d just do something on his guitar that’s a background part that’s genius. And we got to play together many times. We have a friendship. It’s just a beautiful thing. So, yes, I did have another experience like that.
Throughout her career Davies has recorded with: Albert Collins, Ike Turner, James Cotton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya, Duke Robillard, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton, Sugar Ray Nortia, Mudcat Ward, Charlie Musselwhite, Bruce Katz, Per Hanson, Noel Neal, and Rod Carey.
Twenty years ago she told me that her dream was to play a gig as big as Farm Aid in front of half a million people. Did she ever realize that dream?
Does she still have it?
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
“No, now it’s whatever happens happens. I fight the good fight. I’ve been all over the world and it’s now just I love to play and I wanna just keep doing it.”
Visit Debbie’s website at: http://debbiedavies.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.