Over the course of her illustrious career, Katherine Davis has been hailed as a singer of several overlapping musical genres and as an actress as well. But she’s most visible today as an educator. Davis teaches at Chicago’s Stone Academy as part of the Blues in the Schools program, and she brought her grade school-age students to perform at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, even accompanying them on piano for several songs.
“It’s very rewarding to introduce this type of music to them,” says Davis. “At first, when you just talk about it to them, they don’t have a clue. And then you play the music for them, and they still don’t have a clue. But when I sing the songs that I play for them, I will sing them, and then that’s when they get the message. Because I don’t just pick any songs; I pick songs that have something to do with our history, the migration, how migrants left the south and came to Chicago, and how different groups of people came from different areas. So Chicago being the melting pot of different styles of music, and it being blended together, it made Chicago have its own style.
“I teach from a blueswoman’s perspective,” she continues. “When I’m teaching blues in the schools, I’m saying, ‘Okay, I’m someone’s mother, I’m someone’s grandmother.’ And then I’m going in to educate. Well, children, the way that they think, they know their mothers and they know their teachers, but they don’t know what’s in between that. And so I’m introducing them to this music live, so that instead of them liking Beyonce and the other popular singers, nine times out of ten they won’t ever see them in person. But me, I’m the first one to sing to them live. So to me, they will never forget that. And teaching them the history, there’s so much. There is no end to teaching about the blues.”
Although you’re quite likely to catch Katherine sitting in with her old friend Erwin Helfer at the pianist’s regular Thursday evening gig at Barrelhouse Flat on Chicago’s North Side, she’s cut back on local engagements. “I’ve pretty much been on my own path,” says Katherine. “I still sing, but I’m not in the nightclubs. But I still sing. I like singing from a point of education, something that is going to be more valuable than singing in a bar while drunk people listen or not listen. I want it to be something that they learn something and appreciate, and pass it on to the next generation.
“My mother and her mother, all of them had pianos in their homes. But then when my mother became an orphan and her and her brother were split up, and had to live anywhere they could, we didn’t have a piano growing up. But I would hear my mother talk about how valuable the piano was. So I bought her a piano,” she says. “Everybody should know how to play an instrument, especially the piano, because that’s your getaway when you’re dealing with everything outside in the world. When you come home, you need to be able to escape and express yourself by playing music.”
Davis is a product of two vibrant Windy City areas. For the first 14 years of her life, she lived in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the near North Side with her parents, both of them very musically inclined. “(My mother’s) mother was a singer who would always sing around the house when we would have family singalongs,” says Davis. “My mother would tell stories about her growing up in a musical family. My father, Wesley Davis, owned a bar on the North Side during that time. He had to manage doing all the work in the tavern, including deejaying.” Katherine’s grandfather, Earl Campbell, was a trumpeter who performed with Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Along with the singing of her mother, Ethel Davis, Katherine cites a wide range of influences: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Della Reese, Ethel Waters, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, B.B. King, and James Brown.
“I’ve been singing since I was real young, me and all my sisters,” says Davis. “But I remember that I could always sing a 12-bar blues. I knew the melody. I knew where it would go before it got there. I always had that gift. But I when I was real young, I didn’t know what that was. So when I would sing the blues, they would laugh at me. ‘Cause they was like, ‘Ooh, you’re singing that old-timey music!’”
There was plenty of musical action at Cabrini. “Every building had doo-wop singers,” Katherine says. “I used to go to the talent shows in the projects. They had talent shows in their basements, and I always went to the talent shows. Then the singers were standing on the corners, singing their doo-wop, and we would make up songs, or we would make up (rhymes) jumping rope or doing dance steps and everything. We would make ‘em up while the doo-woppers were singing.”
Moving to the South Side in 1967 proved a big adjustment. “When we moved to the South Side, I didn’t like the South Side at all, because I had only known the North Side,” she says. “I knew moving to the South Side, (there) was racism. I remember seeing all the for sale signs up. White people were trying to get out of Englewood and Auburn-Gresham. They were selling their houses and everything, and all the blacks were buying houses, and how proud the families were to be able to own a house. So when that happened, I didn’t like the South Side, and I kept going to the North Side hanging out. But then when the riots happened, that scared me and I stopped going.”
Gospel music beckoned, but the minister at Katherine’s church proved less than nurturing. “I always wanted to lead a song in church,” she says. “He told me that I was too bluesy, and that I was disrespecting God. So I stopped singing in church because I thought I was disrespecting God. And I didn’t know any other way to sing. I had my own voice.” That preacher might have later regretted his words when Davis eventually formed her own spiritual group, the Victory Gospelaires.
When Davis made her secular bow as a singer, blues wasn’t yet part of the equation. “It was R&B. That was on the South Side at the El Matador Lounge on 75th Street. That was 1979. Daryl Mahon was the drummer, and his father was the manager of the group. Johnnie Taylor’s son was in that group, Johnnie Taylor, Jr. Back then, I was singing Phoebe Snow. I was singing ‘Poetry Man,’ and I was singing (Shirley Brown’s) ‘Woman To Woman.’ And I always loved Aretha, so I was singing a lot of Aretha Franklin,” she says. “That was like my exposure into the nightclubs during that time, hearing live music. All the doors, all the gates, everything, all the green lights said, ‘Go! Go for it, girl! Go for it!’”
During the early ’80s, Davis sang jazz before she realized the possibilities of specializing in blues. “One of Willie Dixon’s daughters, she was a singer too, and she was singing jazz. Because then I was hanging out in the jazz clubs with Von Freeman,” says Davis. “We used to go over to Willie’s studio when it was on 77th and Racine. At that time, because it was all much older people that were singing the blues, I heard it, but I didn’t pay attention.
“She told me I need to be singing blues. She said, ‘You can sing the blues, because you have the voice of a blues singer, and you can live a good life.’ And I said, ‘Uh-uh!’ She said, ‘Yes, you can. You can record, you can travel, and you can make money.’ I said, ‘Really? Off the blues?’ She said yes. So all the doors were all opening for me. Whatever type of music I wanted to sing, I had gigs. I had gigs everywhere, coming from every direction. I was in the blues clubs, and they would say I was a jazz singer. I was singing in the jazz clubs, they said I was a blues singer. I didn’t care because I was getting so much work.
“I was making decent enough money where I could hire bands to work with me, and I had gigs that lasted a long time. So I used to play at Remington’s, that was on Rush. It was next to the Backroom. I used to sing there with a group. I used to sing at Blondie’s. I sang at the Backroom, but I didn’t have my own group. I was there with King George, who was popular at that time. He sang and played piano. And I used to work with him. After I left the Gold Coast and (Willie’s daughter) told me to sing blues, that’s when I started hanging on the North Side. I met Detroit Junior, and then Detroit Junior took me under his wing, and I played with him at the Fallen Angel.”
Idiomatic boundaries notwithstanding, Davis studied another kind of classics in the early ‘80s at the Sherwood Music Conservatory, inspired once again by the talent that ran deep in her own family. “My mother wanted to be a jazz singer, but she chose to be a wife and a mother. But she always wanted to be a jazz singer,” she says. “So when I started studying music, I studied opera. Of course, that was in my family too, on my mother’s side. I wanted to be an opera singer because I thought I would become big. I would be a big star, and (have) a big stage and orchestra and big costumes and travel around the world. That’s how I looked at opera. And when I studied at Sherwood, my music instructor told me that I could sing at the Metropolitan Opera. But I had to have the training. So I trained. I was a dramatic soprano.”
Katherine ultimately stuck with the blues, becoming a regular attraction at Kingston Mines during the 1980s. “When I first started singing there, I was with Lavelle White,” she says. “And then John Watkins, and Wednesday nights I was with Sugar Blue. I was with Magic Slim, I was with Lovie Lee, I was with Casey Jones. I was with Joe Kelley–I sang with Joe on Fridays and Saturdays. Then on Tuesdays, I was there co-hosting the blues jam. I was performing there like four nights a week.”
But the club Davis is probably fated to always be associated with, even though she long ago stopped appearing there, is Blue Chicago because a stylized likeness of her several stories tall adorned the wall of one of their locations on Clark Street during the mid-‘90s. “(Blue Chicago owner Gino Battaglia) saw that picture and said he wanted to use that picture to promote his club,” says Katherine. “So he had my picture up on Ohio, when you come off the expressway, on the wall. And then he had the other one on Clark Street. So that picture circulated all over the world.”
Of all Davis’ musical relationships, the one with pianist Erwin Helfer, which began in 1986, seems to have been the most bountiful. The two are perfectly matched artistically; like Katherine, he has a special affinity for classic blues of the 1920s. “Tony Mangiullo from Rosa’s introduced us to each other. Tony wanted us to do a show for him at Rosa’s,” she says. “When he said he wanted me to meet Erwin, and he told Erwin he wanted him to meet me, we were like, ‘Why in the hell are you doing that? You can’t just put us…’ Because back then, Angela Brown was Erwin’s singer. And when I met Erwin, Mama Yancey had just passed. But he let me hear her music, and I fell in love with Mama Yancey’s music. So I started learning the songs of Mama Yancey so I would be able to expand my repertoire, and it made Erwin happy.
“Erwin is the one that I started traveling with. When we met, I toured with him and Odie Payne, Jr. and Clark Dean,” she says. “We toured throughout the U.S. (for the) National Association for Campus Activities, which took us around the country. We played universities and colleges throughout the country and abroad. I toured with Erwin for five years, and then I toured with (keyboardist) Sidney James Wingfield another five years.”
When Davis returned to Chicago in 1998 after an extended stint in South Carolina, initially landing there for two months in an artist-in-residency program before settling in, Helfer was instrumental in rekindling her local performance schedule. “I was there four years. But when my kids graduated out of high school, they wanted to come back to Chicago. I had so much work here that I left, and with me being gone, when I came back, everything was gone. The only one that kept me going was Erwin,” she says.
“After I did the artist-in-residency, I decided to move to Columbia, S.C., because they had a real strong blues society, and I just felt like there was an opportunity for me to send my kids to a better school. The weather was better, the cost of living was nice, so I moved to Columbia.”
As popular as Davis has proven in Chicago’s nightclubs, her profile has been just as lofty as an actress, starring in the acclaimed musical In the House of the Blues at Kuumba Theatre. Her career in local theater went further back than that. “I had studied at Kennedy King (College), so I was studying the part for Dreamgirls,” says Katherine. “But I dropped out, because during that time I was going through a bad marriage.
“I auditioned for Kuumba Theatre because they were looking for actors and actresses for the play In the House of the Blues. They changed it later to In the Heart of the Blues, but it was In the House of the Blues. And that’s where I met Little Brother Montgomery. They were trying to get him to be the piano player, but we went through quite a few piano players,” she says. “Little Brother, he was fragile. He was still strong, but he was fragile. So when I did the audition, they had me portraying ‘Ma’ Rainey and Bessie Smith. So I got to do both characters. And from that, I fell deeper in love with the blues because I had a better understanding of the music.
“Back then, because the church said it was devil music and all that, so with me being religious and everything, I had to pray many nights. I asked God to please send me some angels or guardians to show me how they lived, and what kind of music, and what were they doing, what was their lifestyle so I could understand this music and be able to portray these characters. And it happened. The guardians and the angels, they came and guided me into learning these characters. And I started feeling like I was a guardian also, over the blues. I chose to be a guardian, so that’s what I’m doing. And that’s how it led me into being an educator of the blues. Because I asked for it, and it was given to me. Even if it’s in my own mind, in my own heart, no one can deny and say that I’m not a blues singer. I’m a blues singer!”
So much so that in 2006, a local theater company staged the story of Davis’ own life, I Dream in Blues. “The Vittum Theater wanted me to work with them on some music projects, teaching in the schools and then performing plays. So I hired lots of Chicago musicians for all the productions that I had put on. And then they asked me to do my life story, growing up in Cabrini-Green,” says Davis. “That show ran for about two months, and over 10,000 children from the schools got to see that play. I narrated the show and other actors portrayed me as a little girl and my mother, my father, and the boy that was a bully that used to pick on me. And it was all music.”
Katherine’s recording career commenced on Delmark in 1993 with four guest numbers on a trad jazz CD by the Dixie Stompers. After an extended stint with Mississippi Heat that included singing on their 1999 album Handyman (she wrote two songs for the set), a benefactor fronted a full-fledged Davis album, only to have the deal falter prior to release. “All my music was just sitting there at Southport Records,” she says. “Then Joanie Pallatto called me about a year later, and said, ‘What do you plan on doing with your music that you have here?’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t do anything because the guy who was sponsoring me, he stopped.’ She said, ‘Well, this is too good of a project to just be sitting and nothing happening with it. Why don’t you let me and (Bradley Parker-) Sparrow finish it off?’ And I said okay. So they finished it off, and we named it Dream Shoes.” Davis made another CD in 2006 for Steven Dolins’ the Sirens label, Rock This House – Live!, her backing cast including Helfer, drummer Kenny Smith, and guitarist Lurrie Bell.
Even if she’s scarcer on our local club scene than she used to be, Katherine Davis remains fiercely dedicated to teaching her students the rudiments of the blues and the cause itself. “I asked my guardians and my angels to watch over me and show me what I need to know,” she says. “What I need to do. So I let my heart, my mind, and my hands go there. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Visit Katherine’s website at: www.bluessingerkatherinedavis.com
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.