Cover photo © 2011 Bob Kieser
Though he’s probably never been referred to as the “E.F. Hutton of the Blues,” when Buddy Guy talks, people certainly do listen.
Doesn’t matter if you’re a grizzled old veteran of the scene, or whether you’re an impressionable 10-year-old kid, when the Legend from Lettsworth offers advice, you’d better be all ears.
And long before “Guitar” was placed between Eric and Davis, listen is just what he did.
A budding drummer at the time, the son of Bobby Davis had already backed up the likes of B.B. King and Junior Wells, even though he was not yet a teenager.
But one day after school, young Eric Davis spotted a bass player across the floor at that venerable old hotspot on Chicago’s 43rd Street, the Checkerboard Lounge, and mentioned that he’d like to take a few bass lessons.
Overhearing the conversation, the man behind the well-weathered bar pulled out a beaten-up Fender Strat and told young Davis, “In order to get all the girls, you have to play this.”
That man was Buddy Guy and Eric Davis soaked up that advice like a sponge soaks up water.
Guy later showed Davis his first chord on the instrument and from there on out, it was full-speed ahead for Davis and the six-string.
“I started really watching people like Buddy and Lefty Dizz and Sammy Lawhorn and all those guys play guitar and then my father bought me an old guitar from a pawn shop,” Davis said. “And I used to set up and listen to Albert Collins’ “Frosty” everyday. And somehow it all just caught on with me and I’ve been playing ever since.”
For a peek into why Big James (Montgomery) dubbed him as “Guitar” (“I never would have thought of that myself, but he started calling me “Guitar” and it stuck,” said Davis.), simply pop in Trouble Makin’ Man (Young Blues Records) – Davis’ latest CD -and the reasons are readily apparent.
There are plenty of thick, rich bluesy riffs that give the tunes a muscular feel, but there are also heavy chunks of slippery, slidey funk stuffed into the body of the songs, giving them a breezy, lighter-than-air nature.
So, the “Guitar” tag is well warranted.
But there’s also more. Davis wrote nine of the 10 tracks on the album.
“I like to write my own material because everything’s really already been covered,” he said. “And in these days and time, with all the competition out there, you have to set yourself, your show, your CD, apart from everyone else. They won’t hear me do “Everyday I Have the Blues.” They won’t hear “Stormy Monday.” When you hear new people, you want to hear new stuff. That’s part of my inspiration for writing my own songs. I want to be known for my stuff first. If I’m known for my stuff first, when I get to a certain level, I can go back and do other people’s stuff If I want to and still be accepted for being me. You sure don’t want people to think you’re a copycat, or are trying to be like this person or that person.”
The exception to that rule on Trouble Makin’ Man is a take on Chicagoan Jimmy Burns’ “No Consideration,” and it almost has a gospel-like charge to it, complete with requisite background vocals, giving the disc some choice variety and keeping it from being a straight-out shred fest.
“That’s by choice. That’s by choice to be different,” Davis said. “I listen to a lot of rap and a lot of R&B and things like that. And I try to mix the blues up to where you can get up and move. I try not to play the same old I-IV-V blues. I want to make the blues interesting and not the same old stuff that everybody’s heard over and over.”
That refusal to fall back into the been-there, done-that also applies to when Eric “Guitar” Davis and The Troublemakers hit the stage (video of their performance at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival can be seen atwww.ericguitardavis.com).
“One thing I refuse to do at my shows – you may hear one or two ‘traditional blues songs’ – there again, the I-VI-V numbers – but I rarely do the slow blues and the shuffles, all those kinds of things,” he said. “I try to keep things fresh. We’re in 2011 and you have to go in different ways to keep things fresh to bring in some of the youngsters and middle-aged people that didn’t like the blues. But when they hear it coming from me, they go – ‘you know, that ain’t bad. I like that.’”
Trouble Makin’ Man also features guest stints from Ronnie Baker Brooks (who co-produced some of the disc), along with Mike Wheeler and Big James.
“I really put my all into this CD to see if it can help take me to that next level,” Davis said.
And Davis knows that the rungs of the ladder that lead to that “next level” are full of others who are clinging on with exactly the same plans as his.
Because making a name for yourself as a guitarist is one thing.
But making a name for yourself as a guitarist in a city like Chicago, a city that is stuffed to the gills with world-class players, is another matter entirely.
“It’s very hard (to separate from the pack). And the reason that I say that is with the newer generation, you have to prove yourself even more, because the blues has been watered down so much,” said Davis. “And when you’re playing in the Chicago clubs, everything is magnified. Everything you do is under the microscope, so you have to be serious about your business. If you’re not serious or don’t have good music – new, fresh music – along with consistency, it would be really hard.
While striving for consistency is certainly the goal of any musician, achieving that consistency can be easier said than done.
“This (playing the blues for a living) is something that you have to want to do. A lot of guys come out here and want to make a big name and get to all the big places without putting in the work. Everyone thinks they’re going to come out here and get rich,” Davis said. “But to maintain a level of consistency, the first thing is, it has to be in your heart. You’ve got to love and want to do this at all costs.”
A lot of times, those “costs” end up being little or no pay at the end of a gig, even for some of the very best bands on the scene.
“Being a bandleader, you’ve got to have a good group of guys that want to play with you,” he said. “Guys that are on the same page with you. They have to understand that some gigs may be for $50 and some gigs may be for $500. You have to have guys that believe in you and what you’re doing and will stick behind you, through it all. You’ve got to play a lot of those $50 gigs, too. Like I tell my band, if you’re playing with me, don’t expect to get rich. If you’re trying to put your kids through college playing with me, it’s not going to happen right now. But it’s going to get better and eventually the money will be plentiful and everybody will be happy. But you have to start at the bottom before you get to the top.”
Even though he’s hesitant to admit to as much, Davis has developed into a fairly formidable singer, mixing up power and grit with plenty of sweet soul.
Pretty impressive, considering that until he formed The Troublemakers, singing was probably the last thing on his mind.
“I’ve never really thought that I could sing,” Davis said. “Still, to this day, I never really thought I could sing. But as a bandleader, I wasn’t afraid to step up to the mike and sing. I knew I had to. When I would go out to jams and stuff, I would take the microphone and even though I wasn’t a singer, I would sing. That was the only way I was ever going to be able to learn to sing. And right now today, I’m very comfortable about what I’ve been able to achieve vocal-wise. My top favorite vocalist would have to be Jimmy Burns, though.”
Davis also cites Burns as one of his favorite guitarists, along with Albert Collins, Lefty Dizz, Chico Banks and Ronnie Baker Brooks, to name just a few.
However, it was a relative unknown that ended up having as much or more influence than those cats on Davis when he was still learning the nuances of the guitar.
“There’s a guy named Lavertis Stewart – a guy that nobody’s ever heard of – that was a big influence on me learning to play the guitar,” he said. “I met him 20-something years ago in my neighborhood and he used to sit up and play with me and go through things on the guitar with me.”
And even though he’s played the guitar in countless clubs in countless cities over the course of the past three decades, Davis has not been able to completely separate himself from the first instrument he was taught at age 5 – the drums.
“I actually still play the drums every now and then, so I’m still a drummer at heart,” he said. “And since I play the drums, I HAVE to have a good drummer behind me when I’m playing guitar. That’s like one of the main points of my band.”
Davis, who in addition to playing guitar, singing, writing songs and leading a band, also serves as a one-man booking, promoting, advertising and marketing department, understands that remaining visible and accessible are necessary components needed to break through to the masses.
“I stay in clubs at least eight nights a week, even if I’m not playing,” he said. “I like to check out what other people are doing and hear the music they’re playing, plus it lets people know that I’m out and about – its keeps me in front of people.”
Like any other performer, in the world of the blues or otherwise, Davis aspires to one day take to the world’s biggest stages and play to adoring fans all across the globe.
And he would rather do that sooner than later.
“I can see myself playing big festivals and doing big things. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m not that old in the blues business, but one thing I have a fear of – I don’t want to be an old man that just now reaches the point that he wants to. And I think with the direction I’m going in now, and by staying true to the music, I can reach that point sooner than that.”