No one in the world today suffers a greater sense of loss because of COVID-19 than musicians. Completely cut off from making a living, spreading joy through song and hooking up in faraway places with fans and friends alike, their frustration is boundless despite writing new material and performing the occasional virtual show online or to extremely small crowds at safe distance to break up the boredom.
The pain is palpable, and the suffering amplified with each passing month. In this world of trouble and sorrow, however, there’s one musician who’s been spreading a little joy on a daily basis: the multi-talented Guy Davis, who’s probably been the busiest entertainer on the planet as things have come to a dead halt around him.
Since the dawning of the shutdown, the native New Yorker have been serving up a welcome break for blues lovers by hosting a show called Coffee with Kokomo on his Kokomo Kidd Facebook page at 10 a.m. Eastern time every day but Saturday. He was rapidly closing in on 200 episodes – all of which are still online for you to view — as this story was being written.
Broadcast out of the safety and comfort of his home in Harlem, it usually opens with the ringing of a bell as Guy’s lady, serving as the announcer, demands: “Wake up! It’s time for coffee with Kokomo!”
Sometimes dressed to the nines and sometimes not, Davis opens the action by suggesting that you fill up your favorite mug and shares a toast before requesting that you join him in a sip. What follows is an intimate one-man shows that runs between 20 and 30 minutes and features some of the most stylish music you’ll hear this or any year. Guy accompanies himself on guitar, harmonica and banjo, peppering the action with anecdotes, personal observations and reminiscences as well as the occasional tall tale. Check out an episode and you’ll quickly realize that it’s a great stress reliever for the tension swirling around you.
“I know I’m busy, but I don’t know if it counts as ‘employment,’” Guy, now 68, chuckled recently when Blues Blast caught up with him during a whirlwind vacation in Alabama. “But it’s a lot of fun.”
The show’s title mirrors the name of his 2015 album of the same name. “I started out with this character to deal with a certain amount of corruption in Washington, D.C.,” he says, long before our shared experiences recently.
“I appropriated it,” he notes, partially as a tribute to James “Kokomo” Arnold, the Georgia-born, left-handed guitarist who was a superstar in the ‘30s. He was a major influence for Robert Johnson who refashion one of his tunes – “Old Original Kokomo Blues” – into the song we know as “Sweet Home Chicago” today. But the moniker was inspired by other references, too, including the city of the same name in Indiana, an island in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and urban slang, where it’s used as a term for a both a lover’s lane and a certain sex act performed to acquire cocaine.
A true ambassador of the music, Davis clearly relishes his morning performances, but they’re a major change-of-pace for a man who’s been somewhat of a Johnny Appleseed for the blues through his career by regularly touring the Northern Hemisphere around the globe, entertaining audiences and building new fans by performing workshops for children wherever he goes.
A 2018 Grammy nominee for Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train – a tribute to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that was recorded in partnership Fabrizio Poggi, the Milan, Italy-based harp player who’s appeared on his three most recent albums, Guy was riding high as 2020 began.
His new project, Gumbo, Grits & Gravy, was cooking up a feast of heart- and soul-warming Americana, Celtic and Gypsy music spiced with blues, zydeco and soul in a pairing with Anne Harris — the beloved, Chicago-based fiddler best known for her work with Otis Taylor — and Marcella Simien — the multi-instrumentalist daughter of zydeco superstar Terence Simien. It was the rebirth of an earlier, similar partnership that had included bluegrass star Laurie Lewis and Christine Balfa, the daughter of the late Cajun fiddle superstar Dewey Balfa.
The new trio debuted in suburban Boston in 2019 and had released a self-titled EP prior to the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale this past winter, where they quickly established themselves as one of the favorite acts on board. They disembarked to rave reviews, and were booked internationally through late November and raring to go as the world came to a sudden halt.
But Guy remains upbeat.
“Things went nuts,” he says. “One thing COVID is good for is catchin’ up. I just got off the phone talkin’ with someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. Somehow, though, Mother Nature has to be kind and we’ve gotta get over this hump that’s affecting all of us.”
Fortunately, Davis has always been flexible and ready, willing and able to try his hand at new things. His desire to bring the world closer together through song is the continuation of lessons he’s learned having grown in a family with deep Southern roots that’s served as a beacon of light for all Americans for generations.
The son of the late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee — two of the most highly respected stage-and-screen actors and as actors and leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, he fell in love with the blues through his paternal grandmother, Laura, a native of Clinch County, Ga. But his road to the music came through exposure to folk music and the top artists who made it popular in its heyday in the early ‘60s.
Many folks — including this writer in previous reviews – have claimed Guy to be a national treasure like his parents before him – something that makes him chuckle. “If my mom was alive to hear you say that,” he says, “she could come up with some counter indications!”
Self-taught on guitar because he didn’t have the patience for lessons, he began playing as a youth. He’s a gifted fingerpicker today through a stroke of good fortune. He learned the technique from a musician he encountered on a night train from Boston to the Big Apple in his teens. It’s a skill that also comes in handy when playing five-string banjo, an instrument he picked up at a summer camp operated by John Seeger, elder brother of folk superstar, environmentalist, political activist and Davis’ future mentor Pete Seeger.
Today, Guy refers to himself as a “blues artist” rather than a “bluesman” because he more readily identifies with the more sophisticated artists who played in New Orleans or on the ragtime circuit in the first half of the 20th Century rather than the hard-drinking, hard-partying, danger-loving figures that most folks identify with the music today.
He draws his inspiration from Blind Willie McTell and Lightnin’ Hopkins, both of whom were great storytellers who worked in the songster tradition, as well as Big Bill Broonzy, who replaced the recently deceased Johnson at Carnegie Hall in 1938 for the famous From Spirituals to Swing concert and later helped create what we consider to be the modern blues sound in Chicago in the ‘50s.
Guy’s debut on record came at age 16 when Pete Seeger invited him to sing one cut — “Message of the River” — on The Greater Things: A Flexible Phonograph for Clearwater, a now rare and highly prized six-tune, eight-inch LP that includes one of the final recordings of Woody Guthrie – an amazing accomplishment for any musician, let alone a teen!
Released in 1969, it was issued by the Sojourner Truth Sloop Club, it was created to raise funds for what would become one of Seeger’s most enduring legacies, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, the flagship of Woody’s effort to get youth more involved in environmental issues – a program that continues today half a century after his passing.
Davis’ first album under his own name came in 1978 on the Folkways label with Dreams about Life, a nine-song set featured eight originals that touched on blues, country and folk. Following in his parents’ footsteps, however Guy subsequently turned to acting, starring as Kenny “Double D” Kirkland in the film, Beat Street, opposite Rae Dawn Chong in 1984, as Dr. Josh Hall on the soap One Life to Live in ’85 and ’86 and landing other roles, including his Broadway debut in the musical Mulebone – which featured a score by Taj Mahal — in 1991.
Through it all, he’s pursued both fields in highly polished manner that seems effortless. “I don’t like people to see the hard work and the sweat that goes into what I do,” he explains on his website. “I want them to hear me and be uplifted.
“I want some little eight-year-old kid in the front row to have big eyes and say: ‘Hey, I want to do that!’”
Educating youngsters about the blues has always been one of Davis’ paramount interests. He enjoys regaling them with stories between tunes, although he does the talking back somewhat when working abroad. His critically acclaimed one-man play and 2012 CD, In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters, and the 2007 compilation album, Down at the Sea Hotel, both were created for children. He’s performed Fishy Waters for youngsters around the globe.
Eighteen years after he made his first record, Guy made his “official” debut as a blues artist in 1995 with Stomp down Rider on the Red Rider imprint. It featured fresh interpretations of tunes penned by Johnson, McTell and Mance Lipscomb as well as a trio of originals that fit like hand-and-glove with the work of the masters. The title tune was a clever adaptation of McTell’s song of the same title amalgamated with “Fort Worth and Dallas Blues,” a Lead Belly standard.
The success of that CD created a successful formula that Davis has used throughout a career that’s included 18 Blues Music Award nominations for acoustic album and artist as well as song and instrumentalist of the year. He’s also a BMA lifetime achievement award winner for his depiction of Johnson in the off-Broadway play Trick the Devil, a fictionalized version of the musician’s final day on earth. In his spare time, he’s also an award-winning author of short stories, too.
His harmonica skills jumped levels, he says, when he was asked to reprise the role Sonny Terry played in the debut of Finian’s Rainbow, one of the most successful plays in Broadway history. The story of an Irish father and daughter who escape to the U.S. after stealing a leprechaun’s pot of gold whose first run was in 1947, it’s laced with political and racial overtones and a score that incorporates gospel and blues elements despite its Irish overtones.
Terry played a sharecropper — coincidentally named Sunny – and provided dramatic harp interludes, and Davis was enlisted for its 2009 revival. Fortunately, Guy had always been interested in Sonny’s Piedmont-style attack.
“I got really inspired in my 30s to learn how Sonny did the whoopin’ and hollerin’ when he played the harmonica,” he remembers. “After 20 years of tryin’ to steal it, I actually found myself in the musical. I’d gone through an awful lot of failing, and I had to reverse engineer the way he made those sounds.
“I figured out some of ‘em. I haven’t got ‘em all, but I’m workin’ on ‘em.”
Despite the talent he displays on the reeds, Davis remains amazed by the harp skills of others, something that comes through clearly when he recounts an incident that took place at a festival in Europe a few years ago.
“Kenny Neal was on stage,” Guy recalls, “and he invited Sugar Blue and Billy Branch to join him. It turned into a harp blowout. Kenny was with the band playin’ his guitar, and Billy and Sugar were kinda cuttin’ each other.
“Oh, man! It was the most amazing stuff you ever saw! These guys were playin’ things that would have put blisters on anyone else’s lips. I don’t know if I can say there was a clear winner. All I know is that I went home filled with harmonica juice!
“It would take me 40 years to play one-tenth of what they played on that stage. My God, the notes were flowing!”
In mid-October, Guy took a brief break from his Facebook responsibilities to go upstate to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he got to stream a live performance from Caffe Lena. It was a welcome break from the steady stream of “boring” video since the onset of the virus because it was captured from three different camera angles, not the single camera that virtually everyone has become used to, and delivered to audiences from multiple angles.
“I’m such a retard when it comes to the internet,” Davis admits, referring to his Kokomo Kidd shows. “Sometimes you’ve gotta show me what button you have to push to get this and to bring that back, so I haven’t been able to see any part of it myself. But the response to that show was tremendous, and I’m told it was good stuff. I’m grateful that I had that chance.”
If you missed it, it’s viewable by visiting the venue’s October 2020 events calendar on its website — www.caffelena.org. He’s also been involved in another project that — like touring — has been placed in limbo because of the virus: financing the self-production of a pair of parallel albums.
“I spent an enormous amount of money that suddenly wasn’t there anymore (i.e., his revenue stream stopped because he wasn’t out on the road working),” he says. “I was in the recording studio, and I had enough material for two CDs…two CDs…one that has more to do with the protest anthems and such.”
The other is more difficult to explain, he says, noting that the combined effort is basically two differing versions of his rich family history: one true-to-life and one fictional. And what a history it is.
Guy was a small child when his parents marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and other heroes in the push for civil rights. They helped organize and serve as the emcees for the groundbreaking March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. His dad also delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral, and both parents are enshrined in the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame in addition to the multiple acting honors, including Oscar, Grammy and Emmy tributes they received during their illustrious careers.
Listeners will definitely be in for a treat – and a not-so-subtle history lesson too — whenever Guy’s finally able to get those projects off his plate, but he’s yearning to be back on the road, too.
“I look so forward to being out there in front of people live, eyeball-to-eyeball, with my guitar right there,” he insists, “because that’s the way this music is meant to be heard and experienced.”
Meanwhile, he’ll keep providing fans a break from their daily routine with a morning dose of Coffee with Kokomo. “I get to do a couple of songs, we drink coffee together…maybe a story or two,” he reminds you. “It’s just kind of a virtual way of meeting up in a coffee shop, talkin’, havin’ a little fun.
“If you want to get a little samplin’ of me, tune in every morning but Saturday, I’m generally on these days.”
Be sure to brew your own pot of java, grab a mug and hook up with him at https://upload.facebook.com/guy.davis.3363. Check out his music by visiting his home page: www.guydavis.com and Gumbo, Grits & Gravy at www.gumbogritsandgravy.com.