Bluesman in Berlin
When I was in Berlin last year I wanted to go out and listen to some blues. I searched newspapers and the Internet, but Berlin is not a bluestown. After awhile, one name continued to pop up, EB Davis. I was curious, an American bluesman in Berlin with his roots in Memphis. I contacted him and to my pleasure I got the privilege to meet him. After listening to blues for over 20 years, I more and more seldom listen to the legends. What I now find interesting is the artists who never made it real big, but who still continue playing the blues with great love and joy. EB Davis is for me such an artist. He’s not completely unknown in Sweden, he has performed at the Mönsterås Blues Festival and a couple of his records have been reviewed in Jefferson, but I didn´t know of him before. After talking with him and after seeing EB Davis & the Superband perform live I can strongly recommend all visitors to Berlin to try to catch him live. For more information about EB Davis, please visit his home page, http://www.ebdavis.com
You were born in Arkansas?
Yes, not far from Memphis, less than one hour from Memphis Tennessee, in the Arkansas delta. A lot of people, when you say from the delta, they think only of Mississippi, but a big part of the delta is also Arkansas. I basically grew up in Memphis, Memphis was the big city. And when I was growing up, Memphis was the home of the blues. Yeah, now they say Chicago is the home of the blues, which it rightly is, but during that time Memphis was. So that was quite an experience for me, being lucky enough to grow up there. Artists like Junior Parker, BB King, Roscoe Gordon, Gatemouth Moore, Ike Turner… You saw them every weekend, because on Beale Street there, Handy Park, there was a free jam session every weekend and a lot of them would just come out and jam with other musicians, so you saw them almost on a weekly basis. It was kind of exciting to be growing up with all these great guys all around you. I couldn’t get in the clubs, because I was too young. But in Elaine and Helena Arkansas I would stand outside listening and in a lot of the clubs you could see right through the windows.
I started to sing in school They had very good music programs in school and some of my class mates were very good musicians and I was also singing in the church as a kid. Once I sang a little bit in the school and I liked the reaction from the girls! I also used to hang around the old blues guys. I always loved the blues and I always liked soul too so when I grew older whatever I was doing I tried to have one foot there and the other foot there. I try to keep that mixture. It’s not straight soul, it’s not straight blues. I try to make it just me. I let someone else put it in whatever category they want. As you say, white blues fans like to put everything in little boxes. It must have a label! Maybe that’s a problem some people have with me because they don’t know have to label me. But whatever I do is blues based.
I like a horn section in the music because in Memphis all the soul players and blues players they played together all the time so it was hard to say this is blues or this is soul, and both they used the horns. Even the blues guys who weren’t making the money to have the horn players made some kind of deal to some of the soul guys who were making more money and they used their horn players sometimes. But the horns were an integral part of the music.
Did you hear some of that real downhome blues, like Burnside and Kimbrough, Otha Turner when you were growing up?
Oh, yeah, it would be hard to imagine now, but you can still find that kind of blues around in some places in Mississippi, you have to go out in some little town where there maybe living only 600 people, but they still have these joints where you can still hear this kind of blues. Otha Turner is dead, but his daughter or grand daughter, she’s trying to keep the tradition alive. I hope she has success. All of these cultural traditions, you should try to keep them alive. When something from a culture dies, the culture dies.
Then you moved to New York and started a soul band in the late sixties/seventies, Soul Groovers
That also had a lot do with commercialism, because I had eight people in the band and if you have to pay that many people you have to make money and to play just straight blues then you just couldn’t earn enough money. We backed several other artists, Millie Jackson, Rufus Thomas, The Manhattans, Wilson Pickett etc. Most of time it was fun but playing with Wilson Picket was hard! One time we played at the Apollo theatre and I’m just in front of him, right in the middle of my act some guy yells: When are you finished! I paid my money to see Wilson Picket! Pickett was such a big star then, it was very hard to always have to go in front of him. But later it has also happened the other way around. You ever heard of Bobby Byrd, the guy from James Brown? He was one of the first who ever put together James Brown and the Famous Flames. He was here in Berlin. I played in front of him, when we finished all of the people started to leave.
You talked in the Living Blues interview ((# 147, September/October 1999) about impersonators
In the old days, that was a normal thing. Most of the record companies did this. I was working with a guy who used to do James Brown, as a matter of fact he’s still recording now, but as himself, and he really looked like James Brown and he had the same show. He could really do James Brown. Then you hadn’t all this instant recognization from television and all kind of magazines, so you could hear Sam Cooke on the radio and if you could find someone else who sounded like him you could send him out on tour as Sam Cooke. So you could have maybe six Sam Cookes working at the same time. I impersonated Sam Cooke sometimes, but they never tried to sell me as Sam Cooke.
EB Davis played with the Soul Groovers until 1975. They also released an album, Your Business Straight, Musicor LP 4091. After the Soul Groovers EB continued to play with different bands, but the disco wave made it hard for many artists to survive playing blues and soul. EB even sang with a constellation of The Drifters for awhile. In 1980 they came to Germany and EB Davis was offered to sing with the German band Bayou Blues Band. EB stayed in Berlin and in 1985 he started his own band EB Davis & the Superband.
In Berlin you have turned more to straight Chicago Blues
Yeah, that is what the audience here likes. But they will never hear me sing Sweet Home Chicago! It happens to me many times- Why don’t you sing Sweet Home Chicago? I have more than 21 recordings and most of this material I wrote it myself so would I need to sing Sweet Home Chicago? Sometimes I’ll say I’ll sing Sweet Home Chicago if you give everybody in the band 100 dollars!
Do you want to go back to the States or do you want to stay in Berlin?
I don’t think about it so much, I am in the States every year, but I like Berlin very much. I like it so much I got married here. I don’t stay only for that reason. She’s a musician also and she’s the piano player in my band, Nina Davis. She’s an excellent musician and could work everywhere.
You were in Chicago this year, 2004, but you didn’t play at the festival
I played Buddy Guy’s. That was quite an experience too, because right in the middle of the set, he came in and I guess he liked what we’re doing so he came on the stage and joined us. He only does that when someone play blues he likes. I guess that was an honour to me. It was nice but the way it happened was a little bit, well. Picture this: You’re on the stage doing your thing and all of a sudden the audience is giving you a good reaction and all of a sudden the audience is going crazy, so you stand in there and go Oh! You’re really doing it! And then I looked behind and there is Guy standing, waiting for me to pass the microphone to him. The only thing I’m thinking of in my mind is Oh shit….
How is the blues situation in Berlin?
There’s a lot of people here that play blues, but they don’t have a lot of opportunities. Berlin is not a blues city. You have a few places like this where we’re doing the interview in - the Badenscher Hof, it´s a small place but the owner works very hard to keep it going and he has a good reputation with the musicians. Then there´s the Yorckschlösschen, a little night club in Prenzlauer Berg, Speiche’s. These are really the only places that present blues on a regular basis. There are other clubs, but they only have blues from time to time. I’ve been lucky in that way. I can live on playing blues.
But you might be the best bluesman in Berlin!
I’m the only one [laugh]! Well, you have Guitar Crusher, he’s an American too. We may be the only blues artists in town. German people has told me: You’re a bluesman, standing on the stage, representing an American art, so it would sound a little stupid speaking German.
You don’t play any instruments?
I play harmonica. I play it based on the program we do, if we do a soul program, harmonica don’t fit so well in most soul songs, but if we do more blues stuff then yeah.
Like Bobby Rush?
Yeah, he’s only playing it sometimes in the more bluesier stuff.
I saw a live dvd with Bobby Rush with his dancers, “Live at Ground Zero”. Is this kind of a show something you would do?
It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t do a show like that. I have a different kind of audience; my audience would not accept it. He came here maybe three years ago, someone brought him, and I think that after the second gig they cancelled it. People didn’t like that. They didn’t accept it at all. It’s a certain type of humour, but if you don’t understand this kind of thing then of course you don’t like it. It’s a comedic routine – he plays a certain type.
You said in the Living Blues Interview there is a big difference playing for a white and a black audience
Unfortunately that still exists. When you play before an all white audience most of the white blues fans, they tend to be a bit younger and most of the black blues fans they tend be older. So that means that all the black people, they’re interested in more in the vocals and the younger whites they love the guitar. So you have to find the balance there. When you have a white audience you have to give the guitar player more room. And when you have an all black audience you have to concentrate more on the vocals. It’s very church based. The only difference I find sometimes between blues and the gospel is the words. It’s based on trying to establish a contact between you and someone else and whatever they might be thinking, whether it’s good or bad, you can plug in to that sometimes and you can reach a certain level of understanding together. It’s… Well, it goes back so many years, it has a really deep meaning, deeper than I can explain right here. But I still try to maintain that audience contact. Because if you have an audience and they have paid $15-20 to see you and you can’t establish any kind of contact with them they feel like they just threw their money out of the window.
You dress up and do a good show…
Yes, if I paid to see a guy I don’t want him to stand there in front of me with his tennis shoes, because I might have tennis shoes. I want him to look a little bit different from me! One of the things the old blues guys used to tell me. I started to dress as a kid because they were always nicely dressed, presentable, and I liked that, so they used to tell me when someone comes to see you, they don’t leave their eyes at home. You can give them all you want for the ear, but they also need something for the eyes. Because the eyes influence the ears! Sometimes, when I go and see someone maybe they don’t sound so good, but if they look really good I think they sound pretty good anyway! A person can stay at home and play a stereo and you can never sound that good on the stage. You have to give them something else.
It happens quite often someone will come to me and say: You know, when I came I felt really really bad, but now I feel a bit better. This is good! Sometimes you can just look at people and see that they’re really enjoying themselves. But there’s always someone in the audience that don’t like what you do, so you leave them alone. Sometimes I can look at a guy and he looks at me like this: I’m only here because I brought my wife! I don’t want to be here! But I always try to get contact with the men first, because if you make the first contact with the women, you can make the men your enemy. You don’t want them to be your enemy, because they have influence on the women. So if you get the men on your side at first, you’ll be fine, because you already have most of the women on your side. When I come on the stage, I try to present myself in a way that I’m not dangerous to anyone, so everybody can be my friend! It’s not easy to do this; it takes a lot of experience.
Where do you stand right now in your career? Do you have any future plans?
I don’t really have a career plan. If I had a plan it would just be to continue with what I’m doing, performing, touring, blues writing, recording. What I would like to do, I’d like to record and produce some other blues artists, which has always been a dream. I like doing things in the studio with other people. I don’t produce my own albums, though. I think someone else can produce something for you much better than you can, because they can be totally objective. I’d also like to record an album with a big band, maybe with 35 people or something.
You write your own songs?
Sometimes I write the music first and then the lyrics will come later and sometimes the lyrics come first. Sometimes my wife will give me some ideas for music. I have so many lyrics, when someone gives me some music I can always find some lyrics. I write about everything! Everything that has to do with the human condition, but mostly things that has something to do with man and woman, I find it the most interesting topic you can write about. You can live for a million years and you can still find new things.
Do you have any favourite songs right now?
Yes, we’re getting ready to do a new cd right now and there’s a lot of songs from Junior Parker that I would like to do a couple of cover versions. He was always one of my favourite people. He was one of the few guys that would play harmonica with big orchestras.
A final question - What do you think of the future of the blues!?
The blues is one of those things that so long as there are human beings; it’ll be around in one form or another. It’s born again every ten years. People say the blues has died, but it didn’t die, it just went around the circle. Someone will then come and say, The Blues is born again. It didn’t die; it just went around the corner and came back. It’s dealing, basically, with human conditions, and you’ll always have human conditions so as long as you have human beings. It will be around in some form or another.