The legendary blues/soul/jazz musician Daryl Davis talks about Pinetop Perkins, Chuck Berry, Cephas & Wiggins, and his book about KKK

"The one think I miss most in the Blues of today, is the feel. That is the one thing, you cannot learn.  It MUST be experienced."

Daryl Davis: Ulysses of Blues

The son of a Foreign Service officer, Daryl Davis is a native of Chicago, but was raised in Europe and Africa.  He earned a bachelor of music degree from Howard University, where he was a member of the Howard University Choir and Jazz Vocal Ensemble. In addition to being a vocalist, guitarist, keyboardist, and composer, Davis is a celebrated lecturer, actor, and author of, “Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan,” the story of his quixotic journey into the heart of the KKK.

As a performer, Davis has worked with Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Percy Sledge, and many others.  He was the featured pianist on Cephas & Wiggins’ 1992 Grammy Award winning album, Flip Flop and Fly.  In 1985, boogie-woogie pioneer Pinetop Perkins selected Davis to succeed him in the piano and vocal slot of the Muddy Waters Legendary Blues Band. In 2005 and 2006, Davis served as the Artistic Director for Centrum’s School of Rock workshop. Davis’ album, American Roots, received the 2005 Washington Area Music Association Award for Best Roots Music Artist, and the 2006 and 2008 WAMA award for Best Blues Instrumentalist. As an actor, Davis has most recently appeared on the critically acclaimed television show, The Wire.  He is the recipient of the Dizzy Gillespie Bahai Award for Racial Harmony Through the Arts, and the highly prestigious American Ethical Union’s Elliott-Black Award.  His work has been featured on CNN, CNBC, Good Morning America, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, who were your first idols & what does Blues offer?

I always liked music from an early age, but I never entertained the idea of becoming a musician.  As a kid, I wanted to be a spy like James Bond.  But then saw Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in the 1970s.  I was very impressed with how they had made people in the audience, including myself as well as people all over the world, very happy with their music.  I decided I wanted to do that.  
Chuck, Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, were among my first idols.  So I started with Rock’n’Roll.  But, in order to play real Rock’n’Roll like these artists, you must first listen to and understand the music that influenced them.  That’s how I discovered the Blues.  I discovered more people who would influence me, and become friends and mentors to me.  Two of them were the legendary Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson.  They were two of the greatest Blues, Boogie Woogie & Rock’n’Roll pianists of all time.  Each one of them claimed me as their godson and I was a pallbearer at both of their funerals.
What the Blues has to offer is the TRUTH.  It is real people singing about real things and situations in life, whether they are sad or happy, they are real.  These things transcend all races.  Everyone can have the Blues.  Everyone can sing a Blues song.  But, you must have experienced the Blues in order to sing or play that song with the Blues feeling.  All of my idols first listened to the Blues and I followed in their footsteps backwards.

Photo: Daryl and Muddy Waters

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

You learn that you have the freedom to express yourself as an individual.  Everyone may feel the same thing, but how they express it may differ.  The Blues provides that artistic freedom.  In Classical music for example, you can only express the way the composer has indicated on his composition.  In other words, you can only play Beethoven the way he wants you to play it.  It is not subject to your personal interpretation.  This is why Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King can all play the same Robert Johnson song, but each artist is free to his own interpretation and it’s still the Blues.
What the Blues means to me is a place I can go inside me to bring a good feeling to a possibly bad situation and to express the truth as I see and feel it in any situation.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Every period of my life is interesting to me.  This is because I take every opportunity to learn and develop myself during each phase of my life.  I am a strong believer that the past links to the present and the present links to the future.  So from negative as well as positive experiences I’ve had over the years, they all can be learned from and used to further and better myself.

Are there any similarities between the Blues of today and the old days? What is the “thing” you miss from the “OLD BLUES”?
Perhaps the biggest similarities are that the Blues of any generation, speaks to the common man.  Everyone, young old, Black or White, from any era can get the Blues and relate to the stories sung, whether they are happy or sad or just a commentary on life in general.  The Blues is the TRUTH and the truth will always stand the test of time from old classic Blues to more modern Blues of today.  
The one think I miss most in the Blues of today, is the feel.  That is the one thing, you cannot learn.  It MUST be experienced.  Anyone can play three chords in a repetitive pattern and sing words on top of them, but to be able to convey a feeling, it must first be experienced.  
There are indeed some very young people out here today who would lead you to believe they are the reincarnated soul from a long dead old time Blues artist.  It is amazing how someone so young can have such a feeling for an era of music that was popular half a century or more, before they were born.  Such an example would be a young, 17-year-old Blues guitarist/singer named Andy Poxon.  You will be hearing a great deal about him.  I can explain how young people today can so quickly learn how to play these styles, but I can’t explain how they acquire the feel.
Unfortunately, the Andy Poxons are a rarity.  There are far too many people out there claiming to be Blues artists and Blues bands and they are not.  In fact, they give the Blues a bad name.  As I said, just because someone can play three chords, it does not mean they can play the Blues.  They can only attempt to play a Blues song, which is not the same as “playin’ the Blues.”  Consequently, when the idiom is compromised like that, it reflects negatively on those new people who are hearing Blues for the first time and may have become potential fans.  While there still exists a lot of good Blues today, the market is flooded with phoney Blues that does not meet the high standard.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I have had many great moments: Being taught by Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson. The personal lessons I learned from them, enabled me to play with Muddy Waters old band, The Legendary Blues Band and play with Chuck Berry, going on 31 years now.  Also great moments have been and continue to be, meeting and performing in the bands of my idols, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters’ Legendary Blues Band, Sam Lay, Sam Moore, Percy Sledge, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters and many others.
My worst moments are always when I lose someone special to me like Pinetop Perkins, Johnnie Johnson, Elvis Presley and many others.  A part of me goes as well because they inspired and helped create Daryl Davis, the musician.  Probably finding out while on tour that my mother had passed, ranks as my absolute worst moment. 

Photo: Daryl and Jerry Lee Lewis

What's been your experience from “studies” with the Muddy Waters Legendary Blues Band?

This has certainly been one of the greatest and most musically educational periods of my career.  In July of 1985, when I was 27 years of age, Pinetop Perkins who had taught me a great deal about playing Blues piano, asked me if I would fill in for him on a two-week tour with The Legendary Blues Band because he had some other gigs he wanted to pursue on his own.  I was completely taken by shock and surprise that of all the pianists he new all over the world, that he would choose me.  I was extremely honored and accepted.  
The tour was actually 4 weeks, but Pinetop was going to return at the end of 2 weeks.  As my second week was ending, the band had a meeting without me and approached me.  They said that Pinetop was happy to take off the other two weeks and get some rest if I would be willing to finish out the remaining two weeks with them.  I had some commitments to a Country band for those two weeks, so I had to decline that fantastic offer, but I told them to keep me in mind for anytime Pinetop wanted time off.
A month later, the bandleader called me and said that Pinetop was going to retire from The Legendary Blues Band and pursue a solo career.  He said that the band had discussed it and they all wanted me to be their new pianist.  Picture this:  At that time in 1985, Pinetop was going to pursue a solo career at the age of 72!!!!  Don’t laugh.  If anyone could do it, Pinetop Perkins could, and did!!!!!  The man was absolutely amazing!!!  He was still touring when he died at the age of 97.  It goes to show that, “You don’t quit playing music because you get old; you get old because you quit playing.”
Again, I was floored but very honored to be asked to step into the shoes of the legendary Pinetop Perkins and sit in his piano slot.  I have big feet but those were some VERY BIG shoes to fill.  I was very happy to accept the position and I toured all over the United States and Canada with the band from September of 1985 through December of 1988.  I got to work with some of the finest Blues musicians ever, Louis Meyers (guitar), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums), Calvin Jones (bass), Jerry Portnoy (harmonica), Billy Flynn (guitar).  I learned the business of touring, forming positive relationships with bandmates, the business of booking, driving cross-country, how to pay musicians and a whole encyclopedia of things that would later enable me to successfully run my own Daryl Davis Band.  Because of this experience, I was reunited with Willie Smith 26 years later.  He had moved from the furthest person back on the stage to the person furthest in the front.  He had gone from drummer to lead singer and harmonica.  Pinetop was scheduled to do some tours with him as the pianist.  When Pinetop passed, I was chosen to once again take his place on these tours.  Sadly now for us the living, but joyfully for those who have left, my good friend Willie Smith has gone on to be with Pinetop, Muddy, Calvin and Louis.

Photo: Daryl with BB King and Pinetop Perkins

Do you know why the sound of Daryl Davis is connected to the Blues & what characterizes the sound of Daryl Davis?
I have a degree in music from Howard University.  My degree is in Jazz.  Depending upon who I’m playing for at the time and what repertoire I’m playing, my sound has been called Blues, Jazz, Rock’n’Roll, Swing, Country, Rockabilly, Boogie Woogie, R&B and other styles as well.  What connects it to the Blues is the fact that I have been deeply influenced by the Blues by people who helped created Blues styles of music.  Johnnie Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim and the influence other great Blues pianists can be heard in my music when I am playing the Blues.  Similarly, the influences of other pianists can be heard when I play other styles of music.

Are there any memories from the Jordanaires, B.B., Chuck Berry, and Percy Sledge, which you’d like to share with us?
All of these people are legends.  I have PLENTY of stories, some I can share, some I will never share in the interest of their privacy and confidence in me.  The greatest memories and moments have been playing live on stage, the very songs known the world over with these people who originally recorded them and seeing the audience go wild.  My favorite song of all time is Johnny B. Goode.  Sitting there playing the piano on my favorite song with my favoitie artist is certainly a dream come true, and it has come true many, many times.  One night a couple of months ago, Chuck Berry handed me his guitar and said, “Here Daryl, you play Johnny B. Goode, I’m going to sing it.”  Here I was playing Chuck Berry licks on Chuck’s guitar in front of Chuck himself!!!!  Working with the Jordanaires and spending time talking about Elvis was a great highlight.  As I said, there are many stories.  Interview me again sometime and I’ll give you a whole interview of stories I can share.

Photo: Daryl and Chuck Berry

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

With out a doubt, Pinetop Perkins, Johnnie Johnson, Otis Spann, BB King, Freddie King,  Albert King, Bob Margolin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Legendary Blues Band, among others.  While I learned a great deal about the actual music from all of these artists, I learned the most about the music business from the latter two, Chuck and The LBB.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

As I said before, the Blues speaks to EVERYONE, rich, poor, Black, White, religious, atheist, straight, gay, whatever.  It is music for the common man/woman and what everyone has in common is that at one time or another, they all had the Blues.  The Blues can make you happy and it can make you sad, because it speaks to your heart and soul from the heart and soul of the artist singing.  This is unlike Pop music which is constructed to simply create a simple melody with a commercial theme and not necessarily a message or commentary on life.  Pop music is wonderful and certainly has its place, but as history has proven, styles of Pop music come and go.  Yet, the Blues is still with us.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
It has changed in many ways.  Most notably are the many genres that Blues now borrows from and incorporates into its own.  There are more songs that contain more than just the I – IV – V chords, but are still based upon Blues scales and the feel of the Blues.  Additionally, the way things are recorded today as opposed to back in the day, has vastly changed.  It’s all done digitally and mistakes can be corrected without having to do another take.  There are new effects processors that enhance the playing and the vocals.  When I first started, what was played was what you heard on the record.  Today when you hear a CD, it may not necessarily be what was exactly played in the studio.  A person can record his track remotely while sitting in a studio in Los Angeles, California, while the rest of the band is playing at the same time in a studio in Chicago or Washington, DC.  We now have that technology.  It’s great, and we’ve come a long ways, but the “live” feel is a bit compromised, similar to using a drum machine in place of a live drummer.  Both can be similar, but human quality is lost on the machine.  
In many ways however, the business is still the same, especially in regards to people not wanting to pay musicians what they are worth.  When the cost of living goes up and everyone else gets an increase in their salaries, the pay for musicians either stays the same or someone tries to lower it.  People still expect musicians to play for nothing.  “Come play this gig for me.  I can’t afford to pay you, but it will be great exposure for you and you should get plenty of gigs out it.”  In reality, one out of 10 times does it benefit you.  Most of the time, the “plenty of gigs” you get out of it, is 100 other people calling you to play for free.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Always be open to learning new things.  Always practice your craft.  Never neglect your audience or take your fans for granted.  Be able to accept rejection.  Do not give up unless a million people don’t like you.  Always, always, always, learn about the BUSINESS side of music.  No matter how good you may be, that is NOT a guarantee of your success.  It may however be a guarantee of your manager’s or your agent’s or your record company’s success if you don’t know how to read a contract and you don’t know how to count your money.  There are more talented musicians in the poor house and more mediocre ones being successful because they understand how to conduct business.  

Photo: Daryl and Keith Richards

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I have a very long list of best jams and memorable gigs, too numerous to name here.  Some of the most fun were jamming with President Bill Clinton, James Burton, Keith Richards, Danny Gatton, George Bedard, all of my idols I’ve already mentioned.  Playing the Fourth of July at the Capitol in Washington, DC.  Performing at the Washington Monument as well as performing in some tiny, intimate clubs.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Cephas & Wiggins?
John Cephas and Phil Wiggins were a phenomenal duo who conveyed the feel of the Blues so strongly that even a tone deaf, non-musician would be able to feel the vibe.  When they performed, they exuded a spirit similar to what is found in a Black Holy Roller or Pentecostal church.  I first met Phil Wiggins when he was playing on a street corner in Washington, DC with the late Blues and Folk great, Flora Molton.  I couldn’t even play music then, myself.  I was fascinated with Phil.  Years later, in the 1980s, he joined my band and was playing amplified harmonica in the electric Chicago styles of Little Walter and others.  Some years after that he joined John Cephas who became a wonderful mentor and friend to me. With John, Phil played acoustic harmonica.  I had the pleasure of playing piano on some of their CDs.  Their CD Flip, Flop & Fly, upon which I played the title track as well as some others, was nominated for the prestigious Grammy Award.  I will always treasure the live gigs and recordings I did with Cephas & Wiggins and I continue to enjoy playing with Phil upon many occasions today.

What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman?
Well, I’ve certainly had a lot of experiences in my life.  But the only thing that determines whether I may or may not be a good Bluesman, are my audience and the artists who hire me to play with them and the promoters and agents who book me.  They are the ones who can rate me.  Regardless of how well I may play or sing, there are always those who are better than me and those who are better than those who are better than me.  I’ve been told I was good.  I’ve received awards for my music.  People ask me to play on their recordings or play with their bands.  I’ve been chosen by nationally and internationally famous artists to accompany them.  But I guess the greatest testament would be the fact that I’ve been playing fulltime with no other job for a little over 30 years.  That longevity in this business either means, I’ve been doing something right, or I’ve been damn lucky!!!

Are there any memories from “THE ROAD WITH THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?
I’m married now!!!

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the Folk Blues & modern electric Blues?
Folk Blues tends to be more acoustic and consists of solos, duos, trios and basically small groups, whereby the more modern electric Blues tends to have more amplification, electrified instruments with driving bass lines and pounding rhythms and anywhere from 3 people in a power trio to a very large band like say B.B. King’s band.

You’re author of interesting book “Klan-Destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan,” how did you get that idea?

I was playing in a Country band sometime ago and was the only Black guy in the band this particular band and the only Black guy in the club.  On a break, a White man walked up and told me, “I like your piano playing.  This is the first time I ever heard a Black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.  Where did you learn how to play like that?”  I told him I had learned from the same people Jerry Lee had learned from, Black Blues and Boogie Woogie pianists.  The man didn’t believe me.  I even told him that I knew Jerry Lee personally and he was a good friend of mine and told me himself that’s where he learned.  The guy didn’t believe that either.  But he was fascinated with me and wanted me to join him at his table and buy me a drink.  I don’t drink but agreed to have a soft drink with him.  At the table, he stated that this was the first time he had ever sat down and had a drink with a Black man.  When I questioned him as to why, he told me he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.  Now it was my turn not to believe him and I started laughing, until he pulled out his KKK membership card and handed it to me.  I would continue to see him every time I would play at this bar and he would bring his fellow Klan members to see the Black guy who played like Jerry Lee Lewis although I don’t know if he used the term “Black” or not.  Over time, we became friends and I would meet other Klansmen and Klanswomen.  I decided to write a book about them and interviewed many of them from around the country.  Some would talk to me, others would not.  Some attacked me and I had to physically and violently defend myself.  I won and took them to court and beat them there as well.  Some went to the hospital and some went to jail.  Many were very cooperative in allowing me to interview them and some of them ended up quitting and becoming very good friends of mine.  Today, I own their robes and hoods.  The book is called Klan--Destine Relationships.

Tell me a few things about the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival & the Centrum Acoustic Blues Festival , how that came about?

They both are one and the same.  I became Artistic Director a few months ago for this wonderful event.  Corey Harris was my predecessor and Phil Wiggins was his.  This is a week-long annual event that takes place every summer in the beautiful West Coast town of Port Townsend in the State of Washington.  We bring in people from all over the country and some from around the world who have a connection with the Blues, predominantly in an acoustic style.  Many of these players and teachers are world famous performers who will share their techniques with our participants and many are those who never sought the spotlight, but can play and teach equally as well as those who are well-known.
This year I’m bringing the phenomenal Tim Sparks, Guy Davis, Rich DelGrosso, Billy Flynn, Ann Rabson and many others to our festival and workshop.  Program Director Mary Hilts and I are also adding a Delta Blues and Chicago Blues component this year in addition to the Piedmont Blues. I would encourage anyone and everyone who has an interest in Blues to come check us out in person or visit us at .  This is one of the premier festivals of its kind and is growing every year as we keep the preservation of acoustic Blues alive.  Our festival is frequented by all ages, from young to old.  Many families even come and participate or just attend the performances.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you.  And if you print what turns me on, all kinds of crazy people will start contacting me.  Remember, I’m married!!!  Happiness is to me, to be able to create as much harmony off stage between people in society through my music as I create on stage with the people and instruments in my band.  If I can do that as I’ve proved with KKK members, we all should strive to do our part to make this a better, more friendly world and my happiness would be achieved.  I hope that everyone would have the opportunity to enjoy music as much as I do, whether they play it or just listen to it.  Happiness is when people visit my website  and pick up my book, Klan-Destine Relationships and my CDs, American Roots, Alternate Routes and Greatest Hits.  Happiness is knowing this interview has brought a smile to someone’s face and inspired them to follow their dreams.  I wish everyone much success in all they endeavor to do.

Daryl Davis - Official website

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