CeDell Davis is not the best blues guitar player there is. He is not the best blues singer there is. Matter of fact, Cedell Davis my be just slightly better than me at playing the guitar but he has a much better excuse. He has almost no use of his fingers and hands. CeDell Davis has two things I don’t have, natural musical talent and an amazing desire to play the blues.
Davis was born in Arkansas in 1927 and began playing the harmonica and guitar at an early age. At age 10 was stricken with polio leaving him with little use of either hand but determined to find a means to keep playing music. He turned his guitar upside down and developed a very unique tuning pattern permitting him to adapt one of his mother’s butter knives as slide for changing chords.
The resulting sound is an acquired taste, the liver and onions of blues music. His handicap results in an off beat rhythm and an atonal sound that appears frequently out of tune. But, once you open up your mind a little, learn and appreciate his story, and get with his program, CeDell Davis becomes every bit the blues musician the Muddys, B.B.s and Buddys are. His is a signature sound that is just as easy to identify in a herd of guitar pickers as is B.B. King’s famous trill or Buddy’s lightning riffs.
Cedell Davis, polio and all, set out to make his living playing music with such blues greats as Robert Nighthawk and Big Joe Williams. In 1957 he was playing in a bar when the police raided. Unable to avoid the resulting stampede, Davis was literally crushed by the fleeing crowd. Both legs were broken and he spent months recovering in a hospital. From then on Davis has been confined to a wheel chair. Handicap stacked on handicap has not kept him from plying his trade.
While not being one of the household names in the world of blues, the fans whose love of the genre goes deeper than top-forty know and appreciate this man. In recent years he continues to perform in clubs and at festivals and in the studio been supported by musicians such as REM’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey who backed him on his 2002 CD, When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine.