Delta Blues pioneer and Helena, Arkansas, native CeDell Davis has died at the age of 90.
CeDell Davis was born in Helena, where his family worked on a local plantation. He enjoyed music from a young age, playing harmonica and guitar with his childhood friends. At the age of 10, Davis was stricken with polio, leaving him with minimal use of his hands.
When he was well enough, he attempted to play guitar again. As his right hand had more mobility than his left, he flipped the instrument over, left to right, and dug at the strings with his left hand, while his right gripped a butter knife upon the fretboard. The knife, it turned out, would be his healing.
Once he sufficiently mastered his knife-fret variation of slide guitar, Davis began playing in nightclubs all across the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. He played with Robert Nighthawk from 1953 to 1963. While playing in a club in 1957, a police raid caused a crowd to stampede over Davis. After both of his legs were broken in the incident, he was forced to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The stress and torment of his physical handicaps would be major influence in his lyrics and style of blues playing.
In the early ’60s, Davis moved to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to continue his artistic work. In recent times, Davis’ music was released by Fat Possum Records – to much critical acclaim. His 1994 album, produced by Robert Palmer, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, received a 9.0 from Pitchfork Media, which dubbed it “timeless.”
The Best Of CeDell Davis was released the following year, with help from Col. Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit. The Horror of It All followed in 1998. His album When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, released in 2002, included work by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Screaming Tree’s Barrett Martin and Scott McCaughey and Alex Veley of The Minus 5.
Davis was scheduled to play the King Biscuit Blues Festival this October in Helena. Rest in peace, Mr Davis.