In addition to the fantastic music one hears at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble events, there’s another type of magic in the air. The celebratory collective spirit filling Helm’s timber-hewn Woodstock studio has a vibe that borders on the sacred. Somehow, each of the performances always brings with it the intangible, but undeniable, feeling that everyone here—audience and musicians—is part of something truly special. It’s like Christmas Eve, church, and a rock ’n’ roll show, all in one. This particular night, however, is a little more special than usual. It also happens to be the 81st birthday of Ramble regular Little Sammy Davis, one of the few remaining authentic Mississippi bluesmen. And he’s late for the party.
But just when everyone’s starting to worry, the stocky Davis shuffles in, looking every bit the part in his black hat and fur-collared coat. He’s followed closely by his minder and sideman, guitarist Fred Scribner, who helps the singer and harmonica player to his center-stage stool before tuning up his own acoustic. With the okay from Davis, the pair at last gets down to playing, and it’s tremendous. As Scribner rips it up behind him, the elder bluesman honks and groans his way through “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and other classics. While a 2007 stroke has obviously impacted his voice, Davis’s legendary prowess on the harp remains undimmed, and the way he fingers and moves air through the thing makes it sound like, take your pick, a lonesome train, a dying wolf, or a cat in heat. One might even say that the way Davis now croaks out the words makes him sound almost implausibly authentic, like he stepped out of one of Keith Richards’s wildest dreams. But know this: Every last grain of that rough, sage, and lived-in grit is indeed all too real, and extremely hard won. And amassing it has been a long, long journey.
Davis was born in 1928 in Winona, Mississippi, where his 100-year-old grandmother raised him. He took up the harmonica at age seven after hearing the records of his hero, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first Sonny Boy, aka John Lee Williamson, that is; not Aleck Ford Miller, the one who adopted John Lee’s stage name and recorded for Chess), on the family’s hand-cranked Victrola. “There wasn’t no one else playin’ harp in Winona back then,” Davis recalls, adding, with a puckish smirk, “Well, maybe there was some that tried.” When he was 13, after a few years of performing on street corners and with traveling medicine shows, Davis left Mississippi on the back of a chicken truck headed south.
He ended up Florida, where he worked picking oranges by day and playing the clubs at night. Word about the fantastic young harpist began to make its way up and down the chittlin’ circuit, and before long Davis was playing with the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Ike Turner, and, incredibly, a band that featured both Earl Hooker and Albert King. Unfortunately, the latter outfit lasted only a few weeks, as tensions between the mighty guitar rivals eventually erupted into blows and the group split up. Davis opted to stay with Hooker—who made and sold zip guns as a sideline, he says—for the next nine years, and cut a few sides under his own name (with Hooker accompanying) for the obscure Rockin’ label.
By the early 1950s he was living in Chicago and performing regularly with no less than Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. After the great Little Walter had him arrested for impersonating him on the bandstand, the two harmonica men later became close friends, and Davis often found himself called in to front Little Walter’s band when the famously erratic genius was too drunk to play. “[Little Walter] told me, ‘Man, you really do sound like me,’” says Davis, still visibly proud.
In the late ’60s family ties brought him to the Poughkeepsie area, where he fathered two children and went to work in a cinder block factory for “a looong time,” running the machine that stacked the blocks onto pallets for shipment. He still played music casually and made one 45 for the local Trix label, but when his wife died in 1970 he was too shattered to continue, and he put down his harp. “Wasn’t nothin’ gonna bring her back, and I just had to quit playin’ then,” Davis laments.
But after 20 years went by, it was a familiar spark that got him fired up to play the blues once more. “I heard a Sonny Boy record, and that got me to thinkin’ about playin’ again,” says Davis, and by the early ’90s he was back on stage, sitting in for jam sessions at the now defunct Sidetrack and other local blues spots. News of his reemergence made its way to Doug Price, who put the word out via his “Blues After Hours” on Poughkeepsie’s WVKR. It wasn’t long before Davis met Scribner, the leader of the syndicated “Imus in the Morning” radio show’s erstwhile house band, Midnight Slim. “My brother Brad plays drums in my band, and one night when he was out playing at one of the jams Sammy got up and played with him,” recounts Scribner. “So when Brad called me up, raving about this amazing guy who’d played with Little Walter and Earl Hooker, I just had to go and find him.” And, from the first notes they played together, the two have been inseparable.