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Meet the father-son duo releasing late blues musician Fred Davis' lost album

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED DAVIS' "EXPRESS TRAIN")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ah, "Cleveland Blues" and the late blues musician Fred Davis. He often went just by Dave and was a dedicated and inspired guitarist who was tragically killed in 1988 when he was the victim of an armed robbery at the age of 49. Much of his music, including what you're hearing now, hasn't been available in nearly 50 years. But that musical trove is available now in a new collection that came out on Friday. It's put together by an old friend, Howard Husock. And Howard and his son, the musician Eli Paperboy Reed, each join us now. Thank you both very much for being with us.

HOWARD HUSOCK: Thanks for having us.

ELI PAPERBOY REED: Good to be here.

SIMON: Eli Paperboy Reed, let's begin with you 'cause, of course, you're an established musician and performer. How did you first hear about Fred Davis and the music?

REED: I was in high school. I had started to get into blues mostly through my dad's record collection. And as I got more and more into it, he started telling me the story of this guy that he learned to play the guitar from. And it was hard for me to even believe that this was a real story of this guy who my dad worked in a factory with. And he played blues guitar, and he was an incredible singer. And it made it - it all seemed very apocryphal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED DAVIS SONG, "WINE HOP")

SIMON: Let's listen to "Wine Hop."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WINE HOP")

FRED DAVIS: (Singing) Come on, everybody. Let's go to the wine hop. Yeah, son (ph). Come on, everybody. Let's go to the wine hop. Yeah, son. We don't care what they say. We're going to dance at this hop (ph).

SIMON: Boy, that's good. So Eli Paperboy Reed, you were listening to this just as you were becoming a musician in your own right.

REED: Yeah. You know, and I was learning to play. You know, I was playing along with records, and I was watching my dad when he would play. And he would show me these chord forms and kind of just techniques and, you know, little bass runs and things like that as, like, oh, this is how Fred Davis showed me how to play this. And then, when we finally heard the music, I already was realizing that I was influenced by this music without ever having heard it before. It was a really strange feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED DAVIS SONG, "WINE HOP")

SIMON: So let's get to that story. Howard Husock, you're (laughter) senior fellow in domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, not as well-known as the blues legend as we know you to be now. Tell us how you met Fred Davis on the factory floor.

HUSOCK: I was working a summer job in Cleveland and the Cuyahoga Valley when the Cuyahoga was burning. And I would start singing along with the radio, this crazy young white kid who loved blues. And all these guys would laugh at me. And they said, well, you ought to talk to Fred over here. He really is a great musician. And I befriended this guy, first person I ever met who had been to prison. And I begged him to give me guitar lessons, and he did that.

And ultimately, I decided, this guy is so good, I'm going to take him to the attention of the right people and have him be rediscovered. It was when blues musicians were being rediscovered, whatever that means. And I set up a tape recorder with a band that I knew in my parents' living room in a little suburb of Cleveland. And I recorded the music that is just being released now. And all those years, I felt this incredible responsibility. He sent me a letter after the tape was recorded and said, do something with that tape.

SIMON: Yeah.

HUSOCK: And I always felt this pressure, responsibility, to do something with that tape. I never lost track of those tapes.

SIMON: What happened to those tapes for 50 years? Why did it take so long?

HUSOCK: The answer is nothing would have happened to them except Eli became a successful musician in part because he could play like Fred Davis. And he made it possible for those tapes to come to being heard.

SIMON: Eli, do you feel a special charge to tell the Fred Davis story?

REED: I think there's no question about it. This is something that my dad and I have talked about since I heard the tape, since I heard the stories. It took me getting to a point in my career where people would pay attention if I said something was good. You know what I mean?

SIMON: Mmm-hmm.

REED: It took a long time for me to get to that point. And, you know, now people respect my opinion about music and about the - you know, of the roots of American music. And if I put my seal of approval and put something like this together with the help of an amazing record label, people might pay attention.

SIMON: I want to listen to a little more Fred Davis. Let's listen to an acoustic version of "Midnight Is Falling."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT IS FALLING (ACOUSTIC)")

DAVIS: (Singing) Midnight is falling, and it won't be long before the break of day. Midnight is falling - won't be long before the break of day.

SIMON: Wow. Eli Paperboy Reed, what do we hear there? What do you admire? What do you - what tugs you along?

REED: Even now, listening to it, it feels like a ghost, you know, that this singing and playing with such a powerful, emotional immediacy - you know, that was a moment in time in my grandparents' living room that it was recorded on this tape. It's so ephemeral in that way.

HUSOCK: Yeah. I'm really glad you chose that acoustic version of "Midnight Is Falling." That's my favorite tune. And his singing is just piercing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIDNIGHT IS FALLING (ACOUSTIC)")

DAVIS: (Singing) Sometime I'm just so alone (ph).

SIMON: Fred Davis, though, he did get some gigs around Cleveland, right, Howard Husock?

HUSOCK: Yeah. He eventually teamed up with a band that he called the Blues Express. And they played around, and they played his original songs like the one that you just played.

SIMON: Yeah. One of our producers talked to his old band mate Crazy Marvin Braxton, he calls himself. And he had this recollection of Fred Davis.

CRAZY MARVIN BRAXTON: He's a very easygoing person. And he played the blues, and he loved what he was doing. And he gives the band the best respect that a bandleader could do. He was very good with the band. Yeah, he didn't like them to play loud. He didn't like that. (Playing harmonica). I'll play the blues for you. (Playing harmonica).

SIMON: Wow. Howard, what was he like? How do you hope people will get to know him?

HUSOCK: Well, I'm very moved by Marvin saying that he didn't like him to play loud 'cause that was his advice to me, and I passed it on to Eli. Don't play too fast, and don't play too loud. Those were his musical maxims. You know, he included me in his world, which was a revelation to me. By the way, his grave was unmarked until a couple weeks ago when we bought a grave marker for it. And it says Fred Dave Davis, musician, 1939 through 1988.

SIMON: Do you know about family? Any survivors?

REED: You haven't been able to track any down that we're aware of, right?

HUSOCK: I haven't been able to track them down. I've looked through census records. He was born, believe it or not, in the Arkansas Delta. His family moved to Kansas City. His father worked on the railroad. He had at least one brother. And he went to the Lincoln High School in Kansas City, which was the elite school for, quote-unquote, "colored students" at that time, a selective high school. This was a bright and talented person.

SIMON: Father and son Howard Husock and Eli Paperboy Reed talking about the life and the music of Fred Davis. Fred Davis' "Cleveland Blues" out as a digital release now. It'll be available on vinyl beginning April 22 on Record Store Day. Howard Husock, Eli Paperboy Reed, thanks so much, both of you, for speaking with us.

REED: Thank you, Scott.

HUSOCK: I can't thank you enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED DAVIS SONG, "DRIFTING BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.