2008-09 Folklife Apprenticeship Award recipient
A child of a Foreign Service officer, boogie-woogie pianist Daryl Davis was born in Chicago but spent much of his childhood bouncing around the globe with his parents. Chicago did leave an impression though; it was here that Davis absorbed the sounds of African American musicians from the Deep South who had traveled North to Chicago during the Great Migration. He also began to dream of performing with Chuck Berry.
Davis eventually came to the Washington, D.C., region to earn a degree in music from Howard University. By then, he was an avid fan of piano styles invented far before he was born; his piano chops came naturally, but the training to learn the musical nuance was not easy. Davis sought out his musical heroes whenever and wherever he could. “I learned a lot from listening to recordings,” he says, “but I learned many hands-on things from visiting and making friends.” In 1985, 72-year-old Pinetop Perkins, considered one of the great blues and boogie-woogie pianists, selected 27-year-old Davis to succeed him in the Muddy Waters-influenced Legendary Blues Band. Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s renowned original pianist, has been equally unstinting in his praise of Davis’s mastery of the boogie-woogie style. Perkins and Johnson both felt such a kinship with Davis and his playing that, at different times, they claimed him as their godson. Even Chuck Berry saluted him with his best recommendation: “You really ought to hear him!”
Davis stands out for his ability to bridge traditions that are often segregated into black and white musical categories but that actually flow from the same source, be it boogie-woogie, blues, R&B, rockabilly, or even rock and roll. These labels do not concern him. Instead, Davis is attracted to their shared musical legacy. “This is music from a community of great players,” he says. “Many of them never met, but they knew about each other. I think their creation is a legacy for all Americans.” Living Blues Magazine proclaimed, “Davis’ piano work impresses with his winning combination of technique and abandon, and his vocals are strong and assured…. Black rock and roll lives!”
The who’s who list of artists Davis has performed with includes Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires, and the great Piedmont blues duo Cephas & Wiggins. Davis has also released three solo albums. And, yes, he did fulfill his dream of playing with the legendary Chuck Berry.
At the 79th National Folk Festival, Davis will perform solo and in several exciting collaborations, including a set with jazz pianist Lafayette Gilchrist as part of the Maryland Masters program in the Maryland Folklife Area, and several spirited frolics through rockabilly, rock and roll, and boogie-woogie with longtime friend Bill Kirchen on stages throughout the festival.