Reading through the studio credits that Oklahoma-born Native American guitarist and producer Jesse Ed Davis assembled during his brief lifetime is dazzling. The list includes John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Charles Lloyd; Harry Nilsson, Tracy Nelson, and B.B. King; Captain Beefheart, Rod Stewart, and Leon Russell; Cher, Bert Jansch, Taj Mahal, and John Trudell, to name a scant few.
A well-recorded sideman, he was far less so as a leader though he was equally deserving. With Red Dirt Boogie: The Atco Recordings 1970-1972, Real Gone Music attempts to redress the imbalance by issuing most of his first two albums with compilation producer Pat Thomas. Here are a whopping 19 tracks from Davis' self-titled, self-produced 1970 album and the 1972 classic Ululu, as well as a pair of previously unreleased gems. (His third album, Keep Me Comin', was issued by Epic and is not represented.) His solo work is loose (not sloppy), blues- and soul-inflected roots rock. Davis wasn't a great singer, but he was a good one -- his vocals perfectly fit the material -- even when covering Van Morrison's iconic "Crazy Love" with the help of stellar backing vocalists. He had a bunch on his records, including Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Gloria Jones, Gram Parsons, Maxine Willard, Nikki Barclay, and Vanetta Fields. On these albums, his session players comprise a dizzying lot: Clapton, Joel Scott Hill, Ben Sidran, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Alan White, Chuck Blackwell, Jim Keltner, Duck Dunn, and Jerry Jumonville, to name a few. Likewise, his recording teams included Glyn Johns, Delaney Bramlett, and Baker Bigsby. There are no dogs here. Among the many highlights are covers, "Sue Me, Sue You Blues" (that Davis backed songwriter George Harrison on at Concert for Bangladesh); a wildly revisioned, rock & roll read of Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever," and the Band's "Strawberry Wine." Wonderful as they are, they're not as revelatory as Davis' own tunes. Though based in blues, they are, like his playing, utterly original. Check the dirty-ass NOLA groove in "Reno Street Incident," or the spiky, uptempo rock joy of "Washita Love Child." Then there's his co-write with Mahal on the iconic midtempo ballad "Farther on Down the Road (You Will Accompany Me)," with glorious, Stax-style horns and a souled-out backing chorus. Likewise, the two versions here of Roger Tillison's Rock 'n' Roll Gypsies," where Davis' vocal gets under the melody, cracks it wide open, and lets the light come pouring in. The psychedelic Beatlesque vibe (à la "Dear Prudence") on the gorgeous "Ululu" has a backing chorus line that stitches together the Beach Boys and Southern soul. "Golden Sun Goddess" is an uncharacteristically trippy love song complete with guitars emulating sitars, and a beautiful, gospelized backing chorus. Thomas did a fantastic job of sequencing these tracks aesthetically rather than chronologically. As such, they form an irresistible listen that proves Davis a giant who deserves the reverence and respect he still receives from musicians.