BY MARK GUARINO
The homicide crisis in Chicago impacted the blues music community in December when a gunman killed Eric “Guitar” Davis, an emerging musician many say was just hitting his stride.
Davis was 41. A roster of blues musicians, including Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Matthew Skoller, Jimmy Burns, and many others, will pay tribute to Davis Sunday at Rosa’s Lounge in a benefit for his three young children. There is also an eBay auction featuring a singed guitar from Buddy Guy, harmonicas from James Cotton and Sugar Blue, and original prints from rock photographer Paul Natkin.
“[Davis] had greater motivation than anybody I know,” says Tony Mangiullo, Rosa’s owner. “He was playing for the enthusiasm of playing. People could feel it. Every song had a message and inner purpose.”
Davis was shot multiple times in his car Dec. 19 during an attempted robbery in the 6700 block of South East End Avenue in the South Shore neighborhood. Police still are looking for his killers; they say Davis’ murder is likely connected to the death of a retired CTA driver who was killed 30 minutes earlier on the same street while sitting in his car about three blocks south.
The guitarist was just beginning his musical career, having self-released two albums, and performing regularly at Rosa’s, Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, and throughout Europe. Last fall, he signed a contract with Delmark Records, the famed blues music label. Steve Wagner, Delmark’s general manager, was set to co-produce the album with Davis. He said Davis piqued their interest through his live show, which is documented via chicagobluesnetwork.com, a website Wagner curates.
“He was a strong singer and had charisma. People enjoyed him and picked up on his energy,” Wagner says. “He had a funkier side to his show than other more mainstream blues artist. You may have a James Brown lick, going into a Buddy Miles song, into an original song, and he put it all together so it made sense.”
Davis grew up in Bronzeville to a musician father and started playing drums when he was 5, and was good enough to perform in public at age 10. Through the years, he shared the stage with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Tyrone Davis, among others, but said in interviews he lacked the confidence to play the guitar.
“I wanted to be on the streets. … I was running the streets with gangs, without any direction … even when I was gang bangin’, I’d go to the clubs to listen to the blues,” he told the Illinois Entertainer in March 2012.
After the premature death of a friend, he quit the gang life and took a job in the laundry room of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago, when he started practicing guitar and showed up at blues clubs every night to study. His dream was to stand apart and become an original: “I don’t want to play ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ or ‘Down Home Blues’ or ‘Stormy Monday.’ I want to play other stuff and make it my own,” he said. “My rhythm and beats are influenced by hip-hop. My rhythm is on the upbeat, not the downbeat. It’s new school.”
To those who knew Davis, he was certainly an individual. Unlike most area blues musicians, he played gigs with a 7-member band, which included a 3-man horn section. He also performed mainly original compositions, and brandished a confidence that many veteran artists decades older lack.
“That’s why Eric Davis was different,” Mangiullo says. “The moment he was on stage, he had something to say. He wanted to be the focus of that moment. He wanted to tell people about his life in his music and lyrics, and he wanted to be honest about that. He was telling people, ‘this is where I’m coming from, my mother told me I was born to lose and I think she was right.’”
Then there was his wardrobe: A muscular frame fit into tank-tops or vests, showcasing his many tattoos, plus flip-flops and a bandana on his head. Leslie Bell, his life partner of 13 years and mother to his three children, says she met Davis while waiting for the bus at the corner of 63rd St. and Aberdeen. He pulled a U-turn and she took notice. They remained together ever since.
“He was very unique. People thought he was a thug. But he used to say ‘someday, somebody is going to see me for who I am, you just watch’,” she said.
Davis became a rising star on the club circuit and, when he traveled the Midwest, phoned ahead to see if he could bring his three children who are all musicians — Jemyria, an 11-year-old bassist, Isaiah, a 9-year-old drummer, and Ivory, a 13-year-old rapper. All three children will perform at the benefit Sunday.
Bell says because Davis made a commitment to his music and his family, his career took off in the way he dreamed. In talking to the Illinois Entertainer, he professed surprise that his music took him to Europe several times.
“I never thought I’d leave this country when I was on the streets. My destiny was to be dead, strung out on drugs, or in the penitentiary. But the blues was always in me, it was just about how to get it out and when to get it out,” he said.
To Bell, watching video of audiences in Italy knowing his songs well enough to sing them back to him, is evidence he knew what he was doing. “Eric’s music was going exactly where he wanted it to go — to people’s hearts,” she says.
She remembers Davis retreating to his car to write songs, and later walking them inside their home to talk with her about them.
“One song I asked him about had the lyric, ‘country roads, I’m coming home’ and I said, ‘Eric, you’re not from the country, you’re not from down South, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘when I’m traveling, everywhere I go, each time I step into a blues club, I’m home’’” she remembers.