Gui­tarist from Ken­tucky fam­ily that helped spread coun­try mu­sic

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - TOP NEWS - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL, STAFF REPORTER mod­on­[email protected]­ | @sun­time­so­bits

When­ever Bill Davis’ fam­ily got to­gether, a hoo­te­nanny broke out. Rel­a­tives fetched their fid­dles, bass and spoons and com­menced singing. Af­ter pick­ing out one of his nine gui­tars, he’d join in.

“Bill was a very good gui­tar player,” said his brother Bob, the last sur­viv­ing Davis sib­ling.

Mr. Davis grew up in one of Ken­tucky’s best known coun­try mu­sic fam­i­lies. Af­ter mi­grat­ing to Chicago dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, he and his rel­a­tives helped pop­u­lar­ize moun­tain tunes, with some of them per­form­ing on WJJD’s famed Sup­per­time Frolic ra­dio pro­gram, said mu­sic his­to­rian Bob Marovich.

“They came up with a brand of mu­sic that re­ally gave com­fort to a lot of peo­ple” who were un­set­tled by the De­pres­sion, said Pat Davis, the gui­tarist’s son.

Sup­per­time Frolic could be heard from Canada to the Caroli­nas, from Ap­palachian hollers to pre-Rust Belt cities that were still well-oiled.

Mr. Davis, who be­came a Chicago fac­tory man­ager and part­ner, died of heart fail­ure Nov. 26 at Lutheran Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal. He was 96.

On the day he was born in Mount Ver­non, Ken­tucky, there was no doc­tor in at­ten­dance. A vet­eri­nar­ian helped with the birth, said his daugh­ter Kath­leen Miller. When he ap­proached his teens, the Davis fam­ily moved north to Chicago, where he at­tended Lane Tech High School.

In the 1930s, Bill Davis per­formed with his brothers Bob and Jack in a group they called the Ken­tucky Boys. They ac­com­pa­nied their lit­tle sis­ter, Shelby Jean Davis, on per­sonal ap­pear­ances through­out the Mid­west. Billed as “The Lit­tle Moun­tain Sweet­heart,” she started singing on Sup­per­time Frolic when she was only 8 years old, said Marovich, who pro­filed her for an up­com­ing is­sue of Chicago His­tory mag­a­zine.

Bill Davis ad­mired his sis­ter’s poise and enun­ci­a­tion. “When she was singing, you heard ev­ery word that she did, it was per­fect,” he said in an in­ter­view with Marovich.

He knew Les Paul when the gui­tar leg­end went by the ru­ral nick­name Rhubarb Red, rel­a­tives said, as well as the Carter fam­ily, who are of­ten dubbed the “First Fam­ily of Coun­try Mu­sic.”

“If the Carter fam­ily com­mer­cial­ized Amer­i­can ru­ral folk mu­sic on records, the Davis fam­ily com­mer­cial­ized Amer­i­can folk mu­sic on the ra­dio,” said Marovich, au­thor of “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Mu­sic.”

“It was re­ally coun­try mu­sic be­fore we called it coun­try, be­fore the days of the Grand Ole Opry,” Marovich said.

Bill’s un­cle Karl Davis, who sang with the Cum­ber­land Ridge Run­ners on WJJD, wrote the classic songs “Ken­tucky” and “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.” He also had a duo, Karl and Harty. Marovich said their close har­mo­niz­ing in­flu­enced the Everly Brothers, who used to bunk at Karl Davis’ house when they vis­ited Chicago. So did guests Ray Charles and Pat Boone, rel­a­tives said. And Karl Davis per­formed on WLS ra­dio’s Na­tional Barn Dance, which broad­cast from 1924 un­til 1960.

Largely due to Na­tional Barn Dance, “Chicago was prob­a­bly the cap­i­tal of coun­try mu­sic from 1930 through the end of World War II,” said Paul Tyler, a fid­dle teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Mu­sic and con­trib­u­tor to the Na­tional Barn Dance book, “The Hayloft Gang.”

Af­ter their fa­ther suf­fered a stroke, young Bill took on the job of pick­ing up Shelby Jean Davis from school ev­ery day and ac­com­pa­ny­ing his sis­ter on the CTA for her evening ra­dio ap­pear­ances, said Camille Blin­strub, Shelby’s daugh­ter.

Shelby Jean grew so pop­u­lar, Blin­strub said, that WJJD lis­ten­ers be­gan be­stow­ing her name on baby girls, and, in at least one case, a boy: Shelby Stephen­son, former poet lau­re­ate of North Carolina.

“My mother wanted a girl,” the poet con­firmed in an email to the Sun-Times. “When I came along in 1938, I was a boy. Mama kept the ‘Shelby,’ and my fa­ther heard my un­cle say, make his mid­dle name ‘Dean’ for Dizzy, the great Car­di­nal pitcher. So I am Shelby Dean Stephen­son.”

Mr. Davis loved teach­ing gui­tar and ad­mired the pick­ing of Chet Atkins, his brother said. Un­til he was 95, he en­ter­tained peo­ple in hos­pi­tals and nurs­ing homes. His daugh­ter said he cher­ished a mem­ory of a nurs­ing home res­i­dent who no longer spoke, but joined in when he sang Christ­mas car­ols.

Dur­ing World War II, he served in the Army in Burma, China, In­dia and the Philip­pines, work­ing in a unit that es­tab­lished a sys­tem of ra­dio beams to guide bombers, his son said.

“He al­ways had that Ken­tucky hu­mor,” Pat Davis said. His Portage Park neigh­bors used to marvel at the gor­geous toma­toes he grew in his yard. But once they ex­am­ined his gar­den, they saw he’d wired juicy-look­ing plas­tic toma­toes to the plants for a gag.

“There was al­ways mu­sic, there was al­ways laugh­ter,” his son said.

“He was kind to ev­ery­one,” said his daugh­ter. When he ran fac­to­ries, the em­ploy­ees who didn’t drive used to gather at his home be­fore their shift. He’d give them a lift to work.

And Mr. Davis was proud of the way his rel­a­tives worked to stay close. “When any mem­ber of the fam­ily is in trou­ble, they all come,” said his son. “They all do what­ever they can.”

His wife of 63 years, Vir­ginia, died be­fore him. Mr. Davis is also sur­vived by four grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­chil­dren. Ser­vices have been held.


Bill Davis (far left), an ac­com­plished coun­try gui­tarist, en­ter­tain­ing dur­ing a World War II bond drive.

Bill and Vir­ginia Davis on their wed­ding day in 1946. They were mar­ried 63 years un­til her death.

Bill Davis

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