Blues singer Little Sammy Davis, whose blues career was interrupted for two decades only to come back and become a close musical associate of Levon Helm, died on Friday (February 16) at a nursing home in Middletown, NY at the age of 89.
While he never broke out as a major artist, Davis had a long history of working with some of the greats. Born in Winona, MS, he learned the harmonica at the age of eight and, in the 40’s and 50’s, played with such artists as Pinetop Perkins, Ike Turner and Earl Hooker. By the late-50’s, he had settled in Chicago, playing with some of the cities preeminent bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter.
Settling in Poughkeepsie, NY in the early-70’s, Davis recorded his first single, “Someday Blues”, for a local folklorist but, when his wife died in 1973, he disappeared from the music scene and life in general.
It wasn’t until 1990 that a chance conversation in a Poughkeepsie barbershop between DJ Doug Price and a local resident turned up Davis who was playing at a local club. Price began playing the few recordings of Davis which came to the attention of Fred Scribner who appeared on Don Imus’ show on New York’s WFAN radio. Scribner arranged a new recording session for Davis and an interview with Imus which led to his making numerous appearances on Imus in the Morning over the next few years.
Davis and Scribner formed a duo that toured the U.S. In 1996, Davis recorded his first album, I Ain’t Lyin’ for the Delmark label which led to him being named the Comeback Artist of the Year by Living Blues magazine. More recordings followed along with the duo working as the “house band” for Imus’ annual fundraisers.
In the early-2000’s, Davis was brought to see Levon Helms’ band in Woodstock, NY and he became friends with the former Band drummer, joining him at appearances. Eventually, Scribner was brought on as guitarist and the Levon Helm Band was born. In 2005, one of their sessions was recorded for the album Levon Helm Band Starring Little Sammy Davis: The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume One.
Davis was also the subject of a documentary about his life in music in 2002.
In 2008, Davis had a stroke but recovered enough to continue performing at the weekly Midnight Ramble shows but wasn’t able to travel. Another stroke in 2009 left him partially paralyzed.