THE MAN WITH THE BUZZIN’ SAX
The name LINK DAVIS is well known to the fans of a number of musical styles. Over a period of three decades, he was involved in Western Swing, Hillbilly, Cajun, Rockabilly, Roll and Roll and Blues recordings, either as a recording artist in his own right or as a supporting musician.
Lewis Lincoln Davis was born on Wednesday, July 8th 1914 in Sunset, Texas. The family moved to the small township of Willie Point, some 25 miles east of Dallas in Van Zandt county on old Highway 80. He was one of eight children and about his childhood nothing is known beyond an abiding passion in music. His father purchased him a fiddle when he was ten years old, He really began to manifest itself when he was about twelve years old.
He and three of his brothers formed a small group and started playing anywhere they could : school functions, picnics, socials. They picked up nickels and dimes providing from entertainment. With a growing awareness of the burgeoning Western Swing music emanating over the airwaves and on records, Link, who was to become a multi-instrumentalist specialising in the fiddle and tenor-saxophone ( he also played clarinet, piano and bass), found himself being influenced by three of the most charismatic figures to emerge from Western Swing, Bob Wills (fiddle), Moon Mullican (piano) and Bob Dunn, a man considered by many to be the most important Western Swing steel guitarist.
Just when Link became a legitimately professional musician is not really known. His first gig was in nearby Dallas in 1929, where he entertained live on radio station WRR.
During these years, he secured a place as vocalist/fiddle player in the Crystal Spring Ramblers, an outfit named after a dancehall on the outskirts of Fort Worth, and he made his recordings debut with them for Vocalion in Dallas on June 19th 1937. This band may only have a small niche in Western Swing as a recording outfit but members of the band were to have a profound effect on future Western Swing recordings. Besides Link other luminaries spawned by the band included left-handed fiddle genius Joe Holley, later to gain immortality with Bob Wills, J.B. Brinkley, a superb guitarist, and yet another excellent fiddle player, Leon Selph.
After his spell with the Crystal Springs Ramblers, Link moved down to south-east Texas and worked with a number of undocumented groups, including Derwood Brown and the Brownies. He was briefly a member of this later group in maybe 1937 or ’38. There is only one photo taken in New Mexico but we don’t know the circumstances of this one taken in New Mexico, probably a one time event, as the band was based in Fort Worth, Tx.
Around 1940,he even led a band that included a black pianist ( the photograph can even been seen in the Bear Family Cd booklet )
He next surfaced in the Army in 1943 for a short three months period. Mustering out a year later, he joined Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers in Houston. Bruner used only top class men in his band and here Link was able to work, and even record, with the likes of Moon Mullican, as he did in New-York in 1944 for one of Bruner’s Decca sessions, playing the tenor sax.
Back to Port Arthur, he then led his own band and played too sax for Leo Soileau at the “Showboat” in East Orange. In 1945, Link married a Cajun girl from Port Arthur. Through his wife’s musical heritage and by working in honky tonks and beer joints around the Piney Woods of south-east Texas and western Louisiana, Link became exposed to, and developed a unique understanding of Cajun music.
In 1947, he secured a recording contract with the, then new independent Imperial label. With his own group, the Blue Bonnet Playboys, he had eight releases on Imperial and its subsidiary, Bayou ( a few tracks remain unissued ). Just where these Imperial recordings made is uncertain but owing to the somewhat primitive recording level it has been suggested at a local radio station ( KRIC Radio Station, in Beaumont ), or may be the Rice Hotel in Houston, a venue for many early recording sessions. The first version of Rice and Gravy Blues with the words “I’m blue as any (French man ) Cajun can be” is from these sessions. Link will record it many times on others labels, included a then unissued one for OKEH ( you will find it now on the new Bear Family Cd) . And then, it seems that Link reverted to being a sideman with Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers again. At this time, 1949 Bruner was recording for the Ayo label and Link handled vocals and fiddle on some of them.
After the birth in 1947 of his son Lewis Lincoln ( later to adopt the recording name of Link Davis Jr. ), Link was always on the lookout to augment the family’s finances. Steve Poncio, the right man at Macy’s Lela Henry’s Macy’s label, commented to researcher Ray Topping : “Sure, I remember Link Davis very well. He was always hanging round looking for work. We used him on some of our sessions.” Unfortunately, Steve couldn’t remember which ones but there is some evidence pointing to sessions by Harry Choates.
After a stint with Buck Roberts & his Rhythmairs in Corpus Christi in 1949, he then temporarily left the Gulf Cost area and was working in Oklahoma City ( we don’t know with what bands ) when Harry Choates offered him a job in late November 1949.The Oklahoma stint was a low point in Davis’s career. Link’s ex-wife, Doris Meadows, remembers : “ Harry Choates sent him a telegram asking him to come back and play with him. He sent the telegram collect, and we were so poor I couldn’t afford to pay for it “.
Pee Wee Calhoun played piano with this line-up for a short time, but was soon replaced by a little-known pianist from Opelousas, Art Deorio. Link also convinced Harry to hire the drummer he’d worked with in Oklahoma, Herschell Marson. Old standbys B. D. Williams and Sue Romero came in and out of the group, playing bass. They continued to tour in a wide area – Port Arthur one night, Corpus Christi the next, and Calhoun remembered playing with Harry and Link as far away as Kilgore and Odessa, Texas. But most of their shows during this period occurred around Opelousas and Lawtell, where they had regular gigs at the Green Lantern, and the Step Inn Club. Jimmy Grabowski, steel guitarist with Jesse James and All the Boys recalled : “ Link and Harry would have some lively “ Battles of the fiddle “ with our singer / clarinettist Hub Sutter walking back and forth between them on stage at the Dessau Hall, building up to some pretty wild and frantic finales.”
Davis was eager to record, so the group drove to Houston sometime in either December 1949 or early the following January to cut a new session – possibly Choates’ last for Gold Star. According to Carrol Broussard, eight songs were recorded that day : six featuring Choates on vocals, two with Davis. As with so many other Choates masters, the six sides he made eventually vanished.
Fortunately, Link’s sides survived. Poorly recorded but enthusiastically played, the Roy Brown / Wynonie Harris R & B hit “ Good Rockin’ Tonight “ would have been a highly unusual choice of material for any white musician of the time but him. This is real hybrid music. Choates can be heard drunkenly fiddling away in the background, oblivious to the melody. During the steel break, Harry makes an audible faux pas. When the band performed the song in live shows, Art Deorio would always come in for the first break. Prior to the session, though, Davis asked Broussard to play the breaks instead. Carrol is already well into his solo when Choates, still expecting to take the solo, yells “ Ah, Mister Arthur, let me hear ya “. Harry soon realizes his mistake, and towards the final bars of Broussard’s solo, can be heard meekly acknowledging “ Carrol on that steel “. The rest of the group would enjoy a great laugh at Choates’s expense at the song’s conclusion.
Over a year would go before Quinn pressed the results of this session, issued in Gold Star’s blues series, solely crediting Link, still trying to avoid all possible involvement with copyrighting or song publishing issues, Quinn gave “ Good Rocking Tonight “ a new title, “ Have you heard the news “, finally releasing it in a minuscule amount as Gold Star was going out of business. It sold poorly, attracting no attention at the time. Over 40 years would go by before it was reissued, and only now is this important record known to have originated from a Harry Choates session.
The Choates-Davis band was too good to last, and they went their separate ways within weeks of this session.” Choates was the kind of guy, he worked and make money , then wouldn’t work anymore ‘till he spent his money “, Doris Meadows said. Davis soon moved on to Corpus Christi, where he led a band for the duration of 1950. Carol Broussard quit Choates around the same time, as well, and joined Davis’ new band that June.
By 1950, Link became a member of Benny Leaders’ Bayou Billies as a sax playing vocalist. Benny was born in 1928 at Muldoon, a tiny community of only 100 souls midway between San Antonio and Houston. He started out as a guitarist but switched to bass when he found it difficult to find a competent bass player. From 1948 until he was drafted to see action in the Korean War in 1953, Benny’s band was resident at places like “ Cooks Hoedown’, an establishment that seated some 2,500 people. His nine pièce band was regularly heard on Radio Station KLEE and on TV via KPRC. Leaders recorded under his name for Four Star ( 1949 ), Freedom ( 1950/51 ) ,Nucraft ( 1952 ) and a stunning proto-Rockabilly disc for a label called OK’ed ( not to be confused with Okeh ). It is highly probable that Link appears on some, if not all of these.
In 1952, Columbia decided to form a subsidiary label for hillbilly recordings, the Okeh 18000 series. From information supplied by Benny Leaders, whose Bayou Billies backed Link on the initial session of December 1952 , it transpires that Don Law was the A & R man and that this session was held at Bill Hollford’ s ACA ( Audio Compagny of America ) Studio in Houston. Four numbers were cut and one of them, Big Mamou, proved to be Link’s most successful song ever ( he re-cut it numerous times later for small indies ). It was the first disc to be put out in the series ( 18001 ). The B-side was the lively Pretty Little Dedon. It seems that Don Law was aiming at a double market, both Hillbilly and Cajun, a ploy to be used consistently on Link’s Okeh / Columbia recordings.
Four more sessions were to to be held for Columbia. Two in 1953 and two in 1954 as Columbia searched a follow up to Big Mamou. The two releases from the 1953 session were credited to Link Davis and his Bayou Billies ( Benny having been drafted ) while those from 1954 just credited to Link Davis. Bill Quinn’s name appears on some songs from each session as a co-writer. On all these Columbia / Okeh sessions, Link’s highly distinctive, slighty hoarse and sometimes breathy vocals are entirely at home with his material while the backings are not only of a top nature but extremely professional.
The next year , 1955, Columbia did not renew his contract. Link then had a solitary release on Boyd Leisy’ s Nucraft label ( “Magniola Garden Waltz” is about a famous Houston dancing hall – Elvis was scheduled many times this year ). It is highly probable that Link was used as a musician extensively by Boyd Leisy . A session with Floyd Tillman for his own Western label, predating its reissue on Charlie Fitch’s Sarg label in Luling, Texas followed the same year. He also backed Cecil Moore and others on Sarg.
In 1956, he joined Pappy Daily’s Starday label and here he cut some superb Hillbilly, Cajun, Rockabilly and out-and-out R & R. Together with the likes of Hal Harris ( guitar ) and again Doc Lewis ( piano ) he also appeared on dozens, no, more likely hundreds of recordings. He played the sax on the Big Bopper’s classic Chantilly Lace ( D 1008 / Mercury 71343 ) as well as playing sax and supplying the “ war whoops “ on Johnny Preston’ s Running Bear ( Mercury 71474 ).
He then signed for Dan Mechura’ s Allstar label. Bon-Ta-Ru-La, is a reworking of Bon ton Roula ( Let the good time roll ), but done as a hot rocker with some excellent guitar. A more countryfied approach is used on Big Mamou.
Somewhere during the mid-fifties, Link and Doris heard young Joey Long’ s guitar and became his patrons, sponsors, family-home away from home. “ They raised me “, says Joey. “ They moved me into their home on the north side of Houston, and I grew up with Link’s sons just like one of the family “.Both sons followed in their Dad’s musical footsteps; Rick Davis became a well known drummer; Link Davis Jr. was for twelve years the sax and fiddle player for Asleep at the Wheel, who won a Grammy in 1978 for One O’ Clock Jump.
“ Papa Link was a powerful teacher “, Joey continues.” The three of us boys played in his band, but there was no fooling around; he made us work “.Like virtually every afternoon, several years of practicing, and gigs at night, driving on the road to other gigs, and lots of recording sessions. All the time there were recording sessions, seems like one or two every week. It was a valuable upbringing, the basis of how I learned to play and how I developed my style “.
He opened his own night-club in Houston North side during the early sixties, so he didn’t have to look after jobs.
Link continued to record under his own name for a myriad of small labels in the Houston area like D, Venus, Paradise, Princess, All Boy, Kool, Odle and Stoneway. He ran the whole gamut of musical styles and was adept at recording whatever was in vogue an any given time. But his recordings at the beginning of the sixties show he was able to do his own thing with perhaps Permit Blues and Airliner, cut for his own Tanker label, showing this best. Both songs are highly original with the former bemoaning the problems of trying to get a permit to work on Merchant ships after returning from a trip and finding his lady hasn’t been too faithful, while Airliner has him awaiting his girl to come home on that big four engined bird and yet both songs are done as solid Roll & Roll with some superb guitar and piano work supplied by a group billed as The Cajuns ( Buck Henson, Ray Holder and Junior Beck).
Of course, working for Huey Meaux was inevitable, so during the mid-sixties, Link made many sessions in Houston and Pasadena, one of them with Louisiana accordion player, Marc Savoy. A part of it was issued on some Crazy Cajun singles.
When Link Jr. recorded with Doug Sham in San Francisco for Mercury records, he and his daddy pitched these tapes to Mercury and they released a full lp. Huey Meaux released a Crazy Cajun lp after Link’s death. The same songs were used with different names ( Hobo Blues is Red Bandana, Rice & Gravy Fever is Blues for Louisiana…) and sometimes with a various backing, too.
In 1967 he suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair but he continued to work and record. Things were getting increasingly difficult for Link. He was now quite seriously ill but was up in Nashville, Tenn. The late Eddie Noack recollected on his visit to the U.K : “ I ran into him in Nashville. He‘d a stroke but he was determined to make a comeback. A lot of people in Houston would call him a dirty old man but that is the image he really liked. Underneath it he would try to help musicians who were down on their luck and he’d take them home and feed them, try to get them off the bottle or whatever their hang-up was. I knew this about Link – he stayed with me about 12 days – at that time, I didn’t have the money or I would have flown back home myself. He was in a real bad way. He was broke, and so was I. The ride home on a bus would have probably killed him anyway. I got a call from Willie Nelson asking about Link’s condition and explained the situation. The response was immediate, “We’re flying back home to Houston tomorrow and we’ll Link with us on my plane. That was the last time I saw Link alive. We had worked a lot of shows together ; he was in to anything you wanted: Rock & Roll, Cajun, just pure Country ; his band could play it all “.
Link Davis died on Saturday February 5th 1972 at the age of 57. He was a real innovator in the Houston music scene and through his recordings he has brought enjoyment to many people.
It will probably never be known on how many recordings Link worked, but his contributions to the recordings in the Houston area, and beyond, means he has left today’s fans and record collectors a wealth of music to be investigated and discovered.
Pierre Monnery, Genay-France January 2009.
This biography is based on many liner notes ( Phillip J. Tricker : the Edsel and Krazy Kat issues and Andrew Brown : the Harry Choates’ s and Link Davis’ Bear Family Cds )
Rare photos of Link ( along with many others great Texans ) are featured on Andrew Brown’s Website http://flickr.com/photos/30643196@N00/