Want to be an acclaimed blues guitarist? Watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan at age 11. Bug your rock ’n’ roll-loathing parents for an electric guitar, but settle for an acoustic and learn it. Fall in love with the music of blues legends. Wait tables until you can afford to buy your first electric. Collect blues records and read every blues magazine article you can find.
And don’t worry about little obstacles like being female in a male-dominated arena. Your talent, desire and commitment to excellence will make the difference.
Debbie Davies has done all of that, and more, in establishing herself as one of America’s top blues guitarists for three decades. She’s toured and played with giants such as Albert Collins (as the only non-male, non-black member of his band) and John Mayall, who said of her, “Once in a rare while I hear a musician of such talent that I want people to know. Such a one is Debbie Davies.”
The San Fernando Valley native will lead her own band on March 23 at the Hong Kong Inn in Ventura. It’s part of the process of “re-creating” herself in Southern California where she recently returned, after 23 years based on the East Coast, to care for ailing family members.
“I’m still trying to balance out my life,” she smiles, relaxing with coffee at a Camarillo Starbucks. “I’m teaching guitar, I’m doing shows, I’m allowing myself to take things as they come. And so far, so good.”
Davies’ musical influences began with her musician parents’ Ray Charles albums, progressed to The Beatles and culminated when she heard Eric Clapton and Cream.
“I didn’t know that was blues,” she says. “I only knew that I liked it, and I wanted to do that, to express what Eric was expressing. So I started reading guitar magazines, and in one article Eric cited black American blues as a major influence. So I began collecting B.B. King, and more.”
Her father, Allan, was a noted studio vocalist and arranger, regarded as one of the best sight-readers in the country “during a time where everyone could sight-read music,” she says. “For me, my ear was always quicker than my eye.”
Since the electric guitar was not an option in her “rather conservative” home, she settled for an acoustic, honing her skills at Taft High in Woodland Hills. At nearby Pierce College, Davies — wanting to do “more improv with blues and jazz” — joined the prestigious Chamber Singers who sang a variety of styles (from classical to rock) and gave her an appreciation for the craft and discipline necessary to excel musically.
“Very demanding,” she says, “but a great experience.”
At Sonoma State University, she earned a B.A. in psychology, financed by waitressing at the fabled Inn of the Beginning in Cotati, whose roster of performers ranged from rock legends Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead to blues greats Albert Collins and Etta James.
“And in 1974, I saw Bonnie Raitt,” Davies says, smiling at the memory. “That was my real a-ha moment — a killer female singer, playing really neat electric guitar.”
She finally purchased her first electric (a 1964 Gibson 330) and spent six hours a day learning the instrument. Eventually, she landed “side” jobs playing in Bay Area clubs for more established artists, and in 1984 became lead guitarist for Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs, an all-female band led by John Mayall’s wife.
Four years later, Collins hired her for his Icebreakers, and for the next three years she was a featured guitarist for one of the most innovative bluesmen of all time. “I learned so much,” she says.
In the mid-1990s, Davies began touring with her own band, recording albums, guesting on others, gathering critical acclaim — and not worrying that she might be, in some people’s minds, a bit of a freak: a female blues guitarist.
“Compared to when I got into this business,” she chuckles, “there has been a cultural 180 in accepting female guitarists, although it’s still a struggle.”
A bigger problem, for everyone, is the scarcity of live music venues.
“Today people have big home entertainment systems and don’t go as much to live performances,” she says ruefully. “Record stores have closed, fewer CDs are sold and the clubs have a harder time. And it’s harder to tour, with gas and motel prices much higher.”
She’s also saddened by the music industry’s lavish attention for a relatively few “people at the top,” and its corporate interference with (and control of) the artistic process.
“But,” she adds quickly, “that’s never affected the music that I do because I’ve never stepped into that pop machine. The thing about blues is that not everyone is sexy and young and cute. People are human; there is an honesty there.”
Davies finds that honesty in the local blues scene, having played and recorded with blues buddies Alastair Greene and Deb Ryder. And she’s grateful to have been welcomed at the Hong Kong Inn where “The owners appreciate good blues.”
“And you know what? I still love the music business,” Davies adds. “I am a fan of other artists and I enjoy playing and making music with them. There is real joy in supporting one another, and in the blues genre there are lots of friendships. I’m grateful to be part of that.”
Hi Hat Entertainment presents Debbie Davies with Teresa James on Friday, March 23, at 8 p.m. at the Hong Kong Inn, 435 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura, 278-6478. For tickets and more information, visit www.hihatentertainment.com.