Remembering one of the greatest guitarists you’ve never heard of on what would have been his 78th birthday. If you have heard of Jesse Ed Davis, you’re in the minority. But you’d also be in the minority if you’re a fan of ’70s music and hadn’t heard his work. After all, he was one of the most in-demand session players, worked with three of the four Beatles and rubbed shoulders with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones.
Davis was an Oklahoma-born Native, the son of a respected painter. He became a great guitarist at a young age, and by his teens was playing in clubs in Oklahoma City. He was talented in other ways too; he got a degree in literature there. But in the ’60s he turned to music full-time, first taking a job being Conway Twitty’s touring guitarist. Eventually he moved to L.A. and became friends with fellow-Oklahoman Leon Russell as well as Levon Helm. Russell sold Davis on the idea of session work, and soon the calls came rolling in for Jesse…when he wasn’t working with Taj Mahal, whom he joined for four albums.
One of the first jobs he got as a session player was probably his best-known as well – the guitar solo on Jackson Browne’s lead-off single, “Doctor My Eyes.” Browne spoke glowingly about Davis in the movie Rumble – The Indians Who Rocked, saying he basically walked into the studio, heard the song demo and improvised the solo we hear on the spot, in one take.
Around the same time, he came to George Harrison’s attention and was invited to be a part of his Concert for Bangladesh. Harrison called him back about three years later to work on his Extra Texture album, Davis co-writing “This Guitar” with George. He got to play on Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna and two John Lennon albums (Rock & Roll, Walls and Bridges) as well in the first half of the ’70s. The work kept coming in for him, doing session work with Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, Cher, even Willie Nelson. Rod Stewart as well, being on his Atlantic Crossing , co-writing “Alright for an Hour” with Rod the Mod.
Unfortunately, Rod was still the hard-partying Rod The Mod at the time, and Davis’ work with him, as well as Faces (whom he toured with in 1975) and the Rolling Stones (being a part of Taj Mahal when they opened for Mick and the lads in England) exposed him to the excesses of rock, and Davis dove in with excessive gusto. Heroin addiction limited the amount of work he could do in the late-’70s and ’80s despite several attempts to quit and stints in rehab.
Sadly, it seemed to most who knew him he was getting his act together and he was actually working as an Addictions Counselor at the American Indian Free Clinic in California in 1988 when he overdosed and died. Among his final works was the album AKA Grafitti Man, with Native poet John Trudell in 1987, an album Bob Dylan picked as the best of the year.