Born Lewis Lincoln Davis, 8 July 1914, Sunset, Montague County, Texas
Recently, two CD overviews have been released of the musical career of singer / cajun fiddler Link Davis. The 30-track Revola CD "Gumbo Ya-Ya : The Best Of 1948-58" hit the market in May 2008 (compiled and annotated by our own Dave Penny) and went rather unnoticed. Now Dig This did not review it. Bear Family issued "Big Mamou" in February 2009, a CD with 34 tracks, 21 of which also appear on the Revola CD. The main difference is that Bear Family presents the complete OKeh / Columbia (1952-1954) and Starday (1956-57) recordings, while Revola also includes tracks from other labels.
It is possible that you only know Link from his rock 'n' roll records, like "Don't Big Shot Me" and "Grasshopper Rock". In that case, a word of warning may be in order. If you expect either CD to be completely in that style, you're in for a big disappontment. Only four or five tracks can be classified as rock 'n' roll and then there are a few that contain elements of both cajun and R&R, like the rather chaotic "Slippin' And Slidin' Some- times". The rest, especially on the Bear Family CD, is pure Cajun, and unless you're a fan of that genre, you ought to think twice before spending your hard earned cash.
Born into a family of eight children, Link spent his formative years on a sharecropping farm in Wills Point, Texas. He didn't care about farming and found his calling as a professional musician early in life, yet it took him a long time to become established as a bandleader. Though he had led his own bands as early as the late 1930s, he did not permanently establish himself as a leader until he was almost 40 years old, seemingly content to work as a sideman for most of his early career, which was mostly in western swing. His first instrument was the fiddle ; later he would also take up the saxophone. It was only in 1947 that Link began to be regularly recorded, for the then fledgling Imperial label, which released seven singles by Link in the late forties, including a storming version of "Good Rockin' Tonight", which he called "Have You Heard the News". Davis had a strong voice and his phrasing was more patterned after blues shouters like Big Joe Turner or Wynonie Harris than country or pop singers.
The fifties were a decade of remarkable transformations in popular music. Accordingly, Link's musical persona underwent multiple rebirths. From a white R&B singer he changed into a Cajun fiddler, then re-emerged as a born-again rocker, followed by success as a "buzzing" sax man. Versatility and adaptability were the key elements in Link's career. The song that finally put him on the map was "Big Mamou", an old Cajun folk song, the origins of which went back to the 19th century. It was recorded on December 2, 1952 at ACA Studios in Houston and would become his first release on the OKeh label (a subsidiary of Columbia Records), which had recently started expanding its roster from R&B to include also pop and country artists. Though it didn't chart nationally, "Big Mamou" was a big hit in the South and spawned cover versions from such contrasting stylists as Rusty Draper, Jimmie Davis, Smiley Lewis, Ella Mae Morse, Dolores Gray and Pete Hanley (# 19 pop). Unfortunately, producer Don Law failed to see Link's versatility and insisted on more Cajun tunes. When the novelty of these had predictably run their course among country music audiences, Law could have tapped into Davis's talents as a saxophonist, and crafted some rock 'n' roll material for this lucrative new market. Instead, Link was dropped from OKeh at the end of 1954.
On February 16, 1956, Davis signed a contract with Starday Records and was soon headed toward Gold Star Studios in Houston to record his first attempt aimed at the teenage market. It was "Sixteen Chicks", released during the first week of April (Starday 235). Though 1500 promo copies were sent to disc jockeys, the disc never hit anywhere further than Houston and the song gained greater exposure through Joe Clay's much faster cover version for RCA's Vik subsidiary. After Clay's record started to pick up some action, Starday reissued "Sixteen Chicks" with a new flipside, "Grasshopper Rock" (an excellent rocker), but this too flopped. Producer H.W. 'Pappy' Daily kept trying and Davis soon returned with two strong rockers, "Don't Big Shot Me" and "Trucker From Tennessee" (Starday 255). The low sales of this record gave Daily (who hated rock 'n' roll) an excuse to only record country or cajun with Link from then on. The results were interesting, but sales were still only regional and when Don Pierce moved Starday Records to Nashville, Link's contract didn't follow him.
Still, the period from the late fifties to the mid-sixties was a satisfying one for Davis. He was constantly in demand as a session man, reaching his widest audience by blowing the sax on two huge pop hits, "Chantilly Lace" by the Big Bopper and "Running Bear" by Johnny Preston. His band continued to be a popular live draw in Houston and he even opened his own night club. Link Jr. (born 1947) started playing drums and sax with his father's band around 1962 and would carry on the family legacy after his death with bands like the Sir Douglas Quintet and Asleep At the Wheel. Link Sr continued to turn out some good records for small labels, but the good times came to an end in 1967, when Davis suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. Old friends and bandmates helped by organizing benefits on his behalf. Another stroke ended his life on February 5, 1972. He was 57 years old. A great entertainer, who would have received more attention if he had lived a few years longer, when a revival of western swing and rockabilly, along with wider recognition of the music's pioneers, began to seep into European and American consciousness.
More info : http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursd/davis_l.htm (With discography) http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs/artists/d/davi7000.htm
Acknowledgements : Andrew Brown, Liner notes for Bear Family BCD 16523 ;
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