Three-quarters of the way through John Lennon’s stirring take on Stand By Me, a guitar sneaks into the mix with a solo so supple and sweet, it feels like a kiss. In Bob Dylan’s Watching the River Flow, it’s a wily slide guitar that seizes center stage with a sound both witty and free, while halfway through Jackson Browne’s Doctor My Eyes, a guitar solo winds up changing the entire trajectory of the song, making it soar from a chugging ballad to a flat-out rocker.
In each case, the guitarist responsible for adding those shapes and colors to the music is Jesse Ed Davis. Though little remembered today, Davis was the go-to session guitarist for music’s greatest stars of the late 60s through the 70s. His tasteful licks and surgical leads turned up on solo albums by three out of the four Beatles (all but Paul), and alighted on recordings by Rod Stewart (including the No 1 hit Tonight’s the Night), Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Bryan Ferry, Willie Nelson, Harry Nilsson, Gram Parsons and scores more.
Onscreen, Davis can be seen playing lead in Taj Mahal’s seminal band when they performed on the Rolling Stones’ 1968 all-star special Rock and Roll Circus. Three years later, he was part of the core band at the epic Concert for Bangladesh event organized by George Harrison. Then, in 1975, he was asked to play second guitar on Rod Stewart and the Faces’ final tour. In between, Davis somehow found time to record three albums of his own, on which stars like Clapton, Russell and Dr John backed him. Yet, despite all that exposure and respect, there’s a tragic side to Davis’s story. His career and talent were ravaged by a drug habit that led to his death from a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 43.
Now, 34 years later, there’s a movement afoot both to remind classic rock fans of Davis’s work and to introduce it to a new generation. This week, the legacy label Real Gone Music will rerelease Davis’s self-titled debut solo album from 1970. An acclaimed documentary, titled Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, that features the guitarist can also be seen on Netflix. Rumble chronicles the impact Native Americans like Davis have had on popular music. (The guitarist had Comanche, Seminole, Muskogee and Cheyenne heritage on his father’s side, and Kiowa on his mother’s.) Davis will also be celebrated by a forthcoming book written about him by Douglas K Miller, a scholar of Native American culture who wrote Indians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century.
“Here’s a guy who played on over 100 of the greatest albums of the classic rock era, who inspired more people than we can count, yet he’s not known by most people,” Miller said. “But even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve heard him.”
While countless listeners may have unknowingly heard Davis’s work, some major music figures took direct cues from it to create their own sound. Davis’s slide guitar on Taj Mahal’s 1968 debut inspired Duane Allman to make the slide guitar central to his style. “The story goes that Duane got into a brotherly spat with Gregg Allman and then got sick with a cold,” said Derek Trucks, who played lead for the Allman Brothers for more than 20 years. “Feeling bad, Gregg bought Duane some Coricidin and that first Taj Mahal record. When he came back a day later, Duane said, ‘Bro, you have to check this album out!’ That was the first time Duane got really jacked up about playing slide guitar.”
Small wonder that Duane based his work on the Allman Brothers’ seminal version of Statesboro Blues on Davis’s take from Taj Mahal’s debut. Davis’s playing also set a template for Aerosmith’s sound. “Steven Tyler once told me that, when he and Joe Perry were trying to figure out the sound of Aerosmith, they went to that Taj Mahal album with Jesse,” said guitarist Stevie Salas, who was the executive producer of Rumble. “It was their bible.”
Davis’s work with Taj Mahal also wound up connecting the Oklahoma-born player to British rock royalty. After they saw Taj Mahal’s band play the Whiskey in Los Angeles, the Rolling Stones invited them to be their only American guest on Rock and Roll Circus, a show that featured everyone from John Lennon to Eric Clapton to the Who. “After that performance, everyone wanted to play with Jesse,” Salas said.
Miller believes the cream of classic rockers were drawn to Davis, in part, because of the sense of history evident in his work. “Jesse deeply understood the early rock, blues and jazz records that those guys all loved,” he said. “John Lennon was particularly impressed that his guitar style recalled an earlier era at a time when faster, more aggressive guitar players were starting to emerge. Jesse’s style wasn’t simple but it was a little more sensitive. There was more space and room to breathe.”
“To me, what stood out was his tone and his feel,” Trucks said. “There was something so cool in the way he played. He was never in a rush. And there was something piercing and clear about his playing.”
“He was going for a cleaner blues sound,” Salas said. “He didn’t use a lot of distortion. If you’re a guitar player, that’s the hardest sound to play because it’s the most unforgiving.”
Salas believes that another element in Davis’s work stems from the Native heritage he shares with the musician. “The Indigenous people have this feeling,” he said. “It’s a rhythm that isn’t like anybody else’s.”
At the same time, Miller said Davis had conflicted feelings about his heritage – at least when it came to dealing with outsiders. “He was immensely proud to be a Native American but he didn’t talk a lot about it,” he said. “He never wanted to lead with that.”
As a kid, Davis faced considerable prejudice as one of the only Native Americans at his school. He wrote about that experience in a song from his third solo album, Ching, Ching, China Boy. The title mimicked the name he was taunted with by kids who mistook him for Asian. “It was rare for Davis to acknowledge that hurt,” Miller said. “My sense is that he had a much more difficult time with it than he let on.”
At home, Davis’s parents celebrated their culture and encouraged their son’s musical pursuits. His father was a graphic designer for the military, as well as a fine artist. His mother, who was the first Kiowa woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University, taught piano. “Jesse’s guitar playing was largely influenced by the fact that he started on piano,” Miller said. “He also learned a lot of his guitar licks by playing along to Count Basie records – to the horn parts in particular. That’s why his work was so melodic.”
A sad event in Davis’s family wound up cementing his commitment to the guitar. When he turned 15, his grandfather died. The family honored the Kiowa tradition of observing a year of mourning, and Davis used that quiet time to hone his skills. Later, he broadened his sound by playing with scores of local bands. “That gave him a grounding in playing with a lot of people, in many different styles,” Miller said.
After graduating from college, Davis’s first professional gig was with Conway Twitty’s band playing rockabilly-country. That opportunity led him to Los Angeles, where he met Leon Russell, who was already a major player in the session scene. Davis’s versatility and experience let him fit right in. The particular way Americans like Russell and Davis later connected with British stars like Clapton and Harrison epitomized a cross-continental trend that defined much of early 70s rock, evidenced by projects from Derek and the Dominos to Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
In 1972, Davis’s playing on Jackson Browne’s song Doctor My Eyes became as important to the singer as it was to the guitarist. Davis’s solo, which he cut in one take, took up half the song, which explains why Browne often credits him with helping make it his Top 10 breakthrough. “People still want to play that solo if they play that song,” Browne said in Rumble.
Beyond his work on guitar, Davis served as a producer of Gene Clark’s second solo album, White Light, and he performed that duty as well on his own solo work. On those albums, Davis also provided piano parts, wrote most of the songs and sang them in a drawling voice rife with soul. The cover of his debut features a painting by his father that depicts the guitarist in Native American garb. That was one of the few times he put his heritage out front. On his second solo album, Ululu, he did record a strong political song about Native issues titled Alcatraz, but that song was written by Leon Russell. Miller believes Davis was often fetishized for his heritage, especially during a time when it was common to conflate hippie culture with various stereotypes of Native culture. “People would say to Jesse, ‘Oh, can I touch your hair,’” Miller said. “It had to be awful at times.”
His increasing drug use didn’t help his wellbeing. That part of his life became much more serious on the Faces’ final tour. Salas said the session bassist Bob Glaub once told him that “the Jesse who left for that tour was not the same Jesse that returned. He came back a junkie.”
During the 70s, Davis’s father also died and his longtime girlfriend left him. At his lowest point, “Jesse was living in a tiny apartment on Venice Beach, spending long hours in darkness, strung out,” Miller said.
Some famous friends tried to help get his career back on track, including Dylan and Clapton, Miller said. Toward the end of his life, Davis even started to make a comeback by working with the Native American poet and activist John Trudell in the Graffiti Man Band. “He was reconnecting with old friends, playing live quite a bit and spending more time around Native American people,” Miller said.
However, on 28 June 1988 Jesse Ed Davis died with fresh needle marks in his arm. While Miller acknowledges that “Jesse’s death was a tragedy”, he emphasizes that “his life was not”.
That’s especially true given the deep shelf of great work he left. For those who appreciate it, the goal now is to make sure more people know about it. “People often call Billy Preston ‘the fifth Beatle’,” Salas said. “But Jesse played with nearly all of the Beatles, yet he’s invisible. We’re trying to make him visible.”
• This article was amended on 14 September 2022 to give the full title of the film, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, and because an earlier version said that Salas “produced Rumble”. In fact he was the executive producer.
Jesse Davis will be rereleased on 9 September