Updating the rural blues tradition for the modern era, Guy Davis was among the most prominent ambassadors of African-American art and culture of his generation, additionally winning great acclaim for his work in the theater. The son of the noted actors, directors, and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, he was born in New York City on May 12, 1952; though raised in the city, Davis was frequently regaled with stories of Southern country life as a child, and over time became so enamored of the music of Blind Willie McTell, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and others that he taught himself guitar. As a 13-year-old experiencing his first Buddy Guy concert, Davis' own fate as a bluesman was sealed, especially after he learned his distinctive fingerpicking style from a nine-fingered guitarist he met on a train traveling from Boston to New York some years later.
In 1978, Davis recorded his debut LP Dreams About Life, produced for the Folkways label with the assistance of the legendary Moses Asch; around the same time he also began pursuing a career as an actor, landing a recurring role on the daytime soap One Life to Live and also appearing in the 1984 hip-hop film Beat Street. Long seeking to combine his shared love of music and acting, in 1991 Davis finally found a project that fulfilled all of his ambitions — Mulebone, the Broadway production of a Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes collaboration which included a score by Taj Mahal. Two years later, Davis earned rave reviews for his work in the title role of the off-Broadway production Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, with his portrayal later winning the Blues Foundation's W.C. Handy "Keeping the Blues Alive" Award.
In 1994, Davis wrote and starred in the one-man show In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters, another blues-based off-Broadway drama which played to strong critical notice. A year later, he collaborated with his parents on Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy, which combined original material with African-American folklore and history. Around the same time, he also composed the music for the PBS series The American Promise; his score for an earlier telefilm, To Be a Man, won an Emmy. During the fall of 1995, Davis returned to writing and performing in the acoustic country-blues tradition with renewed force, issuing the live LP Stomp Down Rider on the Red House label; a year later, he returned with Call Down the Thunder. You Don't Know My Mind followed in 1998 and was nominated for two W.C. Handy Awards: Best Traditional Blues Album and Best Acoustic Blues Album. Davis himself was nominated for Best Acoustic Blues Artist. In early 2000, Davis issued Butt Naked Free, his fourth release for the Red House Records label. Over the next decade, he would remain a prolific force in the studio, recording acclaimed albums like 2002's Give in Kind, 2004's Legacy, and 2006's Skunkmello while finding time to contribute songs to various tribute albums, including his version of "Soulful Wind" for Labour of Love: The Music of Nick Lowe, "Some of These Days" on Down the Dirt Road: The Songs of Charley Patton, and "Sweetheart Like You" on Nod to Bob: An Artist's Tribute to Bob Dylan. His active touring schedule over the years has brought him around to work from Greenland to the Ukraine to the Equator and he has done residency performances at the Kennedy Center, and the Lincoln Center Institute, among other high profile venues. He also remained active as a teacher. After a pair of records for other labels, Davis returned to his longtime home at Red House and released 2009's Sweetheart Like You. The Adventures of Fishey Waters: In Bed with the Blues, his 2012 release for Smokeydoke Records, took the form of an audio play, resuming Davis' longstanding interest in theatrical endeavors. The stripped-down 2013 acoustic affair, Juba Dance, was followed in 2015 by the diverse Kokomo Kid, marking the first time he acted as his own producer. ~ Jason Ankeny