top of page
  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain: Morgan Davis

For those who are newly acquainted with “Behind The Curtain”, the formula for every instalment remains the same – each month, readers discover something more than the press release or promo suggests about the featured artist. The content allows people to gain deeper insight about the artists who are at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective by looking within an artist’s bio, and going directly to the source. In many cases, years of study have occurred prior to any direct conversation; the curiosities that remain are the focus of each investigation featured in this column. It is always recommended that readers find more information about each artist featured here independently – those who are covered in this column have substantial bios that are impossible to provide in full here. In order to uncover the most exclusive insight and information, it makes sense to investigate artists whose information is accessible, whose name recognition is high in the Canadian Blues music scene, and ones who have a bio extensive enough to warrant questions that are of interest to readers. It’s a tall order, in the sense that the most notable artists are often the most documented, however; when the investigation takes the investigator straight to the source, the possibility of discovering something exclusive and enterprising exists. For this instalment, it took two years of active pursuit before finding the curiosities that can not be quelled by looking elsewhere…

For this month’s edition, the artist of note is singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Morgan Davis. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Davis’ work, it makes sense to mention that he’s been actively performing for 53 years (by my own account, later confirmed by Davis himself). Although he was born and raised in Detroit (he spent his childhood there), he moved to Canada (Toronto, Ontario) in 1968, and has been here since (Davis moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2001). For reader’s reference, Morgan Davis has been the recipient of many awards over the course of his career, which include: multiple Maple Blues Awards (in multiple categories, including Male Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Producer of the Year and the prestigious Blues With A Feeling Award, amongst others), multiple Jazz Report Awards, a SOCAN (Songwriter of the Year) Award and a JUNO Award (Blues Album of the Year). Listeners may identify with Davis’ work via song “Why’d You Lie”, which was covered by Colin James on his first album, or by listening to “Reefer Smokin’ Man” (a recording often described as a “cult classic”. He’s been signed with two notable labels in Canadian Blues (Stony Plain Records and Electro-Fi Records), and worked with many other notable Blues artists (for context, Davis worked alongside Grammy Award winning Producer Colin Linden, who produced the self titled album “Morgan Davis”). There is more to Morgan Davis’ biography, however, what is provided here is enough to substantiate the purpose of this investigation.

After studying the biography and career contributions of Morgan Davis, there’s one thing about his tenure as a Blues artist that can only be found through observation: he has committed the Blues exclusively for the entire 53 years that he’s been actively performing. Knowing this, it made sense to ask Davis in conversation what brought him to the Blues:

“I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, so I grew up in that Soul and R&B atmosphere. When I was about fourteen, my family moved to California, so all of a sudden, I was immersed in Surf music and Pop music, but I was already used to the “grown up” music…so, I started listening to the Folk stuff. Artists like ([sic] Bob) Dylan led me to discovering artists like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and artists that had some roots. When I left the US War Machine (For context, Morgan was draft age when he enrolled in college, refused his student deferment, and became an active anti-war movement campus member), I came to Canada. There were a few places I was considering moving to, but I settled on moving to Toronto – it was the closest to Detroit, with respect to the major cities I was considering… I was so lucky to land in Toronto; there was a great live music scene happening at the time. I saw Muddy and Wolf, and all of the great Blues artists that were touring at that time – they all came and played in Toronto. The access was unbelievable. I paid about the same price as the cost of a drink to hear, have access to, and get educated by many great Blues artists – and when I say access, I’m talking about the chance to go up and talk to anyone who was performing because they were sitting in the club, just like the rest of us. That’s how I got my education in Blues.”

In learning that Davis had that rare – now unobtainable – access to learn by listening to and experiencing some of the most legendary and influential Blues artists in a live and immersive way, there’s merit in asking him to share the biggest lessons he’s learned in music. Morgan Davis puts his thoughts on the record:

“There’s been so many lessons that I have learned; the licks are out there to learn – the lesson is in the approach. To a lot of people, they think the Blues is easy to play because there are simple structures and progressions in a lot of Blues songs. To play the Blues with authority is hard. The Blues all comes from the same well; the licks are there, and everyone dips from that same well – finding your own voice is the lesson. When you concentrate on the sound you are making, it develops your voice as a player and gets you to the sweet spot you want to be in.”

As the conversation continued, Davis was asked what advice he would offer to aspiring musicians who are looking to follow a similar path to his. His answer begins by sharing advice given to him:

“One of the best pieces of advice that was given to me was from David Wilcox. He told me ‘You’re only as good as you are on your worst night of playing – because that night might be the first night people see and hear you, and because of that, that’s who they will know you to be.’ And it’s true. If someone sees you for the first time and you are having your worst night, people will walk away thinking ‘that’s Morgan Davis’. David’s advice made me want to get to a place where a “bad” night might be acceptable, and that is a piece of advice I would pass on to someone else too – get your playing to a place where it’s acceptable to you, even if you’re not having your best night.” In addition to sharing the advice that has followed him on his path, Davis offers this: “Play what you love, and immerse yourself in it. You will get out of it what you put into it.”

In reference to Morgan Davis’ last quote, it’s appropriate to mention that during the course of the conversation, it was addressed that for the duration of his career he has always remained committed to the Blues genre. Acknowledging that as truth, Davis’ career is the evidence that his advice has also been his practise.

With over half a century of commitment and success as a Blues artist, that experience paved the way for one final curiosity before the conversation came to an end. Something else that can’t be found in a regular bio or liner notes is what the difference might be between Davis’ very first professional performance and the most recent. He offers this;

“In one sense, it’s exactly the same. I try to approach it the same way. If I had to think of a difference, it would be that I’m a lot less nervous now than when I played that first gig (laughs). I can remember being very concerned about not making a mistake back then, but even then, the approach was the same in the sense that it’s about making good sound and doing it the best you can.”

After an objective investigation, it is a fair conclusion that readers have gained insight about Morgan Davis via him pulling back the curtain and providing a glimpse of his personal experiences and approach to the Blues. There’s more to know, however, the best education is likely gained through attending one of his live performances. If you see his name on the marquee, it’s fair to think that you’d get a ‘Blues education’ by walking through the door and enjoying his show.

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Morgan Davis’ case, there is a lot of information to find via other sources, however, the enterprising exclusive is found through means of a direct conversation. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

Photo Credit: Vince Jones.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

Check out the Erin McCallum Blues Legend & Legacy Distinction

Read more from Erin ...


bottom of page