True trailblazers often fail to reap the benefit of their innovations. In the tech business it's the difference between leading edge and the bleeding edge. One moves quickly and breaks things, the other comes along later to reap a lion's share of the accolades.
Over the years, Billy Davis often had his finger on the pulse; it just took time for the blood to reach everyone else.
"As I look back I was ahead, and it took a long time before I realized that," Davis says. "The things that I was doing didn't work for me at the time, but would work later."
Whether it was helping pen the first, less famous version of "The Twist," falling in love with the wah-pedal before its '70s saturation, or sharing licks with a teenage Jimi Hendrix, Davis had plenty of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" moments, as it were. Indeed, Davis tried to get Berry Gordy interested in his music for years, but the Motown mogul had no idea what to do with him.
"I was doing feedback and backflips and going on the floor with the guitar and he didn't see it. He said, 'What can I do with that? I can't do nothing with that kind of stuff,'" Davis recalls. "Like with my association with Jimi Hendrix. What I was trying to get over way before him was the same thing, but he took it to England and it was more acceptable to them."
Davis finally experienced some recognition last week during his first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was retroactively inducted in 2012 as a member of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Ballard was inducted in 1990; the museum wasn't built until 1995.
"I was overwhelmed. It is the greatest event that ever happened for me in my life musically," he says. "It made me go back to my beginning. I remember learning to play guitar, and kids in the neighborhood laughing at me because I used to carry an old acoustic to school with me and sit up in study hall. I was a big joke. I said, 'What if I had listened to them?' And look where I got. It's unbelievable."
Ballard's R&B combo heavily influenced James Brown and his stage show, with a run of hits from 1953, until petering out in the mid-sixties as the British Invasion began. For Davis, joining the Midnighters was a dream. "It's just so ironic because when I first started playing guitar my favorite group [was] the Midnighters. In five years after my first guitar lesson, I was their guitar player," he says.
If history hasn't always been as appreciative as Davis deserved, he's been welcomed by his peers, developing long friendships with Hendrix, B.B. King, and James Brown, to name a few. It was Brown that suggested Davis reunite the Midnighters in the '80s, even offering Ballard's phone number.
Elvis invited Davis to Graceland, and Jerry Lee Lewis became a friend after meeting him in a black hotel in 1959 before desegregation. Davis had heard Lewis was staying there, and started cold-knocking on doors until he found The Killer's room.
"Jerry Lee was sanding 10 feet away holding a fifth of Jack Daniels in his hand. I walked up to him ... took it out of his hand and took a big swallow," Davis says. "Me and him talked and jived at least 45 minutes. When I was getting ready to leave the guy who brought me in said, 'If you hadn't taken that drink with him, he'd have asked me to get you out of here.'"
It's not surprising Davis and Lewis should get along; he's always shared a love of country and blues music from his youth in Mississippi. That flavor cut through his playing, connecting him with Sun Records and the burgeoning rock sound.
"Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, his ex-wife used to [say] ... no matter what you do there is a country feel to it," he says. "Hank Ballard had the same feel and you look at some of the records you can hear it — for one, 'Finger Poppin' Time' or 'Thrill on the Hill.' That feeling separated us from the guys on the Chitlin' Circuit."
These friendships, stories, and recollections are the subject of a book Davis has written with Laura Grimshaw. It's nearly completed and looking for a publisher.
"I started the book about five years ago because I was just looking at the people that I knew that weren't around no more," he says. "These were friends of mine, they weren't people I just knew of. They were actual friends I communicated [with] and I had all these unpublished personal photographs [of them]. I started thinking who will believe this in 20 years?"
Davis has also cut an album of 10 originals which is expected to be released soon. He's teamed with drummer Wayne Craycraft (The 108's) in a new duo to present these tracks, performing live for only the second time ever this week.
"He fit right in," Davis says. "A lot of musicians have trouble playing my style. I tried a lot of people and it just didn't work. Then he came in."
After enduring some setbacks that forced him to sell the guitar Jimi Hendrix once gave him (he'll get 49 percent of whatever it fetches) rather than lose his home, things seem back on track for Davis. He's excited to still be releasing music and still reaching audiences.
"The song I do now that gets the biggest response and biggest connection with the audience is a song called '2012,' about the Mayan calendar," Davis says. "I wrote that song five years ago and whenever I do it, it's the biggest song that I do."
Some old dogs are still curious to try a few more tricks. "Music is a part of me," Davis says, "and I promised myself I'd do it until I couldn't do it anymore."
Billy Davis performs on Saturday, July 22 at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club, 2070 W. Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor; 734-663-1202; zalgaz.org; Doors at 6 p.m.; Cover is $10.