James Thunderbird Davis

James Davis was born in Prichard, Alabama on November 10, 1938. Davis was raised in a religious family and was first exposed to music by singing Gospel in church choirs. A chance encounter with New Orleans’ flamboyant Guitar Slim forever changed his life.

Guitar Slim (”The Things That I Used To Do”) was performing in Mobile with the Lloyd Lambert Orchestra when the young Davis approached him and asked if it would be alright to sing a song before the actual show began. Given the opportunity, both Lambert and Guitar Slim were stunned by the youngster’s rich baritone and offered him a job on the spot. For the next three years, until Slim’s untimely death in 1959, Davis would serve as both valet and opening act for the guitarist and his band.

Guitar Slim is also credited with giving Davis his nickname, “Thunderbird”. Slim was a notorious alcoholic and one night at their home base in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, the two decided to partake in a drinking contest. Slim drank whiskey but the younger vocalist chose “Thunderbird” wine because he could not afford anything stronger on his earnings. After consuming too much wine, Davis became extremely ill, and Slim had to take him to a hospital. Davis would never touch the wine again, but Slim refused to let Davis forget the incident, placing on him the moniker “Thunderbird” that stuck with him from that point onward.

After Guitar Slim’s death, Davis was brought to Houston in 1961 by Don Robey to work for the Duke label. Assigned to odd jobs around the studio, James would also record demos of new songs for the label’s artists. One of the people that Davis would perform this function for was Bobby Bland, working on many of his numbers such as “I Pity The Fool”. Without much expectation, Robey would allow Davis to make his own recordings when not working on the demos. Accompanied by the label’s bevy of session greats, such as pianist James Booker and guitarist Clarence Holiman, Davis surprised Robey by waxing two of the label’s biggest singles of the 1960s: “Blue Monday” and “Your Turn To Cry”. Both songs would go on to become Blues standards, recorded many times over by people like Z.Z. Hill, Little Milton and Otis Rush.

After several years with Duke, without seeing much return monetarily, Davis left the label in 1966. He took on working with performers like Joe Tex, 0.V. Wright and Albert Collins, once again returning to the role of warm-up performer. But by the mid-1970s, Davis became disenchanted with the music industry, giving it up almost entirely and started working as a laborer.

Over the next decade, Davis would work in a number of jobs, but the only singing he performed was in church. Sadly, during this time, the public appeared to have forgotten about James “Thunderbird” Davis. In 1982, Rounder Records released a compilation of recordings from the Duke label’s heyday, Angels In Houston. It included both the hits “Blue Monday” and “Your Turn To Cry”. Unfortunately, the liner notes declared that Davis was deceased. But, to everyone’s surprise, Davis attempted a comeback in 1984, fronting the late Z.Z. Hill’s band. Alas, this effort found little success and Davis slipped back into obscurity.

Another four years went by until representatives from New Orleans’ independent Black Top Records, including producer Hammond Scott and Davis’ former bandmate Lloyd Lambert, went looking for him with the idea of bringing him out of retirement. The group discovered him working in a dog pound in Thibodeaux. He was so overjoyed at being reacquainted with Lambert that he signed a contract with the label and immediately went into the studio. An all-star collection of performers were put together for the session including, Anson Funderburgh, Earl King, Ron Levy, Grady Gaines, and old pals Lambert and Clarence Holiman. A stellar recording, Check Out Time (Purchase at Amazon) was released in 1989 and included a wonderful reworking of “Your Turn To Cry”, as well as brilliant new material like the title song and “What Else Is There To Do?”.

Black Top would showcase Davis’ resurrection on a number of occasions over the next few years. He worked as a featured performer at it’s annual “Blues-A-Rama” event during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He also found session work on recordings by Carol Fran (”Soul Sensation”) and Hubert Sumlin (”Healing Feeling”).

Davis’ successful return was short-lived however. On January 24, 1992, as he was laying down the final chords to “What Else Is There To Do?” at The Blues Saloon in St. Paul, Minnesota, the 53 year-old “Thunderbird” Davis suffered a heart attack and died onstage. His body was returned to Thibodeaux, Louisiana, where he was buried on the church grounds of St. Luke’s, where he had been long-time parishioner and choir member. Scheduled to return to the studio just a few weeks later, Davis’ voice had unfortunately been silenced prematurely.