IN MEMORIAM: Little Sammy Davis, Peggy Cooper Cafritz Pass // Other Notable Musicians’ Deaths
Little Sammy Davis was born in Winona, Mississippi, and raised in a one-room shack. He learned to play the harmonica at the age of eight. He eventually left home and settled in Florida, where he continued to play the blues in the Miami area and worked in orange groves and sawmills to make ends meet.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Davis traveled with medicine shows and played with blues musicians such as Pinetop Perkins and Ike Turner. He spent a total of nine years on the road with Earl Hooker, including with the short-lived band of Hooker, Turner, Perkins and Albert King, which broke up when Hooker and King, two titans of blues guitar, came to blows. Davis and Hooker recorded four sides for Henry Stone’s Rockin’ label in 1952 and 1953, billed as Little Sam Davis.
In the late 1950s, Davis lived in Chicago, Illinois, performing with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and occasionally fronting Little Walter’s band, the Aces, when Walter didn’t show up for an engagement. At some point, word got out that “some guy looks and plays just like Walter and people think he is Little Walter”. One night, as Davis performed on stage accompanied by Hooker, he spotted a policeman at the back of the club. Walter and the officer waited for Davis to finish his set, and when he left the stage, he was arrested on the spot. Davis later said, “Walter was a good guy and told me that yes, you do indeed sound just like me but you can’t be going around letting people think you are me”. Davis was locked up and spent a night in jail before Walter dropped the charges, and the two remained friends for the rest of Walter’s short and tragic life.
Davis later married and settled in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he was “discovered” by a local musician, Dan DelSanto of the Arm Bros. Dan had been looking around locally for blues players for his friend Pete Lowry, a local folklorist. During this time he recorded a session for Lowry’s Trix Records at Davis’s apartment in 1971, which resulted in one 45-rpm single, “Someday Blues” backed with “Sam’s Swing”. Davis also played harmonica on some of the recordings made by Eddie Kirkland for Trix in 1972 at a studio in Mink Hollow, New York. After the sudden death of his wife in 1972/73, Davis stopped playing and dropped out of the music scene for the next two decades, despite the efforts of Little Eliot Lloyd, Lowry, and others to persuade him to play. Eventually, no one knew where Davis was or whether he was alive or dead; some said he had gone back to Mississippi or maybe Florida. He had disappeared.
In 1990, a local disc jockey, Doug Price, was getting a haircut at a barber shop in Poughkeepsie, New York, when he heard rumors that Davis was sitting in at a blues jam at the Side Track Inn. Price mentioned Davis’s story and played some of his old recordings on WVKR. Then one night, Brad Scribner was hired to play drums at the blues jam, and when Davis got up to play, Scribner was amazed at what he saw and heard. He went home to tell his brother Fred, who had been performing blues instrumentals for the legendary radio disc jockey Don Imus and had been looking for a singer to progress from background instrumentals to being a featured guest on Imus’s radio program, Imus in the Morning.
Fred Scribner arranged to bring Davis and Midnight Slim into Tom Veneble’s Recording Studio in Walden, New York, to record a fresh batch of material, including “Sitting on Top of the World”, the classic song recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks and Howlin’ Wolf. Imus interviewed Davis and Scribner live via telephone, and they were an instant hit. Subsequently, Imus invited them to perform live in the studio regularly on his program, at WFAN Radio in New York City. The New York Daily News proclaimed the next day, “Little Sammy Davis and Fred Scribner score on the Imus show”. Davis and Scribner started to perform regularly, soon earning the title of house band for the Imus program for years to come. Imus, in his trademark style, later quipped that Davis had “more harmonicas than teeth” and that Fred looked like a manager of an Ace Hardware Store.
Capitalizing on this fame, Davis and Midnight Slim (Fred Scribner) toured, playing the best blues clubs and at colleges and blues festivals on the East Coast and venturing out to the West Coast on occasion as radio and television stations (MSNBC) around the United States joined on. In 1996 Davis released his first full-length album, I Ain’t Lyin, for Delmark Records, with Fred Scribner producing, playing guitar and co-writing songs, Brad Scribner on drums, Brad Lee Sexton on bass, and Tom Hunter on piano . The record was nominated for a W. C. Handy Award and earned Davis a “comeback artist of the year award” from Living Blues magazine. Davis and Scribner released a second album, Ten Years and Forty Days, on their own label, Fat Fritz Records. As the house band for the Imus program, the band donated their time and talent for 10 years to the annual radio-telethon to support the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, for the benefit of children with cancer. As the years went by, other charitable organizations came on board, such as the S.I.D.S Foundation and the Imus Ranch for Children (with terminal illnesses). Their run ended in 2001 with the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11which shadowed over the “Winter Atrium” in the World Financial Center where the telethons were held. They continued to be guests on the Imus show from time to time .
Around this time, a former guitar student of Scribner’s, John Rocklin, brought Davis to Woodstock, New York, to see Levon Helm, the legendary former drummer and vocalist of The Band. Helm made friends with Davis immediately. Davis began joining him for performances at Helm’s home in Woodstock and on tour with Levon Helm and the Barn Burners. In 2006 Davis persuaded Helm that Fred Scribner would be the right choice on guitar. Scribner was hired, and the name of the group was changed to the Levon Helm Band. Helm started holding concerts at his home; recordings of some of these performances were released on the album Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume 1.
The Levon Helm Band Starring Little Sammy Davis with Fred Scribner on guitar performed on the Imus Show promoting the release of Midnight Ramble 1 .
In 2002 Arlen Tarlofsky produced and directed the documentary film Little Sammy Davis, about Davis’s life and music. The film was the jury selection at the London Film Festival and the Woodstock International Film Festival, and it won the Audience Recognition Award at the AFI/Silverdocs Discovery Channel Documentary Film Festival.
In 2008, Davis suffered a stroke. He was able to resume performing the following spring. He was no longer able to travel on the road but performed every Saturday at Levon Helms “Midnight Ramble”. A second stroke less than a year later left him partially paralyzed.
Davis resided in a nursing home rehab unit in Middletown, New York. He died in Middletown on February 16, 2018, at the age of 89.
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Peggy Cooper Cafritz
Peggy Cooper Cafritz (born Pearl Alice Cooper; April 7, 1947 – February 18, 2018) was an American art collector, educator, civil rights activist, philanthropist and socialite.
Cafritz was born into one of the wealthiest African American families in Mobile. Her parents always called her Peggy and they later changed her name officially. Her parents were both college graduates and her father worked for his family’s insurance and mortuary business. When Cafritz was in grade school, they employed a maid and lived in a large brick house. Her parents traveled in the same social circles as Duke Ellington.
Cooper was raised Catholic, and she attended a Catholic elementary school for black children. The school was inferior to the local Catholic schools that only allowed white students to attend. During Christ the King parades each year, she and other black students who marched could only do so in the rear and, at the end of the parade route, they were only allowed to sit in the stadium’s least desirable seats. At church, black families could only take communion after all the white families had already done so. When at the local movie theater, black families were only allowed to sit in the balcony.
The summer after graduating from high school, Cafritz and her friends tried to be served at a drive-in restaurant; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had recently been passed, forbidding racial discrimination in restaurants. When Cafritz and her friends buzzed for service, several white teenage boys approached their car, spat on them, threw soda through their car window, and jumped on the hood of the car. Two police officers watched from nearby but did nothing.
In 1964, during the African-American civil rights movement, Cafritz graduated from St Mary’s College in Indiana and moved to Washington, D.C. to attend George Washington University where she organized the Black Student Union and worked on the integration of fraternities and sororities in 1968. She received her law degree from George Washington University in 1971. In the 1970s she was the youngest fellow of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Cafritz wanted to bring the money of the white people and the power of the black people in Washington, D.C., together in unity.
In 1968, she organized a black arts festival and had inner-city students bussed in to the festival. Afterwards she and choreographer Mike Malone created a summer arts workshop for at-risk high school children. This program became the magnet school Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which she and Malone founded in 1974 and which they modeled after New York City’s High School of Performing Arts. Their goal was to start an arts-education program for local children who had showed promise but had no outlet to demonstrate their potential. Ellington was the only public high school in Washington, D.C., to train students with a curriculum in both academics and intensive professional arts training. Ellington alumni include Dave Chappelle, Denyce Graves, Hank Willis Thomas and Meshell Ndegeocello.
Cafritz was DC school board president from 2000 to 2006. She also served on the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and member of the board for many arts institutions.
In addition to her philanthropic career, Cafritz was programming executive and documentary producer for WTOP-TV, an assistant at Post-Newsweek Stations, to Harry Belafonte and M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition. Cafritz was the first collector for many visual artists and has sponsored many projects including Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
In 2009 a house fire destroyed her eight-bedroom home, an architectural landmark where she held salons and kept her art collection, one of the largest private collections of African American and African art. Among those 300 works destroyed in the fire were works by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Cafritz moved to Dupont Circle in 2001 and continued to grow her collection. Included in the Cafritz collection is Carrie Mae Weems, El Anatsui, Chris Ofili, Mickalene Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Simone Leigh, Titus Kaphar, LaToya Ruby Frazier, William Villalongo, Tschabalala Self, Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose work is featured on the cover of a 2018 book about Cafritz’s collection.
In 1981, Cafritz married real estate executive Conrad Cafritz. She was Catholic and he was Jewish. Together they had three children. The couple divorced in 1998; in the divorce documents, Peggy said her husband had cheated on her and had contempt for her friends and family who were black.
Cafritz died in Washington, D.C. on February 18, 2018, of complications from pneumonia after a period of declining health.
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Other Notable Musicians’ Deaths… February 2018
20: Roy McDonald, 81, Canadian poet, author and musician.
19: Norm Rogers, 61, American drummer (The Jayhawks), cancer; Stormin MC, 34, British grime* musician, skin cancer.
*Grime is a genre of music that emerged in London in the early 2000s. It developed out of earlier UK electronic music styles, including UK garage and jungle, and draws influence from dancehall, ragga, and hip hop. The style is typified by rapid, syncopated breakbeats, generally around 130 or 140 bpm, and often features an aggressive or jagged electronic sound. Rapping is also a significant element of the style, and lyrics often revolve around gritty depictions of urban life.
The style initially spread among pirate radio stations (such as Rinse FM) and underground scenes before achieving some mainstream recognition in the UK during the mid-2000s through artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Lethal Bizzle, and Wiley. Other prominent artists include Ghetts, Jme, Skepta, Stormzy, The Streets and grime crews such as Boy Better Know, Newham Generals, Roll Deep, and Ruff Sqwad. In the mid-2010s, grime began to receive popular attention in North America. The genre has been described as the “most significant musical development within the UK for decades.”
18: Peggy Cooper Cafritz, 70, American social activist and educator, co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, complications from pneumonia; Didier Lockwood, 62, French jazz violinist, heart attack.
17: Beebe Freitas, 79, American pianist and vocal coach.
16: Little Sammy Davis, 89, American blues singer-songwriter and harmonicist; Boyd Jarvis, 59, American music producer (Herbie Hancock, La Toya Jackson, Johnny Kemp), cancer; Heli Lääts, 85, Estonian singer.
15: Gian Paolo Mele, 73, Italian composer, choral director and musicologist; Tamara Nizhnikova, 92, Belarusian singer, People’s Artist of the USSR (1964).
14: Jody Ellis, 92, American cellist, co-founder of the Santa Fe Community Orchestra; Al Garner, 88, British jazz musician; Nuray Hafiftas, 53, Turkish folk singer.
13: Scott Boyer, 70, American singer, songwriter and musician (Cowboy, The 31st of February); Billy Johnson, American drummer (Reggie and the Full Effect, Rocket Fuel Is The Key); Carmela Rey, 86, Mexican singer and actress; Klaasje van der Wal, 69, Dutch bassist (Shocking Blue).