Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 22 November 1940, Leicester; d 15 December 2008 of lung cancer) His name originally spelled Davy, he was a UK guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and serviceable-to-perfunctory vocalist. A seminal influence, Graham was the first guitarist to emerge in Britain whose work combined stylistic elements from Julian Bream, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ali Akbar Khan, Leadbelly, Joe Pass, Segovia and others too numerous to mention. John Martyn described him as his 'absolute hero' in a Guitar Player interview '75. Of Scottish and Guyanese parents, he came to personify musical adventure, his adoption of non-standard guitar tunings, most notably D-A-D-G-A-D, arguably his most important legacy. His unique talent became, directly or indirectly, a model for Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones and later musicians as diverse as Martin Simpson and Jørgen W. Lang (who employed Graham's trademark tuning in Hoelderlin Express).

His multinational ancestry and his access to various musics through his work at the British Library gave him a wide-ranging curiosity, and his talent did the rest. Yet he never became a household name. His former manager Mark Pavey said, 'Personally, he was quite unpredictable'', more ''a student of the music' than a performer.

Like others including Jones, Alex Campbell, Clive Palmer and Wally Whyton, he busked in France from Paris to Côte d'Azur in the late 1950s, going (as the song put it) where the weather suited his clothes. Back in Britain he appeared on Ken Russell's Monitor TV programme, then accompanied Australian folksinger Shirley Abicair along with Alexis Korner. By the mid-'60s the phrase 'folk baroque' had been coined to describe Graham's guitar style, melding folk, blues, jazz, classical and international music; learning his 'Anji' was obligatory in Bedsitterland (there have been several different spellings of the title; it was covered by Bert Jansch on his eponymous debut '65, the cat put among the pigeons, and on Simon & Garfunkel's first album). Graham appeared in Joseph Losey's film The Servant '63 in a non-speaking role as a musician and in Ken Russell's Hound Dogs And Bach Addicts.

With Alexis Korner he made an EP 3/4 AD on Topic '61, its title derived from their initials and the time signature, including 'Angie'. The Guitar Player on Pye '63 was reissued '92 as The Guitar Player Plus on See for Miles, adding the EP. (Folk Blues & All Points In Between '90 was also on See For Miles.) He joined Korner's Blues Incorporated temporarily around this time as well as contributing to From A London Hootenanny on Decca '63, jointly billed as the Thamesiders and Davy Graham; one side of this EP featured Graham's performances of 'Mustapha' and 'She Moved Thro' The Fair'. (This Irish melody, found in the repertoires of acts as diverse as Margaret Barry, Richard Thompson and Boyzone, in Graham's hands evolved into a vehicle for improvisation often far from Ireland: folk club organizer and performer Redd Sullivan retitled it 'She Moved Through The Curry'.) His next two LPs '64-5 on Decca were described a decade later by Robin Denselow as 'delayed time bombs': Folk, Blues And Beyond was a breakthrough in fusion, mixing Leadbelly, Cyril Tawney and Bobby Timmons with Indian shadings; Folk Roots, New Routes (reissued on Righteous '80) was an adventurous (if ultimately ill-matched) collaboration with Shirley Collins arising from joint concerts. Midnight Man '66 (also on Decca) had covers of Lalo Schifrin ('The Fakir'), the Beatles ('I'm Looking Through You'), Blind Willie Johnson and Herbie Hancock ('Watermelon Man') as well as 'Stormy Monday' and his own 'No Preacher Blues'. After Hours '67 was a much-quoted mythical album finally issued '97 on Roller Coaster.

Albums followed on various labels, including Large As Life And Twice As Natural '68, Hat '69, Holly Kaleidoscope '70 and Godington Boundary '70; but tracks rather than albums stood out: the flame was not burning as brightly, dimmed by ill health. The Guardian newspaper said that he had been a registered heroin addict. All That Moody on Eron '76 was a limited edition which reprised some earlier material (a reworked 'Anji') and became a collector's item (CD reissue was on Roller Coaster '97). The Complete Guitarist '77 was his first on Kicking Mule, rising over his lesser work like a peak in a mountain range, with 'Blues For Geno' (dedicated to Geno Foreman), 'Fairies' Hornpipe' (from the repertoire of Seamus Ennis), Vaughan Williams's 'Down Ampney' and Horace Silver's 'Sarah'. Dance For Two People '79 was even more adventurous, occasionally overreaching itself but still in its own class with 'She Moved Through The Bizarre' on sarod, Bach's 'Lute Prelude', hymns by Orlando Gibbons on nylon-strung guitar and the Persian 'Reng' on oud. Irish Reels, Jigs, Hornpipes And Airs '79 was an anthology of guitar from Dan Ar Braz, Duck Baker, Dave Evans and Graham. Tracks were anthologized on Music Of Ireland, a compilation including Baker, Stefan Grossman and Martin Simpson which also featured Scottish and Swedish material. Graham's profile remained low amid tales of poor health; he contributed '40 Ton Parachute' and 'Sitar Ram' to the Acoustic Routes soundtrack on Code 90/Demon '93 as well as appearing in that tribute to Bert Jansch both performing and in archive (from the Monitor programme). Graham was still visiting North Africa '96 as he had decades before, seeking out new inspiration; that year a live recording from '66 by John Pilgrim (ex-Vipers) was dusted down for release on Roller Coaster, its version of 'She Moved Through The Curry' showing Graham's mastery of guitar and head arrangement. There was still no one to match him. Another album was Playing In Traffic '93, which was out of print and bringing premium prices on Amazon in 2008 on a crackin up label.

He was celebrated in a BBC Radio 2 documentary in 2005 called Whatever Happened To Davy Graham? which led to his last album, Broken Biscuits 2007 on Les Cousines. He influenced generations of musicians, having invented world music before the term had been coined, his facility allowing him to play anything he wanted, and his time impeccable.