Jesse Ed Davis, a Kiowa Indian who became one of rock music's finest guitar sidemen, was found dead Wednesday in the laundry room of a Venice apartment building of an apparent drug overdose.
Police said his body was discovered at 5 p.m. by residents. He had a fresh needle mark on one arm. Burned matches and tin foil were scattered on the ground nearby.
"It appears to be a drug overdose. There was no trauma on his body," Los Angeles Police Detective David Straky said. "But the case is still open. It could turn out down the road to be a homicide."
Davis, 43, a native of Oklahoma, was a leading recording session player in the 1960s and '70s who backed up major rock, blues and country artists, including John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye and Willie Nelson. In 1971, he performed in George Harrison's band in the legendary benefit Concert for Bangladesh.
For most of his adult life, Davis had fought alcohol and drug addiction and had just been released from a chemical treatment program, according to friends.
"I really felt he was trying to do away with this stuff," said Gary Folgner, the owner of the Coach House music club in San Juan Capistrano.
Folgner said he provided Davis with a job upon his release from the hospital June 16.
"It's hard to believe he got right back into it. He was definitely making an effort," he said.
Davis rose to prominence in the 1960s playing lead guitar in blues musician Taj Mahal's band. His guitar work can also be heard in songs ranging from the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" to Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes," according to his publicist, Lani Lou Shumate.
In the early 1970s, Davis recorded three solo albums in which his backup musicians included Eric Clapton and Leon Russell.
Disenchanted with the recording session scene, he moved to Hawaii in 1977. Four years later, he returned to Los Angeles broke and ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction.
"I've got a real reputation as a lunatic, a madman," he told The Times in an interview. "There was always that suspicion lurking in people's minds: 'Will he show up? Will he show up drunk, or will he not bother to come at all?' "
By 1985, he had recovered enough to form the Grafitti Man Band with Indian poet and civil rights activist John Trudell. Davis put music to Trudell's vivid poetic images. Bob Dylan called their first collaboration, "aka Grafitti Man," the best album of 1986.
Davis, who liked to quote Socrates and Plato, graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma.
Shumate said Davis discovered his Indian roots as an adult. He served as an alcohol and drug counselor at the American Indian Free Clinic in Long Beach. But friends and associates said Davis could not beat his own addiction.
"A month ago, he came to see me and he was blitzed out of his mind," Folgner said. "I told him, 'Jesse, you can't go on living like this. You have to do something.' The next day, he checked himself into the program."
Folgner said he was still not convinced that Davis died of an overdose. He said his friend had a history of high blood pressure, and the needle mark may have been from a shot of medication that he took Monday.
Davis is survived by his wife, Kelly Brady Davis. Shumate said friends are trying to raise money to send Davis' body back to Oklahoma for an Indian burial ceremony.
Thursday night, the Grafitti Man Band was scheduled to perform with Taj Mahal at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. The last time the two acts played there in 1987, they were joined by a virtual Hall of Fame of rock music, including Harrison, Dylan and John Fogerty. Thursday's show was dedicated to his memory.