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Lady Zings the Blues

Debbie Davies, Once a Sunset Beach Regular, Wields a Guitar and an Award-Winning Reputation

January 27, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Debbie Davies follows a rare calling. Living a dream that goes back 20 years, she has made herself into one of a handful of women known for wielding an electric blues guitar as if it were a magic wand.

In 1997, the blues community certified Davies' achievement by voting her a W.C. Handy award as female contemporary blues artist of the year.

Part of the price that Davies, once a regular in Orange County clubs, has paid for pursuing blues excellence was missing the chance to have children in the usual way. Now, at 45, she relishes the chance to have them in the blues way. Taking a phrase from John Lee Hooker, you might call them her "boogie chillen."

"I have several teenage girls I keep in touch with. A couple of them are trying to play blues guitar," Davies said over the phone last week from Columbia, Mo., a stop en route to her Saturday gig in Long Beach.

"I talk with them, give them lessons; we hang out, or write and call. It means a lot to me, being able to reach out to young women who want to play music, or just have a big sister. As I'm reaching middle age, it feels really good to be able to give back and be a mentor to young people."

As she developed her guitar playing during the late '70s and early '80s, Davies didn't have any female mentors, though she did take inspiration from Bonnie Raitt, the only woman to become a household name not only by singing the blues but also by playing a hot lead guitar.

Through practice and observation, Davies got good enough to impress blues players who could help her along. She had grown up in Tarzana, moved to Sonoma County for college and returned in the mid-'80s, hoping to burrow into the Southern California blues scene. She struck up a friendship, then a romance, with Coco Montoya, then-guitarist for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.

Montoya introduced Davies to his mentor, respected Texas blues guitarist Albert Collins. Collins drafted Davies into his band in 1988, and alongside him she got her indoctrination as a touring musician. When not on the road with Collins, Davies often could be seen fronting her own band in such O.C. venues as the Sunset Pub in Sunset Beach.

Davies put out her first album, "Picture This," in 1993, the year Collins died of cancer at age 61.

"Albert affected my playing to some degree, but basically I was a player already, or I wouldn't have gotten the gig," Davies said. More important, she said, was watching Collins simply be what Davies describes as his "sensitive-tough" self.

Besides fronting the band, Davies said, Collins always drove its tour bus from gig to gig. "No matter how tired he was, he became a ball of energy onstage. I saw how he was able to draw from within himself and put it out to the people."

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Collins was a giver offstage as well, Davies said. He would invite young musicians interested in the blues to travel on the bus with him, so they could soak up the music and the lifestyle and get a better idea of what direction they should take. And, to the band's occasional consternation, he would also bring old friends who had fallen on hard times.

"You'd say, 'They're drunks,' or 'Oh, that loser.' But Albert would reach out to them. He could tell who needed a hand up. It was his profound humanity and strength that I try to draw on and carry with me."

Davies moved from Van Nuys to Stratford, Conn., in 1993. "At the time, it was pretty hard to keep the [performing] calendar full as a blues artist," she said. "There was no House of Blues or B.B. King's [clubs]. On the West Coast, all the cities are really far from each other, and I needed to be traveling almost every night to new towns where there would be clubs to play."

Connecticut offered a higher concentration of gigs, as well as a closer springboard to Europe and its seasonal round of blues festivals.

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Though her romance with Montoya ended around the time of the move, they remain close and play a hot, funky duet on an old Collins tune on Davies' latest album.

"We're still in constant touch and play a big part in each other's lives," Davies said. "He's always going to be one of my favorite people and favorite artists."

"Picture This" and "Loose Tonight" cast Davies as an artist who played the blues and nothin' but the blues, as Koko Taylor likes to say. With "I Got That Feeling," released last year, she broadened her range, working in elements of rock, funk, soul and Raitt-style bluesy pop balladry.

"Where the first two albums were exactly what I was doing [in live shows], the third album was about a willingness to stretch and let a producer be at the helm," Davies said. Jim Gaines, who had produced Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana and the Steve Miller Band, among others, brought in more hybridized material than Davies might have tried on her own.

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