Whenever Bill Davis’ family got together, a hootenany broke out. Relatives fetched their fiddles, bass and spoons and commenced singing. After picking out one of his nine guitars, he’d join in.
“Bill was a very good guitar player,” said his brother Bob, the last surviving Davis sibling.
Mr. Davis grew up in one of Kentucky’s best known country music families. After migrating to Chicago during the Great Depression, he and his relatives helped popularize mountain tunes, with some of them performing on WJJD’s famed Suppertime Frolic radio program, said music historian Bob Marovich.
“They came up with a brand of music that really gave comfort to a lot of people” who were unsettled by the Depression, said Pat Davis, the guitarist’s son.
Suppertime Frolic could be heard from Canada to the Carolinas, from Appalachian hollers to pre-Rust Belt cities that were still well-oiled.
Mr. Davis, who became a Chicago factory manager and partner, died of heart failure Nov. 26 at Lutheran General Hospital. He was 96.
On the day he was born in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, there was no doctor in attendance. A veterinarian helped with the birth, said his daughter Kathleen Miller. When he approached his teens, the Davis family moved north to Chicago, where he attended Lane Tech High school.
In the 1930s, Bill Davis performed with his brothers Bob and Jack in a group they called the Kentucky Boys. They accompanied their little sister, Shelby Jean Davis, on personal appearances throughout the Midwest. Billed as “The Little Mountain Sweetheart,” she started singing on Suppertime Frolic when she was only 8 years old, said Marovich, who profiled her for an upcoming issue of Chicago History magazine.
Bill Davis admired his sister’s poise and enunciation. “When she was singing, you heard every word that she did, it was perfect,” he said in an interview with Marovich.
He knew Les Paul when the guitar legend went by the rural nickname Rhubarb Red, relatives said, as well as the Carter family, who are often dubbed the “First Family of Country Music.”
“If the Carter family commercialized American rural folk music on records, the Davis family commercialized American folk music on the radio,” said Marovich, author of “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.”
“It was really country music before we called it country, before the days of the Grand Ole Opry,” Marovich said.
Bill’s uncle Karl Davis, who sang with the Cumberland Ridge Runners on WJJD, wrote the classic songs “Kentucky” and “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.” He also had a duo, Karl and Harty. Marovich said their close harmonizing influenced the Everly Brothers, who used to bunk at Karl Davis’ house when they visited Chicago. So did guests Ray Charles and Pat Boone, relatives said. And Karl Davis performed on WLS radio’s National Barn Dance, which broadcast from 1924 until 1960.
Largely due to National Barn Dance, “Chicago was probably the capital of country music from 1930 through the end of World War II,” said Paul Tyler, a fiddle teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music and contributor to the National Barn Dance book, “The Hayloft Gang.”
After their father suffered a stroke, young Bill took on the job of picking up Shelby Jean Davis from school everyday and accompanying his sister on the CTA for her evening radio appearances, said Camille Blinstrub, Shelby’s daughter.
Shelby Jean grew so popular, Blinstrub said, that WJJD listeners began bestowing her name on baby girls, and, in at least one case, a boy: Shelby Stephenson, former poet laureate of North Carolina.
“My mother wanted a girl,” the poet confirmed in an email to the Sun-Times. “When I came along in 1938, I was a boy. Mama kept the ‘Shelby’ and my father heard my uncle say, make his middle name ‘Dean’ for Dizzy, the great Cardinal pitcher. So I am Shelby Dean Stephenson.”
Mr. Davis loved teaching guitar and admired the picking of Chet Atkins, his brother said. Until he was 95, he entertained people in hospitals and nursing homes. His daughter said he cherished a memory of a nursing home resident who no longer spoke, but joined in when he sang Christmas carols.
During World War II, he served in the Army in Burma, China, India and the Philippines, working in a unit that established a system of radio beams to guide bombers, his son said.
“He always had that Kentucky humor,” Pat Davis said. His Portage Park neighbors used to marvel at the gorgeous tomatoes he grew in his yard. But once they examined his garden, they saw he’d wired juicy-looking plastic tomatoes to the plants for a gag.
“There was always music, there was always laughter,” his son said.
“He was kind to everyone,” said his daughter. When he ran factories, the employees who didn’t drive used to gather at his home before their shift. He’d give them a lift to work.
And Mr. Davis was proud of the way his relatives worked to stay close. “When any member of the family is in trouble, they all come,” said his son. “They all do whatever they can.”
His wife of 63 years, Virginia, died before him. Mr. Davis is also survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.