50th anniversary of ‘life-changing’ Peterborough concert by blues legend remembered

“Those of us who attended experienced a paradigm shift in our appreciation of music; and his manner and music were so prodigious that lives were changed.”

Sunday, 8th August 2021, 5:01 am
Heather Flockston, John Titford, Gary Melnyk, David Popple, Malcolm Kirton and Roy Woodcock at the Halcyon Pub in Westwood to remember a Rev. Gary Davies concert. EMN-210728-151424009

So says Gary Melnyk who 50 years ago last Wednesday attended a concert at the Halcyon pub in Atherstone Avenue which was so remarkable it continues to influence him to this day.

The performer on July 28, 1971 was Reverend Gary Davis, a legendary blind guitarist and ordained minister known for his folk, blues and gospel music.

The ‘Harlem Street Singer’ from South Carolina was the only one of eight children to a teenage mother to survive into adulthood, according to a biographical piece from Cross Rhythms, which said some of his finest work has been covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

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His influence continues to be felt today, with last year’s New York Guitar Film Festival becoming an online tribute to his work. And Gary was one of six people to return to the Halcyon last week to enjoy a few drinks and “pay homage in whatever little way we could to his genius”.

He now hopes to meet others who attended the concert and make the reunion a more formal event in future years, with ideas including a mini festival.

The former pupil at what is now called Neale-Wade Academy in March was 20 when he saw Reverend Davis play live. He was already familiar with his music having had his ears opened to the sounds of guitarist John Fahey through DJ John Peel, and he and his friends were also guitarists.

He recalled: “(Reverend Davis) was on a huge tour of the UK. He played the Shaw Theatre in London, Rafters in Manchester and the Cambridge Folk Festival.

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“The man’s genius was prodigious. He was on the same level of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. He had a prodigious talent for singing and playing.

“Within folk blues, gospel blues, he is one of the main players of the last century and he had an immense charismatic presence.

“The charisma alone simply blew us away.

“The memories are his charisma on stage - it’s the way he talks, the songs he sang.

“The power of the music - it’s gospel music where it’s tapped into a deep tradition and the pain from their dreadful experiences in the south of America.

“They are powerful words, very muscular lyrics.

“Some of us spoke to him and he was just a towering, immensely confident person with a powerful presence. He carried himself like he was a president. He knew his music would influence people.

“(The concert) did alter our lives.”

Among those who met up at the Halcyon was David Popple who previously ran Stamford Arts Centre and has hosted musicians who studied with Reverend Davis.

The group re-located to David’s home after the pub visit where they held a Zoom concert with the person who runs a Reverend Gary Davis Facebook page.

“We’re all guitarists and adore his style. It’s a unique style,” Gary added.

The resident from Manea would like anyone else who attended the concert 50 years ago to get in touch with him through the Peterborough Telegraph.