Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmie Davis, whose signature song, “You Are My Sunshine,” is one of the most recognized country songs in the world, died Sunday morning (Nov. 5) at age 101. The two-time governor of Louisiana passed away in his sleep at his home in Baton Rouge, La.
Born Sept. 11, 1899, Davis was country music’s first centenarian.
In January, the singer was admitted to a Baton Rouge hospital after he fell at home. He did not break any bones but did suffer bruises. Davis may have suffered a small stroke close to the time of his fall.
Many reliable reference books list James Houston Davis’ year of birth as 1902. However, 1899 is now commonly accepted as the correct year. Davis misrepresented his age for many years (probably a move to help win over younger voters in later elections) then, as he got older, he corrected it, making him one of the few people to actually move their birth date back rather than forward.
Davis began recording in 1928 and was still recording 70 years later, giving him one of the longest recording careers in entertainment history. Davis also had the distinction of being one of the earliest country singers to record with a racially integrated band.
One of 11 children born in Beech Springs, La., to a sharecropping couple, Davis rose to prominence in the 1930s with a smooth vocal style that helped popularize country music far beyond its original rural southern audience. The singer’s best-known songs, particularly “You Are My Sunshine,” helped carry him to the governorship of Louisiana in 1944 and in 1960.
With its easy-to-follow melody and sweet inspirational message, “You Are My Sunshine” has been recorded more than 350 times by many top artists. Now a country music anthem and a children’s favorite, the song became nationally known in 1941 through recordings by Gene Autry and Bing Crosby.
Davis’ own Decca recording was released in 1940. Prior to his purchase of the song, “You Are My Sunshine” was credited to Paul Rice, a member of Louisiana band The Rice Brothers Gang, but Rice previously may have purchased the copyright himself. The rumored sale price between Rice and Davis was as low as $15 and as high as $500. The copyright to “You Are My Sunshine” is now perhaps the most valuable in country music.
Far from being frowned on, purchasing the original compositions of other local musicians was the accepted practice of the time. There was nothing underhanded about it. Like A.P. Carter and a host of other artists of the era, Davis would rework the original tunes to fit his style of singing and change the lyrics to meet his own needs. Regardless of its origin, “You Are My Sunshine” clearly belonged to Davis — he is the reason it is one of the most-recognized and most-loved songs in the world.
Davis began his singing career in the Glee Club of Louisiana College in Pineville. At the same time he was a member of a local quartet, the Wildcat Four, singing lead tenor. After school, he worked in the fields and busked on street corners until he raised enough money to allow him to study for his master’s degree at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There, too, he sang tenor in a quartet. In the late 1920s he accepted a teaching position in Shreveport at Dodd College, a Baptist junior college for women, and began performing weekly at Shreveport radio station KWKH.
Davis left Dodd after one year and began working as a clerk at the Shreveport Criminal Court, a job that lasted until 1938 and helped usher him into a career in Louisiana politics.
After recording a couple of piano-accompanied records for KWKH in 1928, Davis made records for RCA Victor Records for four years, most of them excellent white blues songs performed in a Jimmie Rodgers style. Some, such as “Organ Grinder’s Blues” and “Tom Cat and Pussy Blues,” contained risque lyrics that political opponents would later use in unsuccessful efforts to discredit him.
In 1934, Davis began recording for the newly formed Decca records. His first release on the label, “Nobody’s Darling But Mine,” became his first substantial hit. Although a risque element remained in his repertoire for a while, Davis soon focused on western swing, recording two songs with The Musical Brownies, by then led by Milton Brown’s brother, Derwood.
In 1938, Davis was made Shreveport’s Commissioner of Public Safety and in 1942 he was promoted to State Public Service Commissioner. He scored Top 5 country hits in the 1940s with “Is It Too Late Now,” “There’s a Chill on the Hill Tonight,” “Grievin’ My Heart Out for You” and “Bang Bang.” Davis’ biggest chart single was “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” which topped the charts in 1945 and lingered on them for 18 weeks.
Between 1942 and 1947 Davis appeared in five Hollywood films: Strictly in the Groove, Riding Through Nevada, Frontier Fury, Cyclone Prairie Ramblers and his own life story, Louisiana. In 1944, standing as a Democrat, Davis was elected to governor.
After his first four-year term, Davis began singing full-time for the first time and began to specialize more in gospel music than in straight country songs.
He went back to the governor’s mansion for a second four-year term in 1960. School integration was a hot issue in the Deep South in those years and while Davis maintained a segregationist stance, his moderate form of opposition helped Louisiana avoid much of the violence that took place in neighboring states.
“Where the Old Red River Flows” gave Davis a Top 20 country hit in 1962 and went on to become yet another very popular and much-recorded song.
After the death of his first wife, Alvern, in 1967, he married Anna Carter Gordon, a member of the Chuck Wagon Gang gospel group.
In 1971, Davis was unsuccessful in his third bid for the governorship and instead concentrated more on sacred songs. The following year he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
During the 1970s and up to the mid-1980s, Davis continued to make recordings of gospel music and appearances at some religious venues until a heart attack in 1987 caused him to restrict his activities. However, in the spring of 1992 he appeared on CBS-TV’s special celebrating the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary, and in 1998 he recorded a new version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
Davis celebrated his 100th birthday with a party in Baton Rouge. The celebration was attended by about 800 people at a local hotel, and benefited the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle Fund, a non-denominational, non-profit place of worship located in Beech Springs. Davis performed four songs, proving he could still enthrall an audience.
Davis is survived by his wife, Anna Gordon Davis of Baton Rouge; his son, Jim Davis of Newellton, La.; a stepson, Greg Gordon; a stepdaughter, Vicky Gordon; and a granddaughter.
Visitation will be from 3-5 p.m. CT Monday (Nov. 6) at Rabenhorst Funeral Home in Baton Rouge. Visitation continues from 5-8 p.m. CT Tuesday (Nov. 7) at Edmonds Funeral Home in Jonesboro, La. A funeral service will take place 2 p.m. CT Wednesday (Nov. 8) at the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle in Beech Springs, La. Burial at the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle Cemetery will follow Wednesday’s services.