One of 11 children in a sharecropping family, James Houston Davis progressed through local schools and in the early 20s gained a BA at Louisiana's Pineville College. Here he sang in the College Glee Club and in a group known as the Tiger Four. He returned to Beech Springs, where he became the first high school graduate ever to return to the school as a teacher. After school, he worked in the fields and busked on street corners until he had raised enough money to allow him to study for his master's degree at the State University in Baton Rouge. In the late 20s, he taught history and social science at Dodd College in Shreveport, but left to become the clerk at Shreveport city court.
He also began to make regular appearances on the city's KWKH radio station, where he came to the attention of RCA-Victor Records. Between 1929 and 1933, he recorded almost 70 songs for the label. The material ranged from songs that clearly showed the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, ballads, and songs of a very risqué nature which, in later years, he tended to forget that he ever recorded. (Noted author John Morthland later emphatically wrote, 'Davis launched his career as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator with the dirtiest batch of songs any one person had ever recorded in country music', and added, 'Many of his early sides were double-entendre songs of unbridled carnality'.) These included such tracks as 'Organ Grinder Blues', 'Tom Cat And Pussy Blues' and 'She's A Hum Dum Dinger (From Dingersville)'. In 1932, he recorded with guitarists Ed Schaffer and Oscar Woods. In September 1934, he made his first recordings for Decca Records, the first number recorded being his now standard 'Nobody's Darlin' But Mine'. This became his first hit and led to his recording several answer versions to it (Frank Ifield had a UK number 4 pop hit with his version of the song in 1963).
A few of the old risqué songs crept in at first, but he soon abandoned both these and the Rodgers influence to concentrate on more middle-of-the-road material. In 1938, he recorded his and Floyd Tillman's 'It Makes No Difference Now' (a major pop hit for Bing Crosby in 1941) and in 1939, he (allegedly) co-wrote the internationally famous 'You Are My Sunshine', with his steel guitarist Charles Mitchell. The song has been recorded by so many artists over the years that it is reputed that its copyright is the most valuable in country music. Among the artists finding success with their recordings of it, apart from Davis himself, were Bob Atcher, Gene Autry and Bing Crosby. During the 30s, Davis made a great many recordings either as a solo artist, or with others, including Brown's Musical Brownies.
In 1938, Davis was made Shreveport's Commissioner Of Public Safety and in 1942, he was promoted to State Public Service Commissioner. He had Top 5 US country chart hits in the 40s with 'Is It Too Late Now', 'There's A Chill On The Hill Tonight', 'Grievin' My Heart Out For You' and 'Bang Bang' and in 1945, he enjoyed a country number 1 with 'There's A New Moon Over My Shoulder'. In 1944, standing as a Democrat, he was elected Governor of Louisiana, in spite of his opponents raising the subject of his early RCA recordings. During the 40s, he appeared in movies, including Strictly In The Groove (1942) (in which he sang 'You Are My Sunshine'), Frontier Fury (1943) and Louisiana (1947). In 1948, he returned to his musical career and began to specialize more in gospel music than in straight country songs. He appeared in his last movie, Square Dance Katy, in 1950, and during the 50s he toured, making appearances at many religious events; in 1957, he was voted the Best Male Sacred Singer. He was elected to a second term as State Governor in 1960 and again the early songs were cited by the opposition.
During his two terms he was instrumental in introducing driving licenses, free school milk, building over 6,000 miles of new road, and improving welfare for the mentally ill, but earned notoriety for opposing desegregation. 'Where The Old Red River Flows' gave him a Top 20 country hit in 1962 and went on to become yet another very popular and much recorded song. In 1971, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to seek a third spell as Governor and instead concentrated on his gospel music and his publishing interests. The many songs that he had written saw him elected to the Nashville Songwriters' International Hall Of Fame in 1971 and the following year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. In 1973, he left Decca (by then MCA) and recorded for the Canaan label, even recording a gospel version of his classic, which he called 'Christ Is My Sunshine'. During the 70s and up to the mid-80s, he continued to make recordings of gospel music and appearances at some religious venues until a heart attack in October 1987 caused him to restrict his activities. Some of his old RCA tracks were reissued in 1988 by the German Bear Family Records label, no doubt without Davis' blessing. He eventually died in November 2000 at the age of 101.
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