Lewis Lincoln Davis was born in Sunset, Texas and raised in Wills Point, Texas—about 25 miles east of Dallas. He was one of eight children and his interest in music was strong enough that his father bought “Link” his first fiddle at the age of ten. It didn’t take long until he was playing with two of his brothers at local parties and barn dances. It also didn’t take long for Link to broaden his instrumental knowledge, learning to play the saxophone, piano, bass, and clarinet. He was a good singer too, employing a breathy hoarseness that would serve him well when singing the cajun songs that he’d become known best for.
Link’s very first recording was in the criminally overlooked genre of Western Swing, a wonderful mix of country and jazz styles that might just qualify it as the most quintessentially American genre of music ever. Here he is on vocals (not so hoarse yet—he’s only 23) and fiddle with Ft. Worth’s Crystal Springs Ramblers, in 1937’s “Tired of Me.”
Link continued to play with a number of different acts both live and as a session man in the studio, in particular with Cliff Bruner and the Texas Wanderers. But it wasn’t until 1949 when Link would make his first significant solo recording, “Have You Heard the News?”
Sound familiar? This was a cover of a song written and recorded by Roy Brown in 1947 and then recorded to much greater effect by Wynonie Harris in 1948, called “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” They were black, and Link was white. Their versions were Jump Blues, while Link’s was country with a bluesy twist to it. This was a great example of how broad Link’s taste was and how he had no problem playing the music he listened to; a lot of musicians listened broadly in those days, but it was pretty unusual to step outside of the genre that you were known for and actually play a different style of music. It’s also worth noting that Elvis Presley, the artist most commonly associated with this song, wouldn’t record it for another five years.
Link expressed his love for Jump Blues by paying homage to genre titan Joe Turner on the B side to “Have You Heard the News.” Here’s “Joe Turner.”
Link’s most popular song was recorded in 1952. “Big Mamou” was sung in both English and Cajun French, and it has been a Cajun/Zydeco standard ever since. This was the very first release in Okeh’s 18000 series, a.k.a the “Hillbilly Music” line. Of course, cajun country is pretty far from the Appalachian hills that gave us the word hillbilly in the first place, but the folks at Okeh had pretty broad taste in music themselves, so why not?
Those of you who are familiar with the geography of Texas might notice that Link came from a part of the state that is a lot closer to Oklahoma than it is to the Gulf area where Cajun culture was born. True. But in 1945, he married a Cajun girl and settled in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, just a few miles from the Louisiana border. He’d been soaking up the culture for a good seven years by the time he recorded “Big Mamou,” so Link was more than capable of making his in-laws proud.
1954 brings us to the disc in question. A lovely little bilingual waltz, “You’re Little But You’re Cute” features subtle hints of steel guitar that almost sound like a theremin. The chorus features a fellow’s good-natured ribbing of his sweetheart: “You may not be an angel/Because angels are so few/You may not be so pretty/You’re little, but you’re cute.” It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” in which The Boss tells his lady, “You ain’t a beauty/But hey, you’re alright/And that’s alright with me.”
The B side is a jaunty little number that tells us how to do the “Crawfish Crawl” like they do in Loosiana.
By 1956 we see Link doing some straight-up Rock and Roll, with a breakdown that sounds a bit like “Blue Suede Shoes.” Here’s “Grasshopper Rock.”
One year later, when Rock and Roll’s popularity is at its peak, we have this rollicking number that goes way back to the country. The vocal rhythm is very “chicken in the bread pan, picckin’ out dough,” but the drums are loose and out crazy in a way that would give most Nashville players hives. It reminds me of the kind of thing Country Joe and the Fish might try in the late 1960’s, or “Magic Bus” by The Who. But really, it just sounds like its own unique thing. Here’s “Slipping and Sliding Sometimes.”
Link was keeping busy as a sideman during this time. Of particular note is his saxophone work on The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.”
More great sax work can be heard in this instrumental from 1964 called “Beatle Bug.” What it has to do with The Beatles isn’t quite clear, but the song is so fun that I don’t really care.
Link had a stroke in 1967, which left him confined to a wheelchair. It slowed him down but did not stop him, as he still recorded a few songs before his death in 1972. Those songs are very hard to find, unfortunately. Link’s two sons continued his work in the music world, Rick as a drummer and Link, Jr. as a saxophone and fiddle player for Asleep at the Wheel, who received a Grammy for their 1978 cover of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” It sounds a bit like Western Swing to me, though, if Link Sr.’s example means anything, Link Jr. would rightly say that musical labels are irrelevant.