I used to be the music director at a country radio station for many years. Management chose me despite my having no previous interest in country nor western music. My curious nature enabled me to become immersed in the background of most of the early movers and shakers in that style of popular music. I even began to enjoy listening to it.
Among the hundreds of old country records in the station library, were several by Jimmie Davis. Two of his gospel compilations were regularly used for our religious programming and a few of his secular albums were stashed away in the dusty archives. I soon discovered that Jimmie Davis was one of the most interesting people in country music and politics.
There is some question about the exact date of his birth because it was not documented. James Houston Davis was born near Beech Springs and Quitman, Louisiana, possibly on September 11, 1899. He once claimed he was born in 1902, but later, again, believed it was 1899. His parents, Samuel and Sarah Davis were sharecroppers in Jackson Parish in northern Louisiana. The Davis family was so impoverished that the youngster didn’t have a proper bed until he was nine-years-old. He had ten siblings.
Despite the family’s dire poverty, Jimmie managed to earn his bachelor’s degree from the religiously oriented Louisiana College at Pineville, Louisiana. In 1927, Davis received his master’s degree from Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. His master’s thesis was titled, “Comparative Intelligence of Whites, Blacks, and Mulattoes”. After graduation, Davis taught history for one year at the former Dodd College for Girls in Shreveport, Louisiana. That same year, he began singing for the local radio station.
In 1928, Jimmie Davis recorded his first independent record. The next year he signed a contract with Victor Records to begin his national career. His first songs showed off his talent for writing lyrics filled with double entendre. Unfortunately, his first stint coincided with the Great Depression, so his more than 60 Victor recordings didn’t sell well.
After his contract with Victor expired, Davis signed with Decca in 1934. The new affiliation brought him his first hit single, “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine”. He cemented his fame with the Floyd Tillman song, “It Makes No Difference Now”. In 1940, Davis recorded the song that remains familiar to this very day. “You Are My Sunshine” was an instant hit with both country and pop audiences. It has since been covered by many singers.
Although Davis no longer taught school, he began work at the Criminal Court in Shreveport. Davis was elected as Shreveport’s Public Safety commissioner in 1938. In 1942, voters elected Davis to the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
In 1944, Davis ran as a Democrat in the gubernatorial race and won the election. He didn’t disappoint conservatives during his first term. He appointed two anti Huey Long impeachment figures to bureaucratic positions in state government. Davis did try to mend fences with the pro-Huey Long faction by commuting the prison sentence of former LSU President James Smith, a main figure in the “Louisiana Hayride” kickback and tax evasion scandals during the Great Depression.
Davis’ first term set a state record for absenteeism with his frequent trips to Hollywood, California to film “Horse Opera” westerns in which he usually appeared as himself. His best known role was as the singing governor in the 1947 movie about his own life, “Louisiana”. While all of this was happening, Davis still managed to record new songs, including the top rated “There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder”.
In 1948, Davis had to move out of the Governor’s Mansion due to term limits restrictions. He then resumed his full-time recording and performing career. It was at this time, Davis began releasing his gospel records. None of the religious songs were national hits, however Davis was quite popular with the gospel buying crowd.
Davis still felt the tug of politics. He decided to run for a second gubernatorial term in 1959. The race was a bitter one, with allegations that Davis may have “operated an integrated honky-tonk in California” during his film stints. There was also an allegation that Davis looked the other way when thousands of illegal slot machines operated in the state during Davis’ first administration. However, Davis’ pledge for continued segregation in public schools helped earn him the Democratic nomination over the crowded field of staunch segregationists.
In the general election of April 1960, Davis beat Republican Francis Grevenberg by 82 to 17 percent. Although Davis remained a segregationist, he was credited with having prevented a great deal of racist unrest because of his less than staunch views. He is also credited with building a new Governor’s Mansion, the “Sunshine Bridge”, and the Toledo Bend Reservoir. The Davis administration coordinated state employee pay periods and established the State Retirement System.
In 1962, Davis had returned to the music studio, he recorded his last Top 20 record “Where The Old Red River Flows”. After the end of his second gubernatorial term, Davis returned to gospel music and recorded heavily during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, Davis was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In January, 2000, Davis suffered a fall in his home. He also apparently had a stroke in October of that year. Jimmie Davis died November 5, 2000 at the age of 101. He was buried near the abandoned town of Quitman in his native Jackson Parish, Louisiana.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes to sing this refrain:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away”