Originally created 09/23/99

Songwriter reflects on century



BATON ROUGE, La. -- The 20th century hasn't been all sunshine for Jimmie Davis, but as the singer, songwriter and former segregationist governor passes his 100th birthday, sunshine is what he's best known for.

After Mr. Davis' lifetime of hit tunes, movies and politics, the simple song You Are My Sunshine is his best known legacy.

"There are a lot worse things to leave behind," said Mr. Davis, who observed his 100th birthday Sept. 11. "I'm glad to claim it as mine."

Nearly 60 years after Mr. Davis first recorded the song, people send it to him in music boxes, he hears it on answering machines and he can find it in more than 300 versions and 50 languages.

"Along with Happy Birthday, it's the most valuable music copyright ever," said Kevin Fontenot, a doctoral candidate at Tulane University who is writing a book about Mr. Davis.

For a man who left so many marks on the century, the century has left relatively few marks on Mr. Davis. He uses a walker now but every morning still dons a freshly starched dress shirt and tie. He performs several times a year, works in his home office daily and monitors his royalties.

"I came up expecting to work hard for everything I got, and I never saw anything that persuaded me that wasn't true," Mr. Davis said.

The son of a sharecropper, Mr. Davis was the oldest of 11 children raised in a two-room house. By age 7, he was plowing behind the family mule and picking cotton. The hard work and lean living taught values Mr. Davis said he still has.

"The first Christmas present I ever got was a dried hog's bladder and a plucked blackbird," he said. "We ate the blackbird and played ball with the bladder, and I thought we were pretty well off."

Mr. Davis began his professional singing career at Louisiana College -- crooning on street corners. After graduation, the money he earned singing, even when added to his teacher's pay, wasn't enough to pay off school debts. For a steady salary, he entered politics -- first as clerk of court in Shreveport, then the Louisiana Public Service Commission.

By the time he was elected governor in 1943, Mr. Davis was already becoming famous in music and films, playing the singing cowboy in a number of horse operas. But politics did not flow as sweetly through Mr. Davis' life as his music.

Mr. Davis served two terms as Louisiana governor -- 1944-48 and 1960-64. In his first term, he set a record for absenteeism, traveling frequently to Hollywood to further his movie career.

"I should have done more movies," Mr. Davis said with an air of defiance. "I turned down a chance to make millions to take a job that paid $1,000 a month."

In 1959, Mr. Davis ran on a "Peace and Harmony" platform but was unable to deliver either in those turbulent times.

"I am unqualifiedly in favor of segregation," Mr. Davis wrote in a campaign pamphlet. "The best way to maintain our historic way of life, as well as harmonious relations between the races, is to provide separate and equal facilities."

As governor, Mr. Davis called five straight special legislative sessions to resist federal desegregation orders and, when the courts prevailed, set up grants to aid private school pupils.

His views reflected those of most whites at the time, said historian Michael Kurtz, dean of the graduate school at Southeastern Louisiana: "On the whole, he was a middle-of-the-road individual who supported keeping the status quo. He didn't want to rock the boat."

But when things changed, Mr. Kurtz added, so did Mr. Davis. Under Mr. Davis, Louisiana strengthened its schools, instituted teacher pensions, invested idle state money and took early environmental action.

He made a halfhearted bid for a third term in 1971. One of 19 candidates, he lost.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Mr. Davis insisted. "It was after that I got to do what I really wanted -- sing, perform, live my life."

Mr. Davis is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Hall of Fame.

He started off singing blues. Early on, he worked with two black sidemen. In the 1930s, he had an integrated band, practically unheard of then.

"He was really ahead of his time in appreciating the blues," Mr. Fontenot said. "And when you listen to those records, he's one of the blackest-sounding white men I've ever heard."

But it was the sad, nostalgic songs, first called hillbilly, later country-western, that Mr. Davis became known for. His rich voice spun out ballads about lost love, lost times and unforgotten dreams.

By 1929, Mr. Davis was recording for RCA Victor and singing at any juke joint that would pay. He said his parents "worried because I wasn't making steady money. I had a song I really liked, and I promised them that if it didn't make it, I'd give it up."

Nobody's Darling But Mine was his first big hit. Since then, by his own count, Mr. Davis has written better than 400 tunes and recorded more than 60 albums.

Mr. Davis recorded You Are My Sunshine in 1931 but was so unhappy with the studio band that he refused to release it. Eight years passed before he recorded it again. It became a smash hit that eventually sold millions.

Recorded by dozens of artists from Bing Crosby to Gene Autry, You Are My Sunshine was a favorite of King George VI. It was played on Armed Forces Radio during World War II, and GIs landing in Japan found it already a favorite there.

Mr. Davis said he has recorded You Are My Sunshine dozens of times, just last year with a children's choir. Others have tried to lay claim to the song. There's no question he wrote the lyrics, but Mr. Fontenot said there's some debate whether he was solely responsible for the tune.

"That's still the million-dollar question," Mr. Fontenot said. "The tune may have had its roots in traditional folk songs, but there's no question now that it's Jimmie Davis' song. He owns the copyright."