David Michael Gordon "Davey" Graham (originally spelled Davy Graham) (26 November 1940 – 15 December 2008) was a British guitarist and one of the most influential figures in the 1960s British folk revival. He never achieved – or sought – fame and fortune, but his influence as one of Britain's most brilliant and innovative acoustic guitarists runs deep through many musical genres.
David Michael Gordon Graham was born in Leicester on 26 November 1940, the mixed-race son of a Scots Gaelic singer from the Isle of Skye and a Guyanese mother. Brought up in London's Notting Hill area, he initially learned harmonica and piano, but took up the guitar when he was 12 and – taught by Oliver Hunt – became adept on classical guitar by the time he was 16, when he also became obsessed by the hits of Lonnie Donegan. He left school in 1958 to go busking in Paris, and listened intently to music wherever he could find it – from Rambling Jack Elliott to Big Bill Broonzy, Snooks Eaglin, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.
He quickly developed his own unique finger style and came to wider attention in June 1959, when he was featured playing a complex and demanding arrangement of the standard Cry Me A River in a Ken Russell BBC TV documentary, Guitar Craze.
Graham secured a residency at Nick's Diner in Fulham, had a cameo role in the film The Servant and expanded his musical horizons with trips to Italy, Greece and Tangier, where he sat in with local musicians in the Arab quarter, adapting their techniques into his own playing. This ultimately resulted in his developing the DADGAD modal guitar tuning system, which enabled him to create a richer sound and opened up a broader range of melodic possibilities that subsequently provided a new blueprint for folk guitarists everywhere.
In 1961 Alexis Korner arranged a session with him at the London home of the recording engineer Bill Leader, resulting in the collaborative EP, 3/4AD, released the following year by Topic Records. It included Anji, written for his girlfriend of the time.
His first LP, The Guitar Player, was released on the Golden Guinea label the following year, though its repertoire of standards was scarcely representative of the original ideas he was now exploring. These came to fruition in 1965 with the release of the Decca LP Folk, Blues & Beyond, which merged traditional melodies such as Seven Gypsies with jazz and what would now be called 'world music' in a style that came to be dubbed "folk baroque".
Hot on its heels came the even more daring Folk Roots, New Routes, an experimental record still talked of in hushed tones in British folk music circles, setting the traditional Sussex songs of Shirley Collins to bold modern jazz accompaniments. Sales were low, but it was critically acclaimed; and its influence resonated around the folk scene and far beyond. Later groups such as Pentangle took direct inspiration from this concerted refusal to recognise musical barriers.
With a sight defect dating from a childhood accident, Graham was awkward in company: impeccably polite yet disconcertingly distant. He married the American singer Holly Gwinn, with whom he made two albums and had two daughters before she returned to America in 1974 without him.
By then Graham was addicted to heroin – in a deliberate attempt, according to some of his contemporaries, to ape his jazz heroes – and he slowly slipped from the public gaze.
Graham briefly returned to attention with The Complete Guitarist LP (1977), which blended classical with Irish and Renaissance music, and made sporadic live appearances.
He continued to travel and investigate music from different parts of the world, mastering the Arabic oud and Indian sarod instruments and studying a variety of different languages – even returning to his father's Scottish roots to learn Gaelic. He also undertook charity work, with a particular interest in helping people suffering from depression.
He was the subject of a 2005 BBC Radio documentary, Whatever Happened to Davy Graham ? and in 2006 featured in the BBC Four documentary Folk Britannia. His final album, Broken Biscuits, consisted of originals and new arrangements of traditional songs from around the world.
Graham was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008 and died on 15 December of that year.
Guitarist Davy Graham playing Cry Me A River, as captured in a 1959 BBC documentary directed by Ken Russell on the rise in popularity of the guitar in Britain.