About James Houston Davis
Jimmie Davis won his first gubernatorial election in 1944 with the support of reform Governor Jones. Davis at first thought he should avoid mixing his two careers of country music and politics. After a campaign stop in Shreveport, however, where he was accused of "going high hat" because he would not sing, Davis decided to speak for a while and sing "three or four songs". He continued that strategy at every campaign rally throughout his political career which constantly frustrated his opponents.
Davis' first term benefited from wartime and postwar prosperity. He continued Jones' reform program, but also he traveled to Hollywood and Nashville to make "B movies" and sing.
Davis' accomplishments included the establishment of a State Retirement System and the funding of more than $100 million in public improvements leaving the state a $38 million surplus.
For his second term, Davis secured the support of the third strongest candidate, Willie Rainach, the chief of the segregationist movement in Louisiana, to defeat Chep Morrison. Davis used the segregation issue to come from behind and that issue dominated his 2nd term. During that period he built the Sunshine Bridge, the new Governor's Mansion and the Toledo Bend Reservoir - all criticized at the time, but now recognized as beneficial to the state.
Jimmie Davis died peacefully in his sleep at his Baton Rouge home on November 5, 2000. He was 101 years old and had continued to make public appearances until a few months before his passing. Following visitation in Baton Rouge, his funeral was held at the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle in Jonesboro, LA. He is buried in the cemetery there.
James Houston "Jimmie" Davis (September 11, 1899 – November 5, 2000) was a noted singer of both sacred and popular songs who served two nonconsecutive terms as the Governor of Louisiana (1944–1948 and 1960–1964). Davis was a nationally popular country music and gospel singer from the 1930s into the 1960s, occasionally recording and performing as late as the early 1990s. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Davis was born in 1899 to a sharecropping couple, the former Sarah Elizabeth Works and Samuel Jones Davis, in the now-ghost town of Beech Springs near Quitman in Jackson Parish. The family was so poor that young Jimmie did not have a bed in which to sleep until he was nine years old.
He graduated from Beech Springs High School and Soule Business College, New Orleans campus. The late U.S. Representative Otto Ernest Passman, a Louisiana Democrat, also graduated from Soule, but from the Bogalusa campus. Davis received his bachelor's degree in history from the Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College in Pineville. He received a master's degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Davis's 1927 master's thesis examines the intelligence levels of different races, and is titled Comparative Intelligence of Whites, Blacks and Mulattoes.
Davis taught history (and, unofficially, yodeling) for a year at the former Dodd College for Girls in Shreveport during the late 1920s. He was hired by the college president, Monroe Elmon Dodd, who was also the pastor of the large First Baptist Church of Shreveport and a pioneer radio preacher.
Davis became a commercially successful singer of rural music before he entered politics. His early work was in the style of early Country Music luminary Jimmie Rodgers, and he was also known for recording energetic and raunchy blues tunes like "Red Nightgown Blues". Some of these records included slide guitar accompaniment by black bluesman Oscar "Buddy" Woods. During his first run for governor, opponents reprinted the lyrics of some of these songs in order to undermine Davis's campaign. In one case, anti-Davis forces played some of the records over an outdoor sound system only to give up after the crowds started dancing, ignoring the double-entendre lyrics. Davis until the end of his life never denied or repudiated those records.
He is associated with several popular songs, most notably "You Are My Sunshine", which was designated an official state song of Louisiana in 1977. He claimed that he wrote the song while attending graduate school at LSU, but research indicates he bought it from another performer, Paul Rice, who had recorded it with his brother Hoke, who recorded together as the Rice Brothers under Paul Rice's name. The practice of buying songs from their composers was a common practice during the 1930s through the 1960s as some writers in need of cash often sold tunes to others.
Rice himself had adapted it from another person's poem. Reportedly, the song was copyrighted under Davis' name and that of longtime sideman Charles Mitchell, after they purchased it from Rice. Davis also purchased the country ballad "It Makes No Difference Now" from its composer Floyd Tillman. Tillman later had his composer credit restored alongside that of Davis.
In 1999, "You Are My Sunshine" was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and the Recording Industry Association of America named it one of the Songs of the Century. "You Are My Sunshine" was ranked No. 73 on CMT's 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music in 2003. Until his death, Davis insisted that he wrote the song. In any case, it will forever be associated with him.
Davis became the popular "singing governor" who often performed during his campaign stops. While governor, he had a No. 1 hit single in 1945 with "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder". Davis recorded for Decca Records for decades and released over 40 albums. A long-time member of the Baptist faith, he also recorded a number of Southern gospel albums and in 1967 served as president of the Gospel Music Association. He was a close friend of the North Dakota-born band leader Lawrence Welk who frequently reminded viewers of his television program of his association with Governor Davis.
A number of his songs were used as part of motion picture soundtracks, and Davis himself appeared in half a dozen films, one with the popular entertainers Ozzie and Harriet. Members of Davis' last band included Allen "Puddler" Harris of Lake Charles, who had also been an original pianist of Ricky Nelson.
Davis was elected as Shreveport's public safety commissioner, probably in 1938, as a Democrat. (At the time, Shreveport had the city commission form of government. In 1978, the city switched to the current mayor-council format.) Davis was elected in 1942 to the Louisiana Public Service Commission but left the rate-making body, which meets in Baton Rouge, two years later to become governor.
First term as governor (1944–1948)
Davis was elected governor as a Democrat in 1944. Among those eliminated in the primary was State Senator Ernest S. Clements of Oberlin in Allen Parish, freshman U.S. Representative James H. Morrison of Hammond in Tangipahoa Parish, and Sam Caldwell, the mayor of Shreveport. Davis and Caldwell had served together earlier in Shreveport municipal government.
In the runoff, Davis defeated Lewis L. Morgan, an elderly attorney and former U.S. representative from Covington, the seat of St. Tammany Parish, who carried the backing of former Governor Earl Kemp Long and Mayor Robert Maestri. Davis received 251,228 (53.6 percent) to Morgan's 217,915 (46.5 percent).
Davis pleased conservatives with his appointment of Cecil Morgan to the Louisiana civil service Commission. Morgan, as a Caddo Parish legislator, had led the impeachment forces against Governor Huey Pierce Long, Jr. in 1929 and later took a high position with Standard Oil Company. Morgan was succeeded in the Louisiana House by Rupert Peyton of Shreveport, who also served as an aide to Davis. On the other hand, Davis reached out to the Longites when he commuted the prison sentence imposed on former Louisiana State University president James Monroe Smith in the "Louisiana Hayride" scandals of the late 1930s. Like Davis, Smith was a native of Jackson Parish.
Long was seeking the lieutenant governorship on the Lewis Morgan "ticket" and led in the first primary, but he lost the runoff to J. Emile Verret of New Iberia, who was the president of the Iberia Parish School Board.
Davis kept his hand in show business, and set a record for absenteeism during his first term with trips to Hollywood to make Western "horse operas."
Davis was term-limited to a single non-consecutive term in office.
The election of 1959–1960
As a candidate for a second term in 1959–1960, Davis had been out of office for nearly a dozen years. Three Louisiana State University political scientists described him, accordingly:
"Davis has all of the external attributes of a 'man of the people', but his serious political connections seem to be with the [parish-seat] elite and its allies, particularly the major industrial combinations of the state. He is in many respects a toned-down version of the old-style southern politician who could spellbound the mass of voters into supporting him regardless of the effects of his programs on their welfare. . . . Davis creates the perfect image of a man to be trusted and one whose intense calm is calculated to bring rational balance into the political life of the state."
With a pledge to fight for continued segregation in public education, Davis won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over a crowded field that included staunchly segregationist State Senator William Monroe Rainach of Claiborne Parish, former Lieutenant Governor William J. "Bill" Dodd of Baton Rouge, former Governor James Albert Noe, Sr., of Monroe, and New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison, Sr. A member of the Ku Klux Klan, A. Roswell Thompson, the operator of a New Orleans taxi stand, also filed candidacy papers. Davis ran second to "Chep" Morrison, considered an anti-Long liberal by Louisiana standards, in the primary but then defeated Morrison in the party runoff held in January 1960.
Davis polled 213,551 (25.3 percent) to Morrison's 278,956 (33.1 percent). Rainach ran third with 143,095 (17 percent). Noe was fourth with 97,654 (11.6 percent), and Dodd followed with 85,436 (10.1 percent). Davis won the northern and central parts of the state plus Baton Rouge, while Morrison dominated the southern portion of the state, particularly the French cultural parishes. In the runoff, Davis prevailed, 487,681 (54.1 percent) to Morrison's 414,110 (45.5 percent). It was estimated that Davis drew virtually all of the Rainach support from the first primary.
Earl Long endorsed Davis in the runoff because he had a longstanding personal distaste for Morrison. Long, meanwhile, had run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in the first primary. There was a runoff between Morrison's choice for the job, Alexandria Mayor W. George Bowdon, Jr., and Davis's selection, former state House Speaker Clarence C. "Taddy" Aycock of Franklin in St. Mary Parish. Aycock defeated Bowdon by a margin similar to that of Davis over Morrison. The defeat was Long's second for lieutenant governor. He had lost also in the 1944 primary to J. Emile Verret of Iberia Parish.
Davis effectively used the slogan "He's One of Us" in the gubernatorial race. Number six on the ballot, he assembled an intraparty ticket for other statewide constitutional officers, including Aycock for lieutenant governor, Roy R. Theriot of Abbeville for comptroller, Douglas Fowler of Coushatta for custodian of voting machines, Jack P.F. Gremillion for attorney general, Dave L. Pearce for agriculture commissioner, Ellen Bryan Moore for register of state lands, and Rufus Hayes for insurance commissioner, all based in Baton Rouge. The entire Davis ticket was elected.
In their study The Louisiana Election of 1960, William C. Havard, Rudolf Heberle, and Perry H. Howard demonstrated that Davis built his second-primary victory by narrowly edging Morrison in the eastern and western extremities of South Louisiana. Davis also secured the backing of organized labor and made inroads among the white, urban working class, which was essential to a Morrison victory. In the seven urban industrial parishes, which then comprised some 46.5 percent of the total turnout, Davis topped Morrison by 7,368 votes (50.8 percent) of the 419,537 applicable subtotal. Morrison polled 60 percent in his own Orleans Parish and 54.6 percent in adjacent suburban Jefferson Parish, but in the industrial strip and in less Roman Catholic areas, Morrison slipped. The second primary attracted 57,744 more votes than the initial stage of balloting, and analysts indicated that the lion's share of the additional ballots were segregationists who supported Davis.
In the general election on April 19, 1960, Davis defeated Republican Francis Grevemberg, a Lafayette native, by a margin of nearly 82–17 percent. Grevemberg had been head of the state police under Governor Robert F. Kennon and had gained a reputation for fighting organized crime. He called for the origin of a two-party system for Louisiana. As the Democratic nominee, Davis had no worries and did little campaigning against Grevemberg. It has been reported that had General Curtis LeMay turned down George C. Wallace's offer to be his candidate for vice president in 1968 on the American Independent Party ticket that Wallace was ready to announce Davis as his selection for vice president.
Davis and Dodd
In the 1959 campaign, Bill Dodd had attacked Davis ferociously: it was part of Dodd's strategy to get Davis to withdraw from the primary. "Nothing personal in his [Dodd's] heart, just a cold-blooded plan to wind up in a second primary against Morrison, who he figured could not win against anyone [else] in a runoff," said Davis in the introduction to Dodd's memoirs, Peapatch Politics: The Earl Long Era in Louisiana Politics. Dodd then endorsed Morrison in the runoff, but he had a long-term reason for doing so. Dodd planned to run for school superintendent in the 1963 primary, and he wanted to have at least the neutrality of Morrison four years thereafter.
Dodd and Davis later became close friends. In Davis' words:
Bill and I have many things in common. We share the same type of religion and boyhood background; we got our start as schoolteachers and figured prominently in public education; we both served in public life at or near the top. And I like to feel that we share a common appreciation and respect for people, all people. One of the greatest rewards in politics is meeting people. And one of the greatest and most unusual men I've ever met is Bill Dodd.
 Second term (1960–1964)
Davis' appointees in the second term included outgoing State Representative Claude Kirkpatrick of Jennings, the seat of Jefferson Davis Parish, who was named to succeed Lorris M. Wimberly as the Director of Public Works. In that capacity, Kirkpatrick took the steps for a joint agreement with the Texas to establish the popular Toledo Bend Reservoir, a haven for boating and fishing. Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the former Edith Killgore, a native of Claiborne Parish in north Louisiana, headed Davis's women's campaign division for southwestern Louisiana. He appointed Alexandria businessman Morgan W. Walker, Sr., to the State Mineral Board. Walker founded a company which later became part of Continental Trailways Bus lines. Davis named Ray Burgess of Baton Rouge as highway director, who even considered running for governor in the 1963 primary.
In his second term, Davis secured passage of a $60 million public improvements bond issue through the State Board and Building Commission, an organization controlled by the governor. He gained legislative support from many formerly pro-Long lawmakers and cemented his hold on the traditional anti-Long bloc. He avoided defeat on any legislation that he strongly supported and was able to defeat nearly all bills with which he did not concur. He offered tacit support to the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson national Democrats to secure the state's hold of pending offshore oil revenues. In the 1963 legislative fiscal session, he defeated efforts to procure an unpledged presidential elector slate for the 1964 general election, by which time he had been succeeded by John J. McKeithen.
Fourth place in 1971
In 1971, Davis entered another crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary field with new political prospects, but he finished in fourth place with 138,756 ballots (11.8 percent).
In a runoff election held in December 1971, U.S. Representative Edwin Washington Edwards of Crowley in Acadia Parish defeated then state Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., of Shreveport for the party nomination. That vote was close: Edwards, 584,262 (50.2 percent) to Johnston's 579,774 (49.8 percent). Edwards then beat Republican David C. Treen in the March 1972 general election. Davis' days as a politician were clearly behind him at that point.
Toward the end of his life, longtime Democrat Davis endorsed at least two Republican candidates: state Representative Louis E. "Woody" Jenkins of Baton Rouge for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Mary Landrieu in 1996 and the reelection of Governor Murphy J. "Mike" Foster, Jr., who faced little opposition in 1999 from African-American Democratic Congressman William "Bill" Jefferson of New Orleans.
Davis established a State Retirement System and funding of more than $100 million in public improvements while leaving the state with a $38 million surplus after his first term.
During his second term, Davis built the Sunshine Bridge, the new Louisiana Governor's Mansion, and Toledo Bend Reservoir, all criticized at the time, but later recognized as beneficial to the state. Davis coordinated the pay periods of state employees, who had sometimes received their checks a week late, a particular hardship to those with low incomes.
During his time as governor, Davis attempted to enforce policies of racial segregation, but federal law slowly brought about desegregation. One time during his tenure, he rode his horse up the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to protest integration. Davis apologized for his actions later in life.
Fellow Louisiana governor Earl Long once remarked of Davis, "You couldn't wake up Jimmie Davis with an earthquake".
Gus Weill, who worked in the Davis campaign in 1959, wrote a biography of the former governor in 1977, entitled You Are My Sunshine, based on Davis' best-known song.
The Jimmie Davis Bridge atop the Red River connects Shreveport and Bossier City via Louisiana Highway 511. It was named in his honor during his second term as governor.
Jimmie Davis State Park is located on Caney Lake, southwest of Chatham in Jackson Parish.
Davis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1972 and The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008. In 1993, he was among the first 13 inductees of the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield. The Hall of Fame also periodically issues the "Friends of Jimmie Davis Award". The 2006 recipient was former State Senator B.G. Dyess, a retired Baptist minister from Rapides Parish.
The Davis archives of papers and photographs is housed in the "You Are My Sunshine" Collection of the Linus A. Sims Memorial Library at Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond.
Davis believed that his singing career enhanced his political prospects. He once told Georgia Republican Ronnie Thompson, a mayor of Macon: "If you want to have any success in politics, sing softly and carry a big guitar," a play on an old Theodore Roosevelt adage.
Davis' first wife, the former Alverna Adams, from a prominent Shreveport family, was first lady while he was governor. She died in 1967. He thereafter married Anna Carter Gordon, a member of the Chuck Wagon Gang gospel singers based in Nashville. She survived Davis.
Out of office, Davis resided primarily in Baton Rouge but made numerous singing appearances, particularly in churches throughout the United States.
Davis died on November 5, 2000 and is buried in the Davis Family Cemetery in Quitman, LA (in his native Jackson Parish county). He was aged 101 years and 55 days, which made him the longest-lived of all U.S. state governors at the time of his death. Davis held this record until March 18, 2011, when Albert Rosellini of Washington achieved a greater lifespan of 101 years, 56 days. Davis was posthumously inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall of Fame in Ferriday.
Jimmie Davis, Governor's Timeline
September 11, 1899
Beech Springs, LA, USA
November 5, 2000
Baton Rouge, LA, USA
Louisiana State University
Beech Springs, Louisiana, United States
North Hodge, Louisiana, USA