David Bromberg is a multi-instrumentalist who can play in multiple styles. Before taking off on a long solo career, he toured and recorded with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia.
Typically, a resume like that has a deep learning experience at its foundation. Bromberg, 69, got some of his lessons from a blues-picking legend, the Rev. Gary Davis.
Davis, who died in 1972, was living in New York City in the 1960s when Bromberg, then a student at Columbia University, found Davis playing a gig on Greenwich Village’s storied Bleecker Street.
“The reverend was a brilliant player with a huge repertoire, and a wonderful singer,” said Bromberg, who plays Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center tonight. “His guitar playing was totally unique and miles above almost every one of his contemporaries.”
Walking down Bleecker one day, Bromberg noticed a sign outside a place called the Dragon’s Den.
“It said, ‘Rev. Gary Davis here this afternoon,’ ” he remembered. “And it was the afternoon, so I went in and paid my money and sat down. It was wonderful. It was the most amazing guitar playing I had ever heard and seen.
“So afterward I asked him if he would give me lessons. He said ‘Yes. $5. Bring the money, honey.’ ”
Before long, Bromberg stopped paying his teacher, instead leading the blind performer around town to the churches and concerts he played.
Bromberg said he had never before felt the kind of love that he experienced in the African-American churches where Davis played and delivered sermons. Bromberg heard Davis preach frequently, but because of his teacher’s thick Southern accent (he was born and bred in South Carolina and lived many years in North Carolina) he had some difficulty understanding the sermons.
But one of them is etched forever in his memory.
On one Greenwich Village night, Bromberg’s contemporary and fellow Davis student, Stefan Grossman, was playing at a church. Bromberg was playing at a coffee house called The Gaslight Cafe.
“The reverend went to hear Stefan, and afterwards he came to the Gaslight,” Bromberg remembered. “I saw him in the audience, and so I dedicated some songs to him and sang some of his tunes and sang a tune I had sung that he had inspired.
“As was his want from time to time, he stood up and gave a sermon. I’ll never forget the way it started. He started out, ‘I have no children, but I have sons.’ And that was a big moment for me. He claimed me. And he claimed Stefan.”
One of Bromberg’s best-loved songs, “Keep On Drinkin,’” is a Big Bill Broonzy cover. But his repertoire is not all blues songs. Go to one of his shows and you’ll hear bluegrass, folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll. His 2007 album, “Try Me One More Time,” received a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album.
“I never saw any reason not to do whatever song I wanted to do, which was commercial suicide, because the record stores didn’t know what bin to put my records in,” he said. “Record companies didn’t know what radio stations to advertise on or what magazines to advertise me in.
“I figured if what I did ever became popular, I would have a corner on the market. But these days, there are a lot of other people who have begun to do the same thing, so it’s really nice to see.”