“Governor” Jimmie Davis, held down the Louisiana executive’s chair for two terms, from 1944 to 1948 and again from 1960 to 1964, recently reached his 100th birthday; and even for that length of time on this earth, he’s packed in an extraordinary range of accomplishments. Not the least of these was his composition, “You Are My Sunshine,” written when he was a graduate student at Louisiana State University, and which we celebrate this evening as one of our towering songs of this or any other year.
Davis was born September 11, 1899 in Quitman, Louisiana where he grew up in a two room shack with 10 siblings, his parents, and his grandparents. In that house was a generous share of love and religion and Jimmy grew up armed with the good effects of both. Leaving home for Louisiana College, he prepared for the new outside world to come with his meager savings achieved by dish washing and singing on street comers. Even then, in retrospect, music had become a factor in his life.
Following graduation and acquiring a masters degree at Louisiana State University, Davis managed to launch, almost simultaneously, his twin careers in politics and country music. In 1928. he took a job in the criminal Court of Shreveport in northeast Louisiana, an area which spawned a number of the State’s more celebrated politicians. In September of the following year, Davis completed his first recording for RCA Victor Records. At the time, he was also honing his singing skills on KWKH Radio. His early recordings managed to stir little interest primarily because his vocal style was regarded as too similar to that of Jimmie Rodgers, the major artist of that time.
However, when he recorded his first material for the new record label, Decca, in 1935, he soon hit paydirt, with the song, “Nobody’s Darling But Mine.” With the royalties from the sales of this record, he paid off his college debts, bought a farm and got married. A bigger hit, “It Makes No Difference Now,” the following year, helped propel his political career as he became Commissioner of Public Safety in Shreveport in 1938.
Two years later, in Chicago, he recorded the song that was to become his lifetime calling card. “You Are My Sunshine,” was etched into posterity on February 4, 1940, and subsequently, the recording sold over a million copies in America alone. Later, as it crossed the Atlantic for a British release. King George VI was said to have declared it as his favorite song. Adding to the luster of the now revered melody were hit recordings by both Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, just two among more than 350 versions in 30 languages, including Russian and Japanese. Following his first motion picture appearance in the film “Louisiana,” Davis was elected to his first four-year term in the Governor’s residence, where among other things, he took action to protect and revive the State’s timber industry, ravaged by clear-cutting in the ‘20’s and ‘30s, by helping to pass the Forestry Acts in the Legislature.
Leaving government service, Davis returned to his gospel music roots in the ‘50s, recording a host of hits like, “Supper Time,” “Honey In The Rock,” “Take My Hand (Precious Lord)” and “Columbus Stockade Blues.” Davis, with Hank Williams and others, is also credited with introducing cajun music to the country music field, with his classic rendition of “Colinda.”
Davis was again elected Governor in 1960, when he faced many major problems, including a recession which plunged the government into a deficit, and a need to integrate schools in the State. The latter was solved, as Davis had promised in his inaugural address, “without prejudice and without violence.”
While none of these accomplishments could ever eclipse the importance of his songwriting and recording, particularly with “You Are My Sunshine,” all the musical successes were recognized suitably in 1972 with his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in ceremonies that year in Nashville, Tennessee.