He contracted polio when he was 10, leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs and requiring crutches to walk. But he was determined to stay with music. He told Mr. Palmer: “I was right-handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn my guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kind of swiped one of them.”
He reinvented his playing using the handle of a table knife. “Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife,” he told David Ramsey in the magazine The Oxford American this year. “It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.”
As a teenager, Mr. Davis played street corners and juke joints around Helena, which was at the time a bustling Mississippi River port, “wide open” with gamblers, bootleggers and honky-tonks, Mr. Davis recalled in the 1984 documentary “Blues Back Home.”
There he met some of the era’s leading blues musicians, and started appearing on two live blues radio shows on KFFA in Helena: “King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk, a fellow slide guitarist. From 1953 to 1963, he and Mr. Nighthawk performed together, and they moved for a time to St. Louis.
In 1957, Mr. Davis was further disabled after he was trampled when a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar where he and Mr. Nighthawk were performing. Multiple leg fractures left him using a wheelchair.
In “Blues Back Home,” Mr. Davis said, “Whether I could walk or not, I had to make my place in this world, and find my own way, and I found it.”
He continued to work the juke-joint circuit. In the early 1960s he moved to Pine Bluff, Ark., where he would reside for decades until he moved to a nursing home in Hot Springs, Ark. He made his first recordings in 1976 for the journalist…