La. 'Singing Governor' Davis Dies

Monday, November 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Only a real scene-stealer could compete for the historical spotlight in a state that produced the fiery populist Huey Long and the dapper scoundrel Edwin Edwards.

Jimmie Davis was just the showman to do it. Witness his horseback ride up the steps of the towering state Capitol in 1961, flashbulbs popping all around him, just to make a point.

Davis, the recording artist who made ``You Are My Sunshine'' a hit and got elected governor twice, died Sunday. He was believed to be 101 although he had acknowledged that he was not certain of the year of his birth.

``This guy was truly a legend for what he's done and what he's meant to the state,'' said state Rep. Donald Ray Kennard.

Long's reputation was built on his share-the-wealth rhetoric and what some called his near-dictatorial control of state government, first as governor, then as a U.S. senator. He was assassinated in 1935.

Edwards, on the other hand, was the deft dealmaker who won four elections in spite of — perhaps because of — his reputation as a ladies man and gambler. His legacy was marred in May by a racketeering conviction, which he is appealing.

Davis, meanwhile, made his mark with smooth talking and sweet singing. He served as governor during two tumultuous periods: from 1944-48, when the family and allies of Long still vied with their opponents for political power; and 1960-64, when Davis adopted a strong segregationist stance in a losing battle with the federal government.

But, as Loyola University political science professor Ed Renwick noted Sunday in New Orleans, ``He was best known for his singing career, more so than his two terms as governor.''

Davis estimated that he wrote more than 400 songs, including ``It Makes No Difference Now'' and ``Sweethearts or Strangers,'' and recorded at least 52 albums. ``You Are My Sunshine,'' his first smash hit in the late '30s, became a standard.

His show business career started in the late 1920s. Davis taught college while at the same time singing on radio and making records.

Even while pursuing his musical career, he also was climbing in politics, serving in local offices in Shreveport and on the state Public Safety Commission.

Even while serving as governor, he kept his hand in show business. Among his films: ``Louisiana,'' in 1947, about a country boy who becomes a singer and then a governor.

He was remembered for pushing through legislation in his first term creating the state's first driver's licenses, and, in his second, for seeing the state through the school desegregation battles of the early 1960s.

He called five straight special legislative sessions to resist federal desegregation orders, and created a grant program to aid private school pupils after the courts prevailed.

He said later that he was only doing what was best for the times.

``Everybody ran on the segregation ticket. You couldn't be elected without it. When desegregation came, we did it without having anybody killed. We didn't even have a fist-fight.''

One of the accomplishments of his second term was the Sunshine Bridge over the Mississippi, which critics called the ``bridge to nowhere'' but which was later credited with fostering industrial growth in the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

And then there was the ride up the Capitol steps on his white horse, named Sunshine. He made the ride after his purchase of a limousine was criticized. He explained with a straight face that he just wanted to let Sunshine see his office.

Governors could not succeed themselves in those days. But he ran for governor again in the wide-open 1971 race that eventually brought Edwards to power.

Davis had little involvement in politics in his later years, devoting his energy to his music. He once said that's what he'd most like to be remembered for, as ``someone who scattered a little sunshine along his path.''

He performed occasionally even as he neared the century mark. He sang at his own 100th birthday celebration in Baton Rouge in September 1999. At a quieter, private celebration a year later he was in a jocular mood.

``It's a great day for me,'' he told The Associated Press in one of his last interviews. ``I'm getting the hang of these things.''

Survivors include his wife, Anna Gordon Davis, who sang with him in the gospel group ``The Chuck Wagon Gang,'' and a son, Jim.

``It's a sad day for Louisiana,'' Gov. Mike Foster said in a statement. ``An era has ended.''