The Pop Charts' Native Roots

“I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps,” George Harrison sang to a packed audience at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden. A stoic Eric Clapton trailed with a wailing guitar lick. Leon Russell pounded the keys in the background.

A fourth figure appears in the video at the National Museum of the American Indian: supporting guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Though he is the least-known musician onstage, with his muscular build he seems to tower over the rest.

“If Clapton was known as God, then Jesse Ed Davis was right up there with the disciples somewhere,” says musician and contributing curator Stevie Salas, 47, who is posing for photographs at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the museum’s new exhibition, “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.”

With his mane of curly black hair, aviator sunglasses, green electric guitar and bright purple sneakers, Salas (Apache), who began his own career playing guitar with funk maestro George Clinton, embodies more of a rocker aesthetic than his fellow Native musician Jesse Ed Davis ever did. Yet Davis, who died in 1988, was the on-call supporting guitarist for some of the biggest names in American music, including Jackson Browne, Albert King, Willie Nelson and British imports such as Clapton and Rod Stewart.

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From country music ballads to rock power chords, Native Americans left a lasting impression on the soundtrack of the 20th century.

By Jess Righthand 
October 2010
This article was originally published by Smithsonian Magazine. The full article can be read here.