Contemporary violinist breaks the mold
Photos by Rod Charles – His Will Photography
He may not look the part of a classically-trained violinist but the tattooed music notes up the right side of his arm leaves no doubt about the passion that Daniel Davis has for music.
That passion becomes even more evident when he picks up his violin, closes his eyes and pours his soul into his performance.
Known as Daniel D., the 26 year-old, is headed to the top of his industry. He’s often sought out to play for well-known politicians and stars like Oprah Winfrey, the late Dr. Maya Angelou, Michael Jackson, President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He has opened for R&B artist Jaime Foxx, Gospel Superstars Marvin Sapp and Tye Tribett and Hip-Hop superstar Kanye West. He honored the request of Rev. Clementa Pinckney to perform at a “Black Lives Matter” event and performed at the tributes to the Charleston Emanuel 9. Pinckney, along with eight others, were killed when a gunman opened fire on the group during a Wednesday night bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June 2015.
Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Davis said that he never expected to get this far by taking a class for the opportunity to be surrounded by pretty girls.
“I took it as an exploratory class when I was in middle school. I didn’t really like it at first. I had a choice between the violin and these little things called hand bells. Obviously I stuck with the violin,” he said. “Of course a friend of mine told me that there were going to be lots of pretty girls in the class and what other reason does a 12-year-old boy need?” He didn’t become serious about the art until he saw another gentleman play who didn’t look like the typical violinist. That lit a fire and motivated him to want to learn more.
“I started taking lessons at a small church in Summerville, South Carolina. When the gentleman came I thought he was just the janitor. I didn’t think he was a violinist but he opened up the church doors and he went to the altar, it was almost like a movie moment, he picked up the violin and that’s when my jaw dropped. Everything changed at that moment,” Davis said. “Before that I had instructors from the college in Charleston and studied with other violinists that were phenomenal but because this brother didn’t really look like the typical violinist that’s what really made me stick with it. It showed me that it doesn’t matter what you look like, act like, or what kind of demeanor that you have about yourself you can do something different or outside the box.”
His parents, Reggie and Lillie, recognized their son’s talent as well and did everything they could to make sure he had everything he needed to succeed.
“I guess the turning point for me was that we never made him practice,” Reggie said. “We stopped him one time to punish him and it was like we had beat him half to death. I could see then that he had a real passion for it. He had the passion to make it happen but we just filled in as support.”
Reggie said that he had an “ah-hah” moment when his son was asked to play at an event for Jesse Jackson.
“The next thing you know we’re flying to California and I’m watching him play in front of Michael Jackson, Barry Gordy and all these big people. I’m looking up there thinking that’s my son up there playing for these important people,” Reggie said. “I’ve been a witness to some major opportunities that he’s had that come from him being so committed and passionate about the instrument.”
His parents said that they are along for the ride in whatever Davis does, whether it’s interacting with kids or playing in a sold-out auditorium.
“We didn’t’ plan to do this but each year it grows and it seems like it’s something that we’re driven to do more of,” Lillie said. “We want to make sure he’s making educated business decisions.”
Daniel still didn’t think of his talent as a career until he was a teenager. He said that he just fell into playing for pay.
“Overtime music just became something I was passionate about. One of my dad’s friends was a radio dj for Magic 101.7 at the time, and he asked me if I could download a couple of tracks and play a wedding reception for a few dollars,” he said. “I went out there and played two songs during the reception and that’s when it started to become almost like a job or career.”
Soon after he recorded his first cd at the age of 17. That first initial taste of the industry was a little bitter because he was working with individuals who were doing “bad business,” Daniel said, but the experience taught him a lot and has changed how he does business five albums later.
“I make sure I have more control of my projects. I piece it all together myself. With the internet and the way technology has changed you don’t have to spend a lot of money in major studios. I can handle recording a lot of it at my apartment and other places besides the studio and then sending it in to an engineer,” he said.
Davis graduated from the Charleston School of the Arts in 2007 and immediately went on tour with T-Bone Ministries. He has studied at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, won first place at Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater three times and has even been a featured performer on BET’s 106&Park.
He has produced six albums including his latest album “SonRise” and a Christmas cd. His single “Lullaby,” from his 2012 album “Epic Sounds”, made it into the top 50 on the Indie Charts.
He plays annually at Charleston’s MOJA (Swahili for “One”) Festival, Spoleto and Swamp Fest festivals. He spends the rest of his time traveling across the country performing solo, with his D.J., or with his band, Urban Instrumentalist.
His talent has brought him numerous awards, including the being the recipient of the Charlotte Music Award and winning the U.S. Air Force’s Wide Talent Search competition.
His dream of playing professionally was almost crushed after learning that he had developed an over use injury from working and playing too much. The tendon on the back of his knuckle popped off requiring surgery. He said that most doctors wouldn’t operate on him because of how meticulous the surgery would have to be for him to continue to play professionally.
“I thought that was it. I remember trying to figure out what was going to be the next direction for me. It was going to be something else with music, either as an agent or manager. At the end of the day I just have a love for music in general,” Davis said. “I’m able to express it through the violin but it can be expressed many different way. It doesn’t have to be just playing a violin to please my passion.”
It was at that time that Stevie Wonder called him to play at an event making his motivation to get well even stronger. He went through rehabilitation and gradually began to play again.
“I missed some opportunities due to my injury. I gradually began to take small gigs and play one or two songs at a time,” Davis said. “It took a whole year to get back to where I was fully functioning and luckily Stevie Wonder’s people called back.”
The contemporary artist credits his success to his versatility allowing him access to a broader audience.
“I take pride in what I do because I’m able to play a lounge or festival on a Friday, a college or a private event on a Saturday and then Sunday I can go play a church. I think it’s an amazing thing to be able to do that and reach a larger audience. A lot of people are channeled down just one lane so if I don’t do well in another I have other lanes that I can take on,” Davis said. “My look throws people off completely. They don’t expect to see someone like me – the way I talk, my style, the way I dress or even the tattoos. They don’t connect the violin with that at all. When I was younger I felt like I was judged because I didn’t fit the mold of the classical, straight-edged violinist. The irony is that now it works for me.”
Davis is not sure what the future holds but hopes to leave behind a legacy, inspiring others to follow their own path. America’s Got Talent has reached out to him and he just sent in his video audition. He also hopes to play at The White House for Hillary Clinton if she’s elected the next president.
“I would love to do more of my own shows and have more face-to-face time with my fans,” Davis said. “My goal at the end of the day is to inspire someone else to do something different. You don’t have to pick up a violin or do something music related.” !
CHANEL DAVIS, a journalism graduate from N.C.A&T SU, is a freelance journalist based in High Point whose worked in the industry for the past five years.
For more information about Daniel D. and his music, visit www.danieldmusic.com.