Music helps Indiana performer overcome bipolar disorder
MUNCIE, Ind. — Every time Governor Davis takes the stage, he’s hit with a rush of excitement. The Muncie resident and longtime blues musician soaks up every moment of it, too.
Knowing eyes will be fixed on him, he’ll don his signature hat and neatly pressed suit, in the style of musicians he idolized from the 1950s and ’60s, such as Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. “You got people spending their hard-earned money to come out. You have to show them respect,” Davis said.
And those who come to see him play can assume they’ll be as much a part of the show as they are attendees. Davis purposely bought a cordless guitar so he could parade through crowds without tripping on wires. This allows him to grab listeners’ hands and pull them on stage with him. Sometimes, in the fashion of Jimi Hendrix or Earl Hooker, he’ll pull the guitar strings up to his face and play with his teeth.
“He’s a showman as much as anything,” Heorot and Valhalla owner Stan Stephens said, having booked Davis to play countless shows at his Muncie venues over the years.
And yet, there was a lot the showman didn’t show. Yes, Davis knows this rush from the spotlight all too well, and he thrives off of it. But approaching his 70th birthday, he’s just thankful he gets to continue his work.
There was a moment in his life that nearly forced him off the stage for good. Luckily for him, the blues kept calling back.
In 2012, after a 20-year career in performing, Davis detected something was off. He had actually felt this disconnect for much of his life, but in his mid-60s, it was becoming unbearable not knowing what was wrong. He describes those dark moments as the lowest of lows, feelings that never crept up past a plateau.
And the search for a solution was tough. He said when he was younger, mental illness wasn’t as researched as it is today, and he feared a misdiagnosis could lead to being overprescribed medication.
What made it worse was that for the longest time, he kept that part of his life hidden. His audiences saw him being happy on stage. Yet what they didn’t know is that when the music stopped, and those feelings emerged, Davis preferred to be alone.
“I really got to understand other artists who committed suicide or took drugs,” he said. He admits he could have been in the same boat, given his upbringing in Chicago and the big-city temptations. But Davis always found music to be his escape of choice. He said at his peak, he was so busy, it was nearly impossible for him to sit around and allow those low feelings to take over.
That was, until those feelings became unbearable, and music could no longer mask them. Still unaware of what was wrong, Davis became overwhelmed. So he took a hiatus from the stage.
Ironically, thanks to the cleared schedule, Davis had time to pause, reflect and figure out the problem, probably saving his future in music. He was diagnosed with Type 2 bipolar disorder, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as “a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes” like that of Type 1.
He began regularly seeing a therapist. He talked to experts and got treatment. And after gaining closure, he learned there might good things to come out of it.
“On the negative side, you might say, ‘Oh that’s horrible,’ but on the positive side, my bipolar (disorder) is where I got my skills and talent,” he said, noting that having it during much of his life led him to pour himself into music, thus strengthening that bond.
“A lot of good things come from music,” Davis said. “I learned a lot, did a lot, and it’s also kept me alive throughout the years.”
It wouldn’t be long after his diagnosis that the stage began to call his name again. In 2014, he received a few scattered offers from venues asking him to play. He spent that year easing his way back into the scene, and by 2015, he was once again landing regular gigs.
Looking back now, Davis remains in a musically, spiritually fueled high.
He thinks about if he hadn’t had music as his safety net, and if it wasn’t there to keep him busy while he was facing his then-unknown condition.
He never would have started the band called Governor Davis and the Blues Ambassadors in 1991, creating tunes like “I Am The Governor” and “Don’t Let the Blues Get You Down.” He never would have opened for notable artists like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Otis Clay and Bobby Rush. He never would have experienced his six-week tour in Europe through parts of Scandinavia, nor appeared in television commercials for outlets like Meijer and Kodak.
But he did. Music not only gave him a lavish life. It simply gave him a life. And to him, God did the rest. “I became a musician, not because I wanted to,” he said. “Because faith put me in that path.” The hard times, like his bipolar disorder, weren’t road blocks. Just short detours.
And like always, Davis will be soaking up every minute he can in the spotlight.
“I didn’t think I was going to have anymore (birthday celebrations),” Davis said.
Then, he smiled.
“Until I made it to 70.”