Not only was “You Are My Sunshine” declared Louisiana’s official state song in 1977, it is a pretty safe bet that it’s probably the only song with a bridge named after it. That would be the Sunshine Bridge which connects Donaldsonville to whatever is on the other side of the Mississippi River, the original bridge to nowhere.
Long associated with the colorful, two non-consecutive term governor, Jimmie Davis, “You Are My Sunshine” has served as a vehicle to the charts not just for Davis, but for Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Ray Charles to mention just a few. While Davis is listed as a co-writer and often claimed to have composed “You Are My Sunshine” while attending LSU, in fact he purchased the song from Paul Rice. It became a cash cow, and assisted his musical and political aspirations immensely.
The son of a poor sharecropper, Davis was born September 11, 1899, near Quitman, Louisiana in Jackson Parish. Despite his humble beginnings, Davis earned a bachelors degree from Louisiana College in Pineville and in 1927 was awarded a masters degree from LSU. The following year, he began teaching history at a small college in Shreveport. In his spare time, Davis played guitar and sang country songs on a local radio station. In 1929, Davis signed to Victor Records and over the next five years would record more than 70 sides. Most of his records were in the style of Jimmie Rogers, but he also waxed some risqué songs— ”Red Nightgown Blues,” for example—some with a black guitar player, Oscar Woods, who some researchers say is the real composer of “You Are My Sunshine.”
The Depression hurt record sales, but Davis’ fortune changed in 1934 after moving to Decca. He had his first hit with “Nobody’s Darlin’ but Mine,” which he followed with “It Makes No Difference Now,” which he purchased from Floyd Tillman. By the late 1930s, he had quit teaching and was appointed Shreveport’s chief of police after serving in the city’s Criminal Court. This is the backdrop for Davis’ biggest success, “You Are My Sunshine.”
In 1939, “You Are My Sunshine” was recorded by two Georgia string bands, the Pine Ridge Boys and the Rice Brothers Gang. Paul Rice wrote the song in north Georgia after being inspired by a poem, and when the Rice Brothers Gang relocated to Shreveport, they began performing on KWKH, which later hosted the Louisiana Hayride. Their version of “You Are My Sunshine” was arranged by New Orleans clarinetist Pud Brown, who was living in Shreveport at the time, and Davis heard the song during one of the group’s radio performances. While early versions of the song give credit to Rice, Davis bought the song outright for an undisclosed sum, putting his name down as cowriter along with bandmate Charles Mitchell, copyrighting the song, and publishing it with Peer Music. This was a fairly common practice at the time. Fats Domino bought a piece of “Land of 1,000 Dances” from a desperate Chris Kenner.
Initially, Davis tried to get other artists interested in recording the song, but when he had no takers he recorded “You Are My Sunshine” himself in February 1940. Davis’ version borrowed heavily from the Rice Brothers’ version. Not only was it a huge hit for Davis, but it became a country music classic.
As if being a highly successful recording artist and politician wasn’t enough—by 1942 Davis was Louisiana’s Public Service Commissioner—Davis also found the time to appear in several movies. In 1944, Davis was elected governor and during his first term had five top five country music hits including “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” which topped the charts and was included in the bio movie, Louisiana.
Davis returned to music full-time in 1948 as his style increasingly became influenced by gospel and sacred music. He returned to politics in 1960 (campaigning on a horse named “Sunshine”), and was elected governor once again. He ran as a “moderate segregationist,” as if such a creature really existed. To his credit though, Davis steered Louisiana through a difficult era as the state avoided the unrest that plagued Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The governor’s office proved to be good luck for Davis as he charted again with “Where the Old Red River Flows.”
After his second term ended, Davis pretty much became a full-time gospel artist. In 1971, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he tried to run for office one more time the following year. He was a nonfactor in the governor’s primary, though, and that ended his political aspirations. Davis would live nearly 30 more years and even perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jimmie Davis died November 5, 2000 at the age of 101.