Sometime in the 1950s, the Reverend Gary Davis acquired several Gibson SJ-200s from Eddie Bell Guitar Headquarters on New York City’s famed Musician’s Row. This marked the beginning of his love affair with the jumbo-bodied “king of the flattops,” which he affectionately called Miss Gibson.
In the mid-1960s, the legendary singer-songwriter and bluesman played one of his SJ-200s in a concert at Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, Ontario. Following the gig, Davis and local poet Bill Hawkins apparently went on a two-week bender. When Davis finally sobered up, with no money to pay his pal back for their hefty bar tabs, he left his Gibson as collateral.
What happened to Davis’s SJ-200 in the ensuing decades is as murky as a Louisiana swamp. But it’s now owned by an artist who respects its history—Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Wilson, who had the good fortune of scoring the guitar several years ago from an Ottawa politician.
When Wilson received the SJ-200, it was not in playable condition, so he took it to local luthier Mike Spicer, at the Peghead in Hamilton, Ontario, for some repair work. Spicer reglued the guitar’s loose braces and sealed several top and back cracks, while also performing a much-needed neck reset. He left alone some previous repairs that are a part of the guitar’s rich history. Spicer’s biggest challenge was making a new moustache-style bridge in Brazilian rosewood and mother-of-pearl as the original part was long gone.
Once restored, Wilson took what he now dubs “the Rev” on the road for a pair of tours with his folk-rock band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. Today, he reserves the guitar for composing and recording. He and his bandmate Colin Linden decided that “anything written on the Rev should include Davis’ spirit and sometimes a line lifted from his writing,” Wilson says. “When Colin plays the SJ-200, Gary Davis’ spirit fills the room. The guitar is a luxury liner, and I’ll play it till the day I die.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.