As promised, National Public Radio's long-awaited piece on Danny Gatton ran on its flagship program ("All Things Considered"), on October 4, 2009: 15 years to the day that the late instrumental musical guitar master -- known as "The Humbler," "The Master Blaster Of The Telecaster," "The World's Greatest Unknown Guitar Player," or simply, "The Telemaster," take your pick -- took his own life, and left us way too soon.
NPR's piece offered a four-and-a-half-minute primer on Gatton's legend, with all basics present and correct, as recounted by Tom Principato, longtime bassist John Previti -- who recalled Danny referring to himself as a "Whitman sampler of music" -- and myself, who'd been interviewed (9/30/09) as the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE LIFE & TIMES OF DANNY GATTON.
Kudos to NPR's producer, Phil Harrell, for being able to pack so much into such a narrow furrow, which -- of course -- is what radio production is all about!
For those who haven't heard the show, go here to find it:
You can also read a complete transcript of all the remarks from those who participated in the program, including myself. Inevitably, my interview with Phil contained way more than he could use on the air, so here is our chat, as I recorded it, on my end. For simplicity, I grouped my responses by subject, as we talked (with minor edits to improve continuity, and eliminate repetition)...enjoy!
INTERVIEW WITH PHIL HARRELL
WHAT ARE THE MOST DISTINCTIVE ERAS OF DANNY GATTON'S CARRER?
Well, there's a couple different periods you can divide it into – the first one would, of course, would be “The Teen Phenom Period,” where he starts experimenting with multi-tracking and overdubbing like his main musical hero, Les Paul.
And, from there, it sort of segues into playing with kids in the neighborhood, and eventually, being recognized by older people that he's playing with in the area, and he starts playing in all these different bands -- bar bands, dance bands, whatever you want to call them.
So there's that basic era, and where it really starts to coalesce into something more serious, of course, is when he gets a little older, in his early '20s. By the late '60s, he's touring with Bobby Charles, a soul guy. He's basically starting out as a hired gun, getting whatever experience he can -- and, in between, making the different forays to places like Nashville -- hoping that somebody will pick up on him, and recognize his talent.
But the real snowball that goes down the hill – in terms of recgonition, at least locally – is when he joins Liz Meyer's bluegrass band, in the early '70s. That's where you start to hear him develop – at least from some of the live tapes I've acquired – those fat runs, rippling banjjo-like rolls, and country experiments with tone...all those things that became so important to the evolution of his style – along with, of course, the melodic sensibility, and his sense of jazz improvisation. And that's the blender that makes up Danny Gatton, the musician.
Like I said, I've got a bootleg recording that somebody sent me – it's from Lisner Auditorium, in Washington, D.C., in 1973. He's basically getting out the electric, and getting down on his signature showcase of that time, “Orange Blossom Special” -- which, in later years, becomes the vehicle for a medley to go into anything and everything from movie themes, to the “Linus And Lucy” theme, and back again.
WASN'T DANNY'S DAD A MUSICIAN, TOO?
That's right – his dad played in big bands in his younger days, before his family put a little pressure on him. You get that question of, “Are you gonna make a living playing that thing, son?” And so, he became a machinist, basically -- and, of course, the cycle would be repreated when Danny comes of age, and his father says, “That's a nice a way to express yourself, son, but it's no way to make a living.”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE DANNY GATTON'S STYLE?
Well, I guess there's two phrases I like to use for that. Number one would be, “A living treasury of American musical styles” -- the roots of music, specifically country, jazz, a little bit of bluegrass – and, of course, the blues, a fixation which became quite a bit more pronounced toward the end.
That's one phrase, because -- unlike a lot of artists who tend to stick to one narrow furrow, Danny, as you probably are very well aware, mixed all of those styles up...sometimes, within the space of a song, or even a solo. So that's description number one.
The other description I'd use is, “The musical sound of thinking out loud,” and what I mean by that is – when you hear something like the live version of “Linus And Lucy” (from PORTRAITS) which then segues into this frenzied “Orange Blossom Special” medley, even within the solos he plays – you can literally almost hear him switching off from this thought, to the next, to the next.
And what's fascinating for the listener is -- you're sitting at home, thinking, “Well, how's he ever going to get out of this?” And somehow, he always does. Like a cat, he kind of lands on his feet. So that's the other phrase I would tend to use.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE DEFINITIVE DANNY GATTON ALBUM?
Well, I wouldn't have called the book UNFINISHED BUSINESS, obviously, if I didn't like the album. So that's one, because it's all-instrumental, and you hear him go through all the different styles that I've just described. So I would point to that.
Earlier in his career, I would look at REDNECK JAZZ as being the definitive statement – again, going from country, to the more redneck stuff, as you would say, the “honky-tonk Eric Clapton” -- to the lengthy instrumental explorations that he does on the live version of “Ode To Billy Joe,” and the elaborate multi-tracking on instrumentals like “Sax Fifth Avenue.”
So, I would point to that – and, later, toward the end of his career, I think he was doing some of his very best material, actually. I would suggest LIVE 9/9/94, which was not long before he passed – it shows you what he sounded like live, no tricks, no gimmicks, just Danny with his rhythm section.
And I would also point to the [RELENTLESS] album that he did with [keyboardist] Joey DeFrancesco – that's another one, if you want to hear him do the pure jazz kind of stuff that he was so good at, you listen to something like his version of “Well You Needn't”...it doesn't get any faster than that.
DANNY HAD SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH FAME, DIDN'T HE?
Well, there were many [brushes with fame], and this is something that gets explored in the book, at great length. Initially, perhaps, the first call you might suggest – or that might come to mind, even locally – was [his tenure] with the Redneck Jazz Explosion, which fused his country and jazz explorations into a more cohesive statement. And, along the way, he ran into Lowell George, from Little Feat – have you ever heard this story?
I heard different versions of this, and I wasn't able to totally pin them down, but he went with his buddy, Phil Zavarella, the owner of Zavarella's Music [to see Lowell at Lisner Auditorium]...somehow, they got backstage, and apparently, Lowell made some comments -– or, supposedly, made some overtures to joining his new band –- he was touring solo, having just left Little Feat. And then, the very next night, he dies; that was a bit of a shock to everyone. As Phil mentioned, Danny said, “Wow, I just had seen him a few hours earlier.”
Steve Wolf, the bass player from many area bands – including Redneck Jazz Explosion – swears that Danny told him he had had talks with Lowell, and was lobbying to add him to the rhythm section, and form a bans. Now, there's a lot of debate about those stories, but what's clear, at least, is that Danny sort of thought that he might be able to go somewhere if he was connected with Lowell, in some way. Don't forget, he had just been to the West Coast.
So that might be brush number one. Brush number two would be some of the overtures that he got during the '80s – John Fogerty wanted him to join his touring band, when he resurrected his career after CENTERFIELD. Have you heard that story?
Well, what happened, basically – according to his drummer, Dave Elliott -- Danny was in the garage, working on a car, when Fogerty called him up -- and made the offer. And he [Danny] said, “Well, I'll think about it,” and that was it. He forgot to call back, apparently, and that's why that didn't go anywhere – such was his reptuation, people [of Fogerty's caliber] would call him on an occasional, semi-regular basis, and think enough of him to add him, at least, as kind of a prominent hired gun to their bands.
And then you've got, maybe, the third major brush, of course – as many people in your area would see it – with the signing of the major label deal with Elektra Records. Right out of the box, he gets a Grammy nominated-albuim in 88 ELMIRA ST. And, unforutnately, it loses that year to Eric Johnson. So there's another example of coming, “Oh, so close, oh, so near, and yet so far” -- because, from the label's perspective, he fails to tour as much as he could to support the records. Therefore, they end up dropping him.
And that sets up the final phase of his career – he goes back to doing these independent one-off records, and it's re-establishing himself through that market, as it were. Why did it take so long [to get signed]? Well, to put it plainly, he didn't tour that much outside of his homegrown area.
As a musician, of course,. “touring is advertising,” as they like to say – if you don't spend that time going out to different areas, and trying to win over different audiences, then, basically, you're not going to be as well-known as somebody who does do that. I mean, technically, he only really did a couple national tours – on his own behalf, [including] the second Elektra album, CRUISIN' DEUCES...and then, of course, earlier in his career as a hired gun for Roger Miller.
They actually went to places like Australia during that era. This would be the late '70s, early '80s. I think I make a comment on this in the book – it's almost as if Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, decided to stick with playing the local pub, and you could see him there every weekend, but he would never have gone beyond that.
DID PEOPLE REALLY CALL HIM "THE HUMBLER"?
That [“The Humbler”] was a nickname going around for quite awhile – that was, of course, stemming from the live tape with Robert Gordon that's now on CD. I've heard other variations on that [nickname]. Many people call him “the greatest unknown guitar player you've never heard”. Some people refer to him as “The Master Bnlaster of The Telecaster,” some, “The Telemaster” -- it seemed to almost change with the mood of the people who saw him, whatever show they saw...because, as you know, no two Danny Gatton shows were quite the same.
WHY DID DANNY GATTON KILL HIMSELF?
Well, as you probably know – there's a whole chapter dedicated to the issues arising from that [suicide death]. Number one, I think he had a long-standing issue with depression – a lot of anecdotes that I got from people, seem to bear that out.
For example, when [former Commander Cody guitarist] Bill Kirchen moved to Washington, D.C., Danny helped him get acquainted with the scene. He gave him gigs that he either didn't want to do, or didn't have time to do. One day, he [Kirchen] remembered being on a corporate gig with him – and, from out of the blue, Danny said something along the lines of, “Don't you just hate this shit?”
Bill looked at him, and thought he was joking, but it dawned on him that he was serious. And, when he tried to probe a little further, Danny kind of shut down, and didn't say anything more about it – so there were anecdotes like that, which were mentioned in the book, that would seem to suggest that [perception].
Number two, he had some physical health issues. And this is something that's [subject to] a little debate – because he was cremated afterwards, so there's no complete report. But he seemed to feel – or had either suffered a series of mini-strokes. This had impared his ability to play. And he had apparently stated, if that happened, he definitely wouldn't want to stick around – because that was the only thing -- other than working on his cars -- that gave him satisfaction, that he was able to do.
So, you've got those two forces coming together – and, as his widow Jan suggested, it was perhaps a case of all the stars falling into alignment, [including] his fears for his health, fears for his security, and...by implication...his family's security...all coming together in a mixture, I guess, of anger and frustration with his own situation. That might be the simplest way to explain it.
Many, many people expressed that sentiment, that it [Danny's action] sort of ccame from out of the blue – there were a few people who did say, “It wasn't the first time he tried, it wsa the first time he'd succeeded.” But Danny had a way of compartmentalizing his life, to the extent that some people maybe knew more what about was going on, than others – and he didn't necesasrily express what on his mind.
More than a few people said, that if his longtime friend, Billy Windsor – who died in January '94 – if had been there, that might not have happened, because Billy was one of those guys that Danny absolutely trusted, that ran interference with the outside world.
Which is another common thread you see in Danny's life story, there always seems to be a need for somebody like that – to take care of business, collect the money, book the gigs, keep people away that aren't perceived as doing any good. He could have done sessions, he could have done film scores, where his music would lend itself to that – and they pay you well, if you're in demand, and he wouldn't have really had to get on a bus all over the 50 states.
People couldn't understand how somebody who had all those things going for him could do something like that. For example, he was supposed to play a wedding gig for a fan in Arizona who was going to pay him something like $8,000, and was even going to fly them all there. A minor example, but a relevant example – and he was also going to do a tour with Arlen Roth, and they were going to work together on projects.
Of course, he's not the first [musician] who fell over that [vocal versus instrumental-only contradiction]. As his sax player, Roger McDuffie, pointed out to me once – unless you have a hit record, or something that keeps you in front of people, it's fairly easy to get overlooked. And he said, “Sad as it is, a lot of legends tend to be forgotten.”
SO DOES DANNY GATTON HAVE A LEGACY, AND IF SO, WHAT IS IT?
I think so – I mean, he has a legacy in the sense that I still field questions and emails from people constantly...not every day, or every week, but on a fairly regular basis. I'll hear from somebody who wants to know more about the man, or what you think his best stuff is – or, as you've just asked, why did he kill himself? I hear all sorts of questions like that.
And I think you can hear shis influence, maybe, in some of the current crop of multi-instrumentalists – people like Bela Fleck, for instance, who has a very heavy bluegrass oprientation to his sound – [or], on the country spectrum, people like Brad Paisley, who've certainly taken that melding of country and jazz and other musics into a different level. So I think his influence and his fingerprints are still being felt, yes, and beyond the immediate area of Washington, D.C.
And also, there's been quite a few posthumous releases, as you probably are aware – that's something, even at the cult level, that has fed into that interest that helps keep the whole body of his music alive for the next generation that wants to know more about it.
Danny Gatton Corner
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