The passage of time is a complicated and mysterious thing. It's something we never think about, until some anniversary or other reminds us of its passing – and forces us to think about our mortality. However, it can also lend a dose of perspective that's hard to come by, when the latest, greatest phenomenon in any creative field is enjoying their day in the sun.
This is especially true of popular music, where today's trend quickly becomes tomorrow's curiosity, such as the solo crooners and quirky instrumentals that served as the soundtrack of British life in the early '60s – before the Beatles dropped their first single, “Love Me Do,” and changed that equation forever.
Though much of its sales were concentrated around the Fab Four's Liverpool stronghold, every guitarist who heard “Love Me Do” now had to think about learning to sing, and write their own songs – or risk falling behind in the race of chart success.
On the flipside, there are plenty of musicians who never become household worlds, but persist in people's memories, long after they pass on. So it is with Danny Gatton, who left us too soon in 1994 – yet remains an influential name among guitar players, although he never scored a Top 40 pop hit, and rarely toured nationally. In his lifetime, much of his exposure came through his two major homegrown releases, Redneck Jazz (1978), and Unfinished Business (1987) – which served as the title of my book.
I've covered cult heroes of all shapes and sizes in my writing career, but the aura surrounding Danny Gatton -- and his jaw-dropping instrumental ability – puts him near the top of that list. We're closing on 20 years since Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton saw the light of day, yet I still get emails at a steady clip to this website.
Every now and then, however, you get one that reminds you of why you did the work. Ronnie Joyner's email (August 16) is only the latest such example. He's recorded a fine, rockabilly-driven tribute, “It's Alright, Rest Easy, Dan,” whose dclivery – and chorus – tells you what you need to know: “Well, listen now, I feel you near, I got a message that you'll want to hear/It's alright, rest easy, Dan – everything's fine, with Holly, and Jan.” You can hear it at the link – which you can cut and paste below, or hit from my Links page.
You'll want to hear Ronnie's other songs, like “Girl Too Beautiful,” about the doomed Twenties silent screen idol, Barbara LaMarr – which he's posting at a steady clip on his YouTube page. (See that link, too, for further reference.)
But like all true deep divers, Ronnie didn't leave it there – he also shared his thoughts about what inspired “It's Alright,” followed by his own recollections about Danny's life and legacy.
I post them here, because they definitely show – along with the other various bits and pieces on the “Danny Gatton” corner section of this website – the depth of his legend, whether you know him as “The Humbler,” “The Master Blaster of the Telecaster,” or “The Telemaster.” Enjoy, dig in, and remember, there's always room for one more.
RONNIE JOYNER: WRITING “IT'S ALRIGHT” (8/16/21 email)
Hi, Ralph — my name is Ronnie Joyner! I’m from DC, but I live down in Charlotte Hall, just 10 minutes from where Danny Gatton lived in Newburg. I’m a singer and rhythm guitar player in a rockabilly band called Flea Bops — and have been since 1992. My band opened for Danny a couple times at Tornado Alley in Wheaton, Maryland.
I don’t know why it took me so long to read your book about Danny, but I finally read it about six months back and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What an epic accounting you did of Danny’s life and career. Invaluable! Reading your book recharged my consciousness about Danny, so I got the urge to do what I usually do when that happens — write a song and make artwork.
The COVID-19 layoff from gigging encouraged me to finally learn GarageBand so I could start recording demos of my original songs that have been piling up. It’s been fun and I’ve uploaded about 21 songs to YouTube over the last year.
So, I wrote a song about Danny. My son played electric guitar on the recording and I gave him the direction to play like Danny (haha — impossible!), and he did a pretty good job. I told him to play with the vibe of what Danny played on “Driving Wheel,” right down to paying homage to Danny’s lead break, which is a lick Danny liked to play over and over throughout his career.
Meanwhile, I did an illustration of Danny that I used for the page graphic on the YouTube “video.” It’s not really a video — it’s really just a static image — but it looks pretty cool.
Incidentally, my band played at the Sam’s Crab House tribute, and I designed/illustrated the commemorative t-shirt for the event.
Anyway, for obvious reasons, I thought you might enjoy checking it out:
GROWING UP WITH DANNY (8/16/21 email)
“It’s Alright, Rest Easy, Dan” is a song I wrote about guitar legend Danny Gatton. The Telemaster. The Humbler. By the time of his death in 1994 at age 50, Danny was recognized by many folks as arguably the greatest guitar player ever. While I didn’t know Danny, he was in the orbit of my life for as long as I can remember because of my father.
My dad loved hot guitar, and Danny could play some hot-ass guitar. Plus, Danny was from the same Washington, DC neighborhood as my dad. Dad was two years older than Danny. They didn’t know each other, but Dad knew all about the kid from Elmira Street who was a guitar burner in the still-early days of rock-n-roll in the late 1950s. Dad was born on January 17, 1943 and Danny was born on September 4, 1945.
Oddly enough, Danny and I share the same birthday, although I didn’t come along until 1963. Dad saw Danny play while Danny was just a teenager gigging with a local band called the Offbeats. And Dad followed Danny’s upward trajectory through the 1960s and into the 1970s. I still have Dad’s copy of the Danny & the Fat Boys' 1975 45-RPM single “Harlem Nocturne” on Aladdin Records. It was magical to me. Danny’s take on that classic song became one of his signature tunes.
Dad had neighborhood pride, so Danny was a made-man forever in Dad’s eyes. And Dad knew good guitar. It was all around him. In fact, Dad’s best friend was another neighborhood kid named Dwight Clark. Dwight’s brother was none other than Roy Clark, another legendary picker. Again, I was always in the wake of Danny as he (and my family) moved further and further away from DC over the years. Danny moved to nearby Oxon Hill, Maryland in the 1960s, and my family moved to Oxon Hill shortly thereafter. Danny and his wife (Jan) later moved to Accokeek, Maryland, and it was there they had their only child (Holly).
When I got married in 1989, my wife (Carla) and I bought a house in Accokeek. In 1988 Danny and his family moved to rural Newburg, Maryland, and my family moved to nearby Charlotte Hall, Maryland in 2002. And always there was Danny’s music around me. My dad was nearly ten years gone by then, but I met Danny in 1993 — and Dad would have been amazed.
I was in a rockabilly band (Flea Bops) that was on the undercard of a Danny Gatton gig at Tornado Alley in Wheaton, Maryland. I met him and watched his set in awe from right in front of the stage. We played one more gig with Danny, but it would be the last.
Sadly, Danny, a sufferer of depression, shockingly took his own life on October 4, 1994. Here was a guy that, from the outside looking in, seemed to have it all. He could play the guitar like nobody else alive. He had a wonderful family. And he lived in an old farmhouse with lots of surrounding land and a big garage for his hot rods.
But depression is a dangerous thing, so much so that anyone suffering from it is capable of a desperate act to escape it — even if it means leaving devastated loved ones behind.
My song is a prayer sent to Danny. If I could tell him something to relieve his immortal soul (if it needs relieving), it would be, “Hey, Danny, it’s alright now. Rest easy — everything’s fine with your wife and daughter.” I don’t know Holly or Jan, so I’m not really qualified to say they’re fine. But everything I’ve read about them seems to indicate that they soldiered through the tough times after Danny’s death, and are now doing great in their lives. Because of how life ended for Danny, it’s hard to hear his name and not think of that tragic finish. My way of shaking that off is to play some of his music. His guitar playing is so amazing that you can’t help but get swept up in its genius — and soon you’re thinking of nothing but goodness.