Danny Gatton

Finishing the Business
Finishing the Business

For most musicians, the road to success is like skipping stones: often arbitrary and elusive, just as the prize beckons within reach. However, when the subject being scrutinized avoids the fray by choice, the quest only grows ever more fascinating to outsiders. Guitarist Danny Gatton gave that impression while being interviewed for a ca. 1974 feature in the Unicorn Times, a Washington, D.C.-area alternative newspaper once dedicated to supporting the local arts scene.
The article is by Richard Harrington, who would spend the next 20 years of his life covering Gatton’s various phases. At 29, Gatton had already crowded more musical experiences into a lifetime than his peers could imagine; his reputation around the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. circuit was unassailable. He had progressed from hot teenage phenomenon to grinding out light jazz for local restaurant crowds, touring with established names like Roger Miller, and establishing himself as a serious rival to Roy Buchanan, D.C.’s other unofficial “King of Throwdown.”
By the end of the ’70s, Gatton would see fans trailing after him with tape recorders, trying to capture that one gig that revealed how he pulled off the jaw-dropping speed, uncanny triple-picking accuracy, and comping of B-3 organ chords.
Gatton and bassist Billy Hancock had just quit Liz Meyer’s band when the Unicorn Times article appeared, but a cadre of fans already awaited their next move – the Fat Boys, a roots-rock trio rounded out by drummer Dave Elliott, who had played with Gatton since ’71. Hancock claimed talks were underway with several major labels, and other players were noticing Gatton’s style.
Buchanan and Eric Clapton were the established blues-rock specialists, but Hancock was willing to bet on Gatton’s genre-jumping virtuosity, even if his bandmate’s confidence seemed lacking.
“He knows that he can get up on a stage with anybody, but I think he has trouble getting that out to the people,” Hancock said.
Gatton acknowledged the disconnect in his typical low-key fashion.
“That’s why I quit playing for a while last year. It got to the point where I could never relax and take a rest. Maybe some guy’s coming in this set and he wants to be all flashed out, and then he goes, but something else comes and wants the same thing. It was killing me.”
The same humility extended to Gatton’s knowledge of other stringed instruments (“I ain’t a master of ’em all, by no means. I know most about guitar.”), the Fat Boys’ debut single, “Harlem Nocturne” (“It was the first take and it worked out better for everybody else, so I just let it go by.”), and the new band’s direction (“I will be satisfied after we’re done rehearsing it.”).
But success can be a slippery proposition when the underpinnings are weak or nonexistent, as Hancock learned while gauging reactions to the Fat Boys’ lone album, American Music, from ’75. And in a May ’02 interview for the new biography, he looked back with wry amusement.
“In Billboard, we got a ‘Bubblin’ Under’ [citation],” he recalled. “Of course, being in the record business, I subscribed to all the trades. And every week, a pile would come through the door. Of course, Billboard was the Bible, right? But we bubbled, and fell. It was tough being that close to everything at the same time.”
The pressures hadn’t changed when Gatton signed his first major-label deal (with Elektra) in August, 1990. For a brief period, Gatton found himself thrown into a heady atmosphere where nothing seemed out of reach anymore, as recording engineer Ed Eastridge realized on a tour of the label’s New York offices.
When Gatton wanted company for the tour, he asked Eastridge along. They met an armada of bigwigs and glimpsed, “A room full of women working with chalkboards,” searching for that ever-elusive radio play.
Eastridge spent countless hours on projects like Unfinished Business (NRG Records, 1987). And after the Elektra deal was clinched, his responsibilities expanded to handling Gatton’s live sound. The tour made for impressive stuff, though Gatton expressed a wary assessment of his own chances.
“He treated [the deal] as, ‘Maybe this’ll be cool. We’ll see,'” Eastridge says. “He didn’t want to be told what to do, though. He had definite ideas on what was gonna sell records. Who knew if he was right? You not only have to have a good product, but a pretty good degree of luck.”
Bubbling Over: The Reissue Program
Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of Gatton’s passing from the scene that he dominated for so long – until October 4, 1994, when he ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Maryland farm.
However, his stature as a “player’s player” has quietly grown beyond the admirers who have kept the flame burning, including musicians like saxophonist Roger McDuffie, who worked countless sessions and gigs with Gatton from the ’60s to the mid ’80s.
McDuffie now entertains Maryland crowds with ’60s-’90s-era covers he sings and plays on a solo keyboard. His current act couldn’t be more removed from his roots, which causes him to sardonically call himself a “lounge whore.” But he’s hardly sweating the fact, either, having learned from someone who took an equally laid back view of their own talents.
“His time was gonna come. Everybody knew it,” says McDuffie. “Gatton was just amazing. When you met him, it was, ‘How can anybody play like that?’ It would just astound you. Gatton was the most mellow guy in the whole world.” Where others made a neverending fuss about themselves, “He’d make fun of it, because it was so natural for him to play like that.”
Bobby Hancock, who played rhythm guitar in the Danny Gatton Band and on Redneck Jazz, never ceased to wax amazement at his friend’s off-the-cuff compositional ability.
“Something would flash back to his mind – it could have been a ’50s rock and roll lick, or something – and all of a sudden, he would start playing, and it came out like a symphony, with all these parts happening at once,” Bobby says. “He just thought of it while he was playing, and it came out. It had a bassline and harmonies… unbelievable.”
Gatton’s drive to overcome whatever circumstances he faced onstage or in the studio is legendary. McDuffie recalled wondering how Gatton was going to manage when he split one of his prime picking fingers before a gig at George Mason University in ’83. The answer didn’t take long.
“You could see right down almost to the bone,” McDuffie recalls, laughing. “Just looking at it made me cringe! I asked, ‘How’re you gonna play?’ He took [a bottle of] super glue and poured the whole thing on there. It made his finger look like plastic, and he didn’t miss a damn lick! Nobody knew the difference.”
Gatton’s legacy is, arguably, now more pervasive than ever. NRG Records, the label founded by his mother, Norma, remained the primary outlet for Gatton’s work during his lifetime. She reissued the Redneck jazz (1978) and Unfinished Business (1987) albums after her son’s death, as well as the other albums that established his reputation (including American Music).
Gatton’s music fell temporarily out of circulation after his widow and daughter, Jan and Holly, sued NRG. A settlement transferred copyrights to them, and the albums are now available via Eastridge’s Big Mo label.
Eastridge is responsible for putting out the odds-and-ends compilation, Portraits, the 9/9/94 live album; and Relentless, the fiery matchup with organist Joey DeFrancesco that marked Gatton’s final studio outing.
Jan and Holly formed their Flying Deuces label to oversee the reissues, with help from Eastridge and his stepson, Justin Galenski, who will share the restoration work needed to make future releases feasible.
“Right now, sales are slow, but we are gearing up to push the catalog stuff online, and direct to stores,” Eastridge says. “We will become our own distribution company, as the indie distributors are in such a state of flux.”
However, Holly feels several steps must happen before listeners can hear the fruits of her late father’s tape library. According to Holly, the CDs sold on Big Mo and related websites have not been remastered or altered.
“We are simply selling the merchandise we acquired from the settlement,” she said.
Although the family now has hundreds of hours of tape to sift, some original masters are missing. One of the most notable is Untouchable, an NRG-issued compilation she’d expressed interest in remixing.
The response will depend on which masters remain missing.
“Since we’ve gotten up and running again, people have come crawling out of the woodwork, claiming they own this or that song, without any proof,” Holly says. “To keep the leeches at bay, we’ll probably end up taking some songs off the old albums, putting new ones on, and re-releasing them to the general public.”
She doubts a drastically altered track list will justify keeping the same title, “But using alternate takes, if we can find them, is always a possibility,” she adds.
Holly thinks that course is the most practical until the family can decide on future releases. New artwork will probably be required, too, “Since [Danny’s publishing company] Frog Pond retained those rights,” she says.
Galenski and Eastridge spent a day last fall cataloguing tapes in preparation for the reissues. The volume of tapes has caused the participants to joke that they can release a new CD per year for the rest of their lives.
“Now, I don’t know if that’ll come to pass. But the public will definitely be hearing some awesome new music by Danny Gatton,” Holly says.
The reissue program may start with a remix of Redneck Jazz, as well as a 1988 session that paired Gatton with Buddy Emmons, whose deft pedal-steel work played such a major role in the ’70s-era Redneck Jazz Explosion.
“Justin is going to play an integral role in this, as he will be digitizing and remixing the analog tapes,” Holly says.
Eastridge hopes to kick off the program with Redneck Jazz, “Probably with bonus tracks, and perhaps minus the Evan Johns tracks,” he says. The same treatment is being planned for other NRG-era reissues of Untouchable:Redneck JazzExplosion, Live!, which captures the legendary December 31, 1978, gig from Washington’s Cellar Door club and The Humbler, “If [Jan and Holly] can get a license from BMG,” Eastridge said.
Eastridge started mixing the 1978 Cellar Door tapes in early March.
“When we finish that, we’ll start the ’88 Birchmere sessions with Emmons,” he says. “They are very cool, and probably the best example of Gatton with Funhouse, which was a great combination.”
Funhouse’s lineup marked one of the most overtly jazz-oriented bands Gatton ever fronted, swelling to two, three, and even four horns when the mood took him.
Eastridge describes the other existing tapes as a “treasure trove.”
“Much of it is poor-quality, but there are some fairly professional board mixes, too,” he says. “I’m extremely excited by the cassettes Holly provided. We want to offer them in some format.”
A quarterly “Danny Gatton Concert” series is also being considered, which listeners could download for marginal cost; each release would come with biographies, pictures, and recollections of colleagues who played that particular night.
Others who worked with Gatton are also readying releases. Hancock intends to bring back American Music, issued long ago on the classic R&B label Aladdin, that he revived just for the occasion.
“I know he had some deal with Norma on American Music, but he would want to cut a deal with Holly before he released any new stuff,” adds Hancock.
Guitarist Arlen Roth, who shared Gatton’s passion for hot rods – and his frustration with the music business’ operating procedures – is overseeing a conversion of his late friend’s Hot Licks instructional videos, Danny Gatton: Telemaster, and Danny Gatton 2: Strictly Rhythm Guitar, onto DVD.
Guitarist Evan Johns, who played in several Gatton bands, vows to resurrect Redneck Jazz, on which he wrote and sang three songs, and played a key collaborative role in recording. Nobody ever wrote a contract for the album, so Big Mo isn’t entitled to sell it, Johns contends.
“No contract means the band owns it ’til they make a deal with somebody. We don’t even owe studio time,” he says.
Johns also intends to press for the royalties he claims not have to seen from the album.
“If you look at Redneck Jazz, I was not a sideman,” he says. “Three of the eight songs were 100 percent mine. I was a featured vocalist, featured guitar soloist – the only guy ever to take a solo on a Danny Gatton record (‘Ugly Man’). I was the arranger of all my songs.”
The proof is in the response, he adds.
“Rock stations still played ‘Ugly Man,’ not ‘Redneck Jazz,’ which I don’t remember hearing on the radio.”
Holly has never spoken with Johns, but says the estate has only sold about 10 copies of Redneck Jazz under the settlement.
“If he had a problem with the album and felt he was getting shafted, why did he wait until now to bring it up?” she says. “I’ll be glad to pay him his share off those 10 CDs.”
Anyone else who can prove they are owed money will be treated likewise, although Holly says there are limits.
“I’m not responsible for anything that happened prior to our establishing this company,” she adds.
Tom Principato, who played with Gatton in a rare two-guitar lineup on the 1984 album, Blazing Telecasters, has also issued a DVD of that era. The release is taken from a May ’84 gig shot for Maryland Public TV – not the gig that yielded the album.
The band includes Gatton’s longtime bassist, John Previti, keyboardist Mike Sucher, and drummer Tony Martucci. Principato and Gatton trade licks on two standards – the Benny Goodman/Charlie Christian song “7 Come 11” and Jimmy Smith’s “Back At The Chicken Shack” – and four originals, including “How’s Your Sister,” a rare collaboration between the two.
Eastridge also wants to see what happened to audio and video of a March 2, 1990, gig at Washington, D.C.’s Roxy. “I edited those, and mixed the audio,” he says.
So far, the only officially released material has surfaced on Portraits – a riproaring medley of “7 Come 11,” the Peanuts theme (“Linus & Lucy”), and “Orange Blossom Special,” which allowed Gatton to unveil frenetic bluegrass runs under his sawblade guitar sound.
Licensing hassles eventually forced the project to be scrapped, though Eastridge thinks a DVD release might make sense, depending on economics.
Bubbling Under: Revisiting The Legacy
Where the reissues leave Gatton’s legacy remains to be seen; what the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. audiences understood, the record business didn’t – and vice versa. Gatton’s documented reluctance to tour nationally also reduced his chances of reaching a wider audience, though Eastridge suggests a more basic explanation.
“I don’t think Danny was particularly commercial,” he says. “I don’t think it was accessible to Joe Blow. He always talked about Joe Blow, and how he wanted to reach the common guy. I think what tortured him the most was some compulsion to be better, to always put out something slightly better. I don’t know where it came from.”
McDuffie expresses a more pessimistic viewpoint, citing the time his own influences moved away from the ’40s and ’50s players he’d initially admired. “If you’re a new kid learning sax and guitar, you’re gonna listen to who’s hot now. Time marches on. Sad as it is, a lot of legends are forgotten.”
Brawner Smoot takes a longer-range view. He managed Gatton during the Redneck Jazz Explosion era, when they thought nothing of a 14-hour drive to Nashville so they could retrieve the master tapes of “Rock Candy” – whose frantic interplay between Gatton and Emmons is rightly celebrated as one of Redneck Jazz‘s highlights.
In Smoot’s view, anyone who saw Gatton during his ’70s peak walked away with an experience that transcended boundaries and genre conventions; why else would he call an album Relentless?
“I don’t think his audience ever was just guitar players, but seeing Gatton live is part of his appeal,” Smoot said. “He had such power live. He’s already got a legacy amongst guitarists. It wasn’t just his technical virtuosity; the guy was filled with soul, and you could feel that.”
As well-crafted as Gatton’s albums sound, Roth hopes audiences appreciate the live alchemy that forms such an essential bedrock of Gatton’s reputation.
“Recording was one percent of what he did. It’s a battle for any performer to deal with the implications of recording,” Roth says. “When you perform live, you see the notes get thrown out there, and you see the reaction right away. Then it’s over and done with.”
As far as Roth is concerned, Gatton’s effortless blending of blues, country, jazz, and rockabilly will remain his truest calling card.
“He was a direct link to the original sort of rockabilly and rock and roll. He wasn’t a retro guy. You could hear in his playing that this is true American music, true Americana.”
For Eastridge, the proposed concert series could be a crucial linchpin to keep Gatton’s music alive, and reach a broader audience. That’s why he, Jan, and Holly are checking with downloading experts for advice on handling the potential piracy issues associated with such a venture.
“It seems unavoidable. But if we keep the price per download inexpensive, it will hopefully serve as advertising for the commercially-available materials, and create a buzz about Danny’s music – which needs to be heard,” Eastridge declares. “I would really like to see Dannyrecognized as one of the bonafide guitar legends of the 20th century.”
Ralph Heibutzki is the author of the new biography, Danny Gatton: Unfinished Business, set for release in June by Backbeat Books. He also authored “Unfinished Business: The Life & Times of Danny Gatton” in the April ’99 issue of VG.
Special thanks to all the people involved in this article, including Ed Eastridge, Evan Johns, and Holly Gatton. For more on Gatton’s recorded work, and career, log onto dannygatton.com, or evanjohns.com.

Above Photo: Evan Johns

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.