Danny Gatton

Unfinished Business
Unfinished Business

The reality is obvious to any aspiring musi-cian, especially when another gig’s not guaranteed: compromise adds zeroes to paychecks.

But anyone who saw Danny Gatton on his Washington, D.C./rural Maryland stomping grounds knew that wouldn’t happen. In a music business long buffered against surprise, the late guitarist swam stubbornly upstream, roaming nightly across the musical spectrum – from country, to gospel, rockabilly, soul, and standards. “Redneck jazz” was Gatton’s calling card for playing whatever and whenever he wanted, as he told friend and archivist Brawner Smoot in 1977, “I have no direction and I never will. If I had to play a whole night of anything, I’d be bored to death.”

Gatton’s legend has only grown since October 1994, when he ended his life, aged 49, by self-inflicted gunshot wound at his southern Maryland home. But speculation over the tragic causes hasn’t blurred memories of his blinding speed, effortless genre-hopping, flawless technique, and never-ending appetite for tinkering and problem-solving.

Artists of all calibers have paid tribute, including country singer Vince Gill, ace guitarist Albert Lee, and avant-rocker Lou Reed, while over his last two decades, Gatton spurned calls to tour with the likes of John Fogerty, Mel Tillis, and big band titan Woody Herman, for staying home with his wife, Jan, and daughter, Holly.

Such decisions marked Gatton as a marketable commodity who couldn’t stand to be marketed. Nobody understood that better than drummer Dave Elliott and bassist John Previti, who played beside him longer than anybody else – though the ride could often be thrilling and confusing.

When Little Feat’s late guitarist Lowell George heard Gatton’s Redneck Jazz LP (1978), he made the case to Warner Brothers’ board, which ruled against it by one vote.

“It was Pick Of The Week in Billboard,” recalls Elliott. “I was sittin’ in my dad’s basement, not being able to afford rent, readin’ about the album I [had] just played on!”

Déjà vu struck again in ’87, when Columbia dropped hints of a deal as the boys were touring Canada. “Of course, we all called home,” laughs Elliott. “And Danny goes, ‘Don’t get too fired up, anything could happen.’ For about a week, we were on cloud nine – and something happened.”

When Elektra eventually signed Gatton, it reckoned Elliott’s services weren’t required on the next album.

“It crushed me, too. But Danny had been trying for this all his life, so I was still his friend.”

Not for nothing did fans call Gatton “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player,” or “The Humbler,” which referred to the ferocious chops and instincts that could cut veteran players to shreds. Yet calculation or competition rarely assumed a place in his lexicon; for much of his life, Gatton’s expression came on homegrown indie releases like Redneck Jazz, or his debut, American Music (Aladdin ALPS-102: 1975).

“Well, it’s funny – it’s the name of one of his albums, but he was relentless,” says Previti. “I had a real sense of tapping into an earlier era – I don’t know how to explain it, but when we did a Fats Domino tune, for instance, I just felt like it was 1956, playing with Fats Domino. It was almost a mystical experience. It probably was.”

Music assumed importance from the get-go. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1945, the primarily self-taught Gatton was playing clubs by age 14. Early in life, he discovered the gift that would drive countless studio marathons, and others to sleepless distraction – including the man who’d become his favorite engineer.

“He would erase and redo solos more than anybody I’ve worked with,” says Ed Eastridge, who manned the boards for Unfinished Business (1987), and Cruisin’ Deuces (Elektra, 1993). “He just wanted them perfect. And he had perfect pitch, which I think is an affliction – I’d hate to have it.”

In Gatton’s eyes, his “clam filter” saved many a mistake from reaching listeners, no matter how minute the differences seemed. Eastridge’s wife, Dixie, recalls hearing how a “…pretty famous guitar teacher in D.C.” told the late Dan Senior and Norma Gatton, “You’re wasting your money – everything I play, this kid hears it once, and he can play it back, better.”

Such painstaking style suited Gatton’s musical growth, fueled by the influence of guitar pioneer Les Paul, who stated for Rolling Stone‘s 1989 “Hot Guitarist” profile, “He’s taken everything I ever dreamed of, everything I’ve ever done, and incorporated it into his own thing.”

The late pianist Dick Heintze, whose passing earned him a dedication on Redneck Jazz, also provided Gatton priceless musical mentoring. So did the style of jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, as well as fellow D.C. hotshot country picker Roy Clark.

Yet the late Roy Buchanan may have provided the most important catalyst when Gatton followed his jamming partner’s preference for Telecaster guitars – which would endure whatever modifications he deemed necessary to achieve his most highly treasured sounds (see sidebar).

Buchanan’s Polydor Records contract also showed the possibility – if not the reality – of earning a living off music, though Gatton’s sheet metal and construction work beside his father would prove handy for their Tele tinkering.

By the time Elliott started working with Gatton and bassist/singer Billy Hancock in 1971, it didn’t take long to appreciate his new colleague’s finesse.

“I was too busy then – when Danny hired me he said, ‘Look, you’re laying down the two and four [beat], but you’re doing a lot of shit on top of it. Stop.’ The first rehearsal I had, I realized they had all this experience – they knew the way to make music happen.”

Now calling themselves Fat Chance, playing everything “…from Hank Williams to Elvis Presley to Miles Davis to B.B. King,” Elliott remembers struggling to earn $30 per night at clubs like Bethesda, Maryland’s Psychedelly, where they’d flip a coin to see who’d get the pittance.

Even when things looked up, they still went wrong.

“Roy was playing My Mother’s Place [in D.C.], we were playing these Village Inn pizza parlors – and one night, it was so crowded they fired us! I should have known, right then and there, it’s time to get out of the business!”

Ironically enough, the exact same thing happened to Gatton 20 years later, notes Elliott.

“The owner said, ‘Look, your band’s here every Thursday, but I’m gonna let you go, I can’t handle the crowd.’ And Danny just looked at him and said, ‘Why don’t you hire more waitresses?'”

But the trio didn’t stay down long. When Gatton joined the country/bluegrass Liz Meyer & Friends in ’73, he persuaded them to hire Elliott and Hancock, too. By a pure coincidence, Ed Eastridge – who’d heard about Gatton – finally met him during a brief period playing upright bass in Meyer’s band.

“The speed never slayed me, although I was impressed with the speed,” declares Ed. “And the cleanliness, the forcefulness of the phrasing – it’s so in your face it just grabbed me and took me with it, more than any player I’ve ever encountered.”

Like all local bands, however, the Liz Meyer experience ran its course; when Ed’s regular outfit resumed gigging, he jumped, followed by the Elliott/Gatton/Hancock axis, who became the Fat Boys in ’74. Buoyed by Hancock’s purchase of the long-defunct R&B Aladdin label’s moniker, they divided their time between gigging and scraping up a budget to record American Music.

In hindsight, the first glimpse of Gatton’s guitar prowess sounds like most debuts – hamstrung by low-budget circumstances, yet hardly lacking in enthusiasm, as shown by the driving title cut, on which The Clovers woo-woo through a muscular, dynamic solo. Diversity was the key, from rockabilly (“Ubangi Stomp”) to Benny Goodman (“Good Enough To Keep”) and a crystalline “Harlem Nocturne,” whose single (Aladdin 5551B) release marked Gatton’s first exposure. It remained a longtime showpiece, even cropping up again on Cruisin’ Deuces.

“Actually, I didn’t even like it,” says Elliott. “And that was the first time I’d ever been on any album. Danny and Billy had done lots of stuff like that – I surprised myself by being disappointed ’cause it didn’t sound like us live.”

Gatton seconded the emotion, as Smoot’s reissue notes hint. “It wasn’t us. We did so many things with different guys that didn’t play with us.”

According to Elliott, Gatton’s frustration over Hancock’s handling of the business side (“He got an office in Alexandria [Virginia], but didn’t have a phone for two or three months.”) also led him to pronounce the Fat Boys a dead issue by the summer of ’76.

After a short-lived Danny Gatton Band (with ex-Buchanan bassist/guitarist Tiny McCloud), Elliott and Gatton retained Hancock for the shortlived Rockabilly Avalanche. Its name proved apt, as singer/guitarist Evan Johns’ recruitment produced “…too many different personalities,” in Elliott’s opinion.

Further changes came when another Buchanan stalwart arrived in Chuck Tilley. “Hell of a singer, hell of a songwriter…had a big problem with Southern Comfort – ended his career with us,” laughs Elliott.

1976-’78s transitional confusion is why Redneck Jazz (NRG NCD 3760: 1991) lists Johns’ and Tilley’s vocals with three drummers (including Elliott) and two bassists, including Previti – whose intuitive ear would cement a relationship as Gatton’s other most valuable player.

To hear Previti tell it, his entry into the fold came naturally, too, when he debuted with Gatton at Georgetown’s Crazy Horse on December 27, 1976 – and discovered an employer who didn’t bother telling others what to play; since the players’ ears, eyes, and hands had to do the talking, anyway.

“What doesn’t get talked about much is, when he played any particular tune, he covered all the parts,” says Previti. “He could phrase like a horn player or an organist; I got used to that very quickly.

“He didn’t always play like a guitar player – he always knew what everyone was supposed to be playing. Over the 18 years I played with him, I think we rehearsed four or five times.” For that matter, adds Previti, Gatton never spoke to the audience until early in the ’80s.

Personnel aside, Redneck Jazz‘s contents showcase a quantum leap in Gatton’s style. With the “magic dingus box,” he could comp whatever keyboard parts he desired, while his deft, assertive leads spoke for themselves on “Comin’ Home, Baby,” and the 11-minute “Canadian Sunset,” which reaches beautiful, country and jazz-styled peaks, aided by Nashville pedal steel legend Buddy Emmons.

Few knew it, but Redneck Jazz‘s near-miss with Warner Brothers – which Elliott didn’t learn about until years afterward – hadn’t been the first.

“Near-miss” became a running theme, especially when George vowed to showcase Gatton in Little Feat, and let the world know what they’d been missing, according to Jay Monterose, Gatton’s guitar tech.

“And we all know what happened – Lowell didn’t make it to the next day (due to a drug overdose, in Washington, D.C.). Dead, right there, and Danny was leavin’ with him.”

“Danny just figured it was another of those promises that never came true, until he read about it in the paper or heard it on the radio,” says Elliott.

Bad as that seemed, the next break proved more crippling in the most literal sense, when an accidental cut on his right hand sidelined him for a year, into ’79. He’d only recently started what many fans regarded as his most potent ensemble, the Redneck Jazz Explosion, with Buddy Emmons and bassist Steve Wolf.

The Washington Post tagged Gatton “…preeminent guitarist of the post-World War II generation,” while the New York Times‘ John Rockwell declared, “Mr. Gatton deserves his own cult.”

A prime snapshot of the Explosion has come in his mother’s CD issue (on her NRG label) of a December 31, 1978, Washington, D.C. gig notable for Wolf’s emergence as a third soloing voice behind the Emmons/Gatton guitar team.

All sound like they’re having a ball passing melodic lines among Horace Silver’s “Opus De Funk,” an American Music standby, as well as driving, double-time takes on Redneck Jazz‘s “Rock Candy,” and “Comin’ Home Baby” – enhanced by the dingus box. Yet Gatton’s relentless perfectionism kept the tapes dormant until their ’95 reissue, as Monterose notes.

“That was the most exciting New Years’ Eve I ever spent in my life – it was incredible, but Danny could never cop to makin’ a record of that stuff.”

As the ’80s began, Gatton gradually regained his facility, gigging with Roger Miller and rockabilly revival cat Robert Gordon, whose oft-bootlegged Berkeley Square Nightclub show has been reissued as The Humbler (NRG NCD 6842: 1996). He didn’t record under his own name again until Unfinished Business (NRG NCD-04279: 1987), which many aficionados consider his best record.

By that point, the redoubtable Previti had returned after a four-year absence (“I wanted to study upright [bass] in earnest”); Ed Eastridge had become his main engineer, aided by a seemingly unlimited stamina.

“He was ruthless in the studio – most people get worn out after about three hours,” Eastridge said. “Not him! He could sit there with headphones on, cranked up, chain-smokin’. ‘Have at it!'”

Even so, the endless hours didn’t make one particular anniversary night easier, as Dixie Eastridge attests.

“Danny would work on stuff forever – he’d spend weeks just getting snare drum sounds,” she said. “He wouldn’t quit, and Ed kept saying, ‘I gotta, go’ and Danny would say, ‘Okay, let’s do one more take.’ Next thing, Ed threw a chair – Danny thought it was pretty funny.”

As Gatton albums go, Unfinished Business is pure as they come, opening with his Les Paul tribute, “Cherokee,” while “Nit Pickin'” saluted jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. “Lappin’ It Up” harked back to Gatton’s days with Emmons, followed by the down and dirty “Notcho Blues” (the title reportedly slapping away at Buchanan: “It’s not yo blues”), and the frantic rockabilly of “Fingers On Fire.”

Previti himself got a kick out of Jackie Gleason’s “Moonlight Serenade.”

“I’m amazed it didn’t get more acclaim because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. He played it as a chord melody, and I always liked ‘The Honeymooners.'”

For insight into the guitarist’s composition methods, look no further than “Sky King,” a tribute to late saxophonist King Curtis.

“I said, ‘Hey, man, did you get that from the ‘Superman’ [TV] theme? He said, ‘I think I did.’ Danny did that a lot – you hear a lot of quotes from various other songs,” notes Ed Eastridge.

When the Elektra deal happened, Gatton appeared to have finally won a shot at some measure of the acclaim he should have enjoyed all along. The ’90s promised renewed musical energy, as shown by topping Guitar Player‘s Best Country category for 1990-’94, and being named Rolling Stone‘s Hot Guitarist for ’89. His Elektra debut, 88 Elmira Street – named for his birthplace – received a Grammy nomination, but lost out to Texas guitarist Eric Johnson.

Elmira Street and its follow-up, Cruisin’ Deuces – on which Eastridge literally spent a year and a half working beside Gatton – are considered triumphs in commercial record-making. Behind the scenes, however, Elektra decided Elliott wouldn’t be needed on the next album.

“Danny played some tapes, stuff he’d been doing with Shannon Ford – real funk stuff,” says Elliott. “And they liked that better, evidently, than the stuff we’d been doing. So Shannon got my position.”

Similarly, the late Billy Windsor – who’d held the singer/rhythm guitarist slot in several late-’80s Danny Gatton bands, and had known Gatton since high school – saw no demand existed for his talents, either. Too polite to push the issue, Windsor exited the picture (later becoming Gatton’s manager, though Previti recalls him saying, “I’ve really been beat up over this”).

Finally, Eastridge recorded what became Elmira Street at his Kensington, Maryland, studio, only to have all but one track rejected, “…’cause [A&R man] Howard Thompson wanted to do it at Bearsville, ’cause he thought they’d get a bigger drum sound.”

“[The Bearsville experience] was such an expensive thing – Bearsville was an estate – with houses – and Danny would just stay in there, hours and hours and hours,” says Previti. “But certainly not longer than he did with Eddie. And he always loved the sound Eddie got – especially the Tele sound.”

From Elektra’s viewpoint, Gatton’s reluctance to live out of suitcases made their job tougher, since restoring antique cars at home seemed far less troubling to him. Eastridge recalls Thompson declaiming, in his clipped British accent, “If we could just get him to tour… “

“I used to badger him about it. I’d say ‘Man, I know it’s a bummer, you’ve gotta support this second album or you’ll be dropped,'” the engineer says. “I think he was marketable – he was just a homebody, a country guy. He hated being in the city.”

Not surprisingly, when Thompson left Elektra, his label’s support for Gatton went with him. Elliott remembers the next phone call.

“Danny asked me to come down, ’cause he’d recorded 40 songs for almost a solid month, and they turned ’em all down.”

In Previti’s eyes, leaving had only been a positive move, freeing Gatton to pursue the angular instrumental muse major labels often pronounced “unmarketable.”

“I went to his farm that day I found out. I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He said, “Well, I’m not.'”

Weary of the major-label circus, Gatton returned to the Eastridges’ Big Mo label for Relentless, a joint album with New York organist Joey DeFrancesco, and In Concert 9/9/94 (Big Mo 2028: 1996). According to Dixie Eastridge, her husband suggested the former album’s pairing, since the 23-year-old Francesco didn’t know Gatton.

“The two of them really hit it off – they were so similar, they sold cars. ‘Kindred Spirits’ – Danny wrote it about that experience,” says Dixie.

Eastridge also remains proud of the New York Stories Volume I (Capitol) album that paired Gatton with hornmen like Joshua Redman and Bobby Watson.

“It’s mostly Danny’s songs that they do,” he said. “We overdubbed. They did the rhythm tracks in New York. Somebody scored this stuff, just workin’ from tapes, and Danny was playing by ear, but always wanted to overdub his part. He got the producer to bring it back to my studio, and we overdubbed all the guitar solos.”

For 9/9/94, the object boiled down to taping a hot gig that would merit a release, something Gatton’s nature had never permitted (see sidebar). Previti remembers feeling less than impressed with the gig at Alexandria’s Birchmere, whose roof Gatton had raised so many times before.

“None of us thought we could hit our asses with our hands that night,” he said. “I just felt like I was ruining everything. It sounds like a really nice performance; I’m really glad it’s captured on a CD. We weren’t being falsely modest; we thought we were stinking up the joint.”

Between those upcoming releases, Gatton had no shortage of projects to corral his restless energies, including an R&B album, production work, possibly demoing material for Gordon’s sister, and a joint project with singer/organist Tommy Lepson. The world seemed limitless when Previti last spoke with Gatton on October 4, 1994, at 7:30 p.m. Two hours later, he was gone.

“Obviously, I didn’t get any indication he was feeling that way,” says Previti. “He was talking about future plans; it was actually a great conversation. Some people have surmised that he had had a stroke – he never said anything to me, but there seems to be other evidence. Whether that had anything to do with it, I don’t know. He didn’t sound inordinately depressed.”

Other bits and pieces gradually emerged. Windsor’s sudden heart attack death in the previous year had deeply affected Gatton. Who would handle the business since his friend had done that job so well? Previti also remembers Gatton saying that maintaining his farm for seven years had been difficult, a hint of the depression he’d long battled.

Without Gatton to say, a definitive answer may never emerge. But nobody thinks, as some press reports have speculated, that losing Elektra was the final straw, since he’d left them without any money.

Given time, Elliott guesses Gatton might have shelved his trio with Previti and drummer Timm Biery to re-form the Fat Boys.

“The last band he had, I almost left after the first set one night, it was so intense,” he said. “It didn’t focus on Danny, it focused on the whole thing – too many people playing too much at once.”

Now back after a long layoff, Elliott finds the circle closing again by playing with Hancock and guitarist Dave Chappell in Falls Church, Virginia – covering vast musical terrain he might never mastered had he not met Danny Gatton.

For Elliott, those experiences were like “…going to grad school for 18 years.”

“For me to have the opportunity – and him to let me do it – shows something about his character, too, because he could have picked any drummer he wanted,” Elliott said.

For Eastridge, working with Danny Gatton made him a better engineer, simply because they pushed each other’s talent past all previously accepted limits. He cites Gatton’s cover of Gene Vincent’s “A Lotta Lovin’,” on Big Mo’s upcoming CD demo/outtake compilation Portraits, as one example.

“He did the snare drum track, and wanted a real swingin’ feel – a snare goin’ bop, bop, ba-ba-bop. I think we worked on that track for 10 hours. I wanted to shoot myself at the end of that session; ‘Wait, back up! We’ve gotta fix that one!’ ‘Which one, man?'”

For Previti, playing with Gatton amounted to a loop that would never end, because of the guitarist’s endless capacity for surprise, which reminds him of the bebop players he works with today.

“I play with a few guys in their 70s who are great jazz musicians – as good as anybody; they’re the real deal,” he says. “The uncanny thing about Danny is that he was relatively young, and whatever he played – from Charlie Christian to anything before or after – I have never heard any single musician play all the things he played, so many styles authentically at one time.

“People talk about his speed, and ability – chops are measured in different ways. It wasn’t speed, it was control. With him, every note was controlled, authentic.”

In whatever way people discover Danny Gatton, Previti has only one wish when they do.

“I just hope they hear his music, and let it register,” he says. “Because they’re hearing the real deal. He was a lot of fun, and when I miss him, it’s [for] a funny thing he would do or play. Among the great music we played, it was his sense of fun that I really miss.

“I was just a little punk when I started playing with him, and he could have fired me, but he never did. He saw something and he just helped me out.”

Big Mo Records, RR1, Box 389C, Thetford Center, VT 05075, phone (802) 785-4225, http://www.bigmo .com, e-mail big.mo.records@ valley.net.

NRG Records, c/o Norma Gatton, PO Box 100, Alpharetta, GA 30009. To order CDs Toll Free: 1-888-4GATTON.

The Official Danny Gatton Website: http://www.bandpages.com/gatton.

The author would like to thank Joe Barden, Dixie and Ed Eastridge, Dave Elliott, Norma Gatton, Jay Monterose, and John Previti for their time and contributions.

Photo: Jay Monterose. Gatton lets rip with the ol’ beer bottle slide – with a full beer for effect, at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1992.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’99 issue.

No posts to display