Update: November, 2002
Danny Gatton CDs Available
If you've heard him ... we need say no more. If not, you are in for a rare treat. See why guitar giants such as Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Joe Pass, Jeff Beck, Joe Perry, Scotty Moore and many others are so amazed by the "Worlds Greatest Unkown Guitarist". CLICK HERE FOR INFO.
Update: April, 2002
Some Gatton History
by Steve Wolf
I was a member of several of Danny's groups and projects including the original Redneck Jazz Explosion. I wanted to pass along a few details that might help to shed light on this period of his career in the mid and late 1970's. The "Redneck Jazz Explosion" band did not record the first "Redneck Jazz" collection as stated below. Buddy Emmons and myself, who later became members of the "Redneck Jazz Explosion Band" were simply guests on the original "Redneck Jazz" red vinyl release, and we played on a single tune each. The "Explosion" band was documented in a later release which is the "Redneck Jazz Explosion" Live at the Cellar Door. The following should help clarify things:
Soon after the "Fat Boys" band Danny started his first serious longer term project as a leader. It was called "The Danny Gatton Band" This group lasted at least a year and included Evan Johns (Guitar/Vocal & song writing), Dave Elliott (Danny's former band mate and drummer with The Fat Boys), and John Previtti (Bass). It was this band that recorded the "Redneck Jazz" album. Evan Johns wrote the title track and coined the term to describe what he saw as Danny's style. Danny loved Buddy Emmons' playing and when the band was doing a gig in Nashville, Danny decided to do a studio session and invite Buddy to join them. The results were the hottest track on the subsequent "Redneck Jazz" record, and a firm mutual respect and budding friendship between Danny & Buddy. The record became a regional hit and served to further solidify Danny's reputation. Shortly before the record was released, however, Danny disbanded the "Danny Gatton Band."
He called me down from Boston where I was living at the time (in early 1978) to be a part of his next project which he dubbed "The Redneck Jazz Explosion." I had done a series of gigs with Danny in the mid 70's when I had become involved with him through his good friend and musical mentor Dick Heintze. (Dick also spent years touring with Roy Buchanan and is featured on early Buchanan recordings.) I arrived back in DC just in time to sit in on one last track for the original "Redneck Jazz" record project. The tune was "Comin' Home Baby" which also featured Dick Heintze.
One of the "Explosion's" first gigs was in Nashville at the now defunct Randy's Pickin' Parlor. Also guest performing with us that evening were three top Nashville session players: guitarist, Bucky Barrett, fiddle player Buddy Spiker and of course, Buddy Emmons on pedal steel. The results were so much fun that Danny soon booked four nights in a row at the legendary Cellar Door in Washington DC. That lineup also included both Buddy Emmons and Spiker. Within a couple of months the band solidified into the quartet heard on the "Redneck Jazz Explosion Live at the Cellar Door" CD. It included Scott Taylor on drums with me on bass.
Early editions of "The Redneck Jazz Explosion" also included Dick Heintze who was in bad health and deteriorating from Lou Gherigs disease, a fast acting form of MS. Within a couple of months he became unable to play and he passed away shortly after.
Those tapes, recorded on New Years Eve 78/79 sat on the shelf until the original "Redneck Jazz" (the one by the Danny Gatton Band) recording was re-released on CD. Two tracks from the "Explosion's" Cellar Door sessions were added as bonus tracks that weren't on the original vinyl LP version. This, of course added to the confusion between the two bands and recordings.
Shortly after Danny's death, his mother Norma, with the encouragement of several prominent DC area musicians and music fans, decided to finally release the rest of the Cellar Door tapes. Bootleg tapes of that evening had circulated widely and she knew that there was an interest in the material. Norma Gatton had paid for the original live recording and still controlled the source tapes. I was given the task of assembling and editing the tapes into a presentable format. It's an important snapshot of what many consider to be one of his most creative career phases, and included ample use of the "Magic Dingus Box" as well as the wonderful chemistry between Buddy and Danny. The "Explosion" band lasted through most of 1979. Drummer Shannon Ford joined about halfway through the year, and he later followed Danny to work with both Rodger Miller and Robert Gordon.
The "Redneck Jazz Explosion" quartet traveled the East Coast from Boston & New York, to Atlanta and consequently attracted the interest of Atlantic Records. A serious offer was made by Atlantic, but for his own reasons Danny chose not to accept it. Those negotiations in part, prevented the release of the live Cellar Door sessions at the time.
A trio version of the band, minus Buddy, also performed regularly around the DC/Baltimore area. As you mentioned, Danny cut his hand, which prevented him from playing out for a couple of months, but the real reasons for the hiatus that followed were, in my opinion, deeper. Before cutting his hand, he had already started talking of once more quitting the music business in spite of the band's success and the great working relationship he had developed with Buddy Emmons. During the previous year he had lost his father to whom he was very close, and two close friends: Dick Heintze and Lowell George of Little Feat. Danny was hit deeply by these losses.
An interesting sidebar to all of this is that the night before Lowell passed away in his Washington hotel room, Danny did a live radio interview with him for WHFS, a prominent DC area alternative music station of the time. Lowell invited Danny to sit in with Little Feat the next night at their Richmond, VA show. That show never took place. Prior to that, Lowell had been planning to start his own solo career and was courting Danny to be a part of that project. Danny, who always liked to have his "homeboys" around him, was trying to get Shannon Ford and myself included in the band. I remember Danny asking me to get a demo tape of my playing together to give to Lowell.
A few months after the demise of "The Redneck Jazz Explosion" Danny briefly revived a version of his old "Danny Gatton Band" with Dave Elliott and Evan Johns along with me on bass. Danny quickly grew tired of this project, as he probably wasn't ready to get back into the business full swing. The story continues as you tell it from the time of his West Coast visit and his stints with Roger Miller and Robert Gordon.
Danny later did a couple of other one-night presentations, which used the name "Redneck Jazz", or the "Redneck Jazz Explosion," and Buddy Emmons was brought to town for two of these. The bands included whomever he could line up at the time. Up to the end, whenever I would see him, Danny would always mention getting the original (Explosion) band back together. Unfortunately for all of us, that will never happen.
I hope you enjoy hearing these extra tidbits on Danny's career, and that it helps to clear up the story of the two distinctly different bands, "The Danny Gatton Band" and "The Redneck Jazz Explosion." There is an extensive, well written and researched account of this period in the liner notes of the Redneck Jazz Explosion CD.
Danny circa 1977
Photos, Text & Graphics
Danny & The Fat Boys bumper sticker
Article from Guitar World Magazine, May 1982
Redneck Jazz Explosion era picture circa 1978 w/Steve Wolf in background
Buddy Emmons same night as above at Cellar Door
Review of 1981 Cellar Door show. Danny sits in with Rockhouse, a D.C based R&B band led by bassist Steve Wolf
From the original Redneck Jazz LP cover. The Danny Gatton Band: left to right: John Previtti, bass; Dick Heintze, piano, Evan Johns, guitar (top center); Bob Hancock, rhythm guitar; Dave Elliott, drums
Baltimore Sun Magazine July 1, 1979 - Danny is cover story, 1 of 2 pages
Baltimore Sun Magazine - 2 of 2 pages (see cover below)
Cover shot Baltimore Sun Magazine - Shows His Les Paul Guitar w/The Magic Dingus Box
NRG Records sent out a newsletter now and then. This is one edition.Steve Wolf
But for a quirk of fate, Danny Gatton would have been what he looked like: a sheet metal worker. He was short and pudgy, and he nursed his beer and cigarette like he was sitting in a bar on the Jersey shoreline after work. He got an F in charisma, lacking every star trapping imaginable, and stared down at his boots when he had to talk about himself. Yet in some ways Gatton was one of the great guitarists. Certainly in terms of sheer technique he was stunning, and he had the rare ability to make all those notes take on form and substance.
Gatton knew his history, which so often is a creative dead end. Guitarist-historians end up parroting their favorites and becoming a compendium of stuff they've figured out how to play. Gatton was different. He knew Sol Hoopii, Les Paul, and Scotty Moore, and he could throw in little quotations from their work, just like Charlie Parker used to interject a blast of "White Christmas" into his solos. Gatton's genius, if that's what it was, lay in his ability to synthesize an almost impossibly broad range of styles, and in his mastery of guitar mechanics.
Danny Gatton was born in Washington, D.C., at 88 Elmira Street - as noted in the title of his first Elektra album. Before World War II, his father, Daniel W. Gatton Sr., was a rhythm guitarist in a band called the Royalists. Gatton says that his father played in the percussive rhythm style of Freddie Green with the Basie orchestra. Danny was born on September 4, 1945. By then, his father had given up the guitar as a living, but there was still music to be heard in the house. It was his uncle who introduced the six-year-old Danny Gatton to the music of perhaps his greatest influence, Les Paul.
Paul, along with Charlie Christian and the first generation of rockabilly pickers, formed the core of Danny Gatton's listening. Les Paul was the principal influence because of his technological innovation as much as his music. Gatton was always as much intrigued by the technology of the guitar as the muisic itself. He slowed down Paul's 45 rpm records to 33 rpm to get a better understanding of how the overdubs were layered. When asked, he cited the astonishing "Little Rock Getaway" as his favorite cut.
Gatton tried to emulate Les Paul by rigging up primitive overdubbing equipment at home with two tape decks. "I would play a track on the left machine," he said, "run it into the right one with a Y cord, and play along with it. I created echo by doubling a part and playing a little bit behind myself, which is real hard to do when you're about twelve." The D.C. area has been home to some great guitarists, such as Link Wray, the godfather of the power chord. Gatton denied that Wray was any kind of influence at all. "I never was much of a fan," he said. "I'm not trying to brag, but by the time I heard 'Rumble' I could play better than that. My heroes were always at the other end of the spectrum. Now I like to hear that kind of stuff, but back then it was no challenge."
Around 1959, when he was in junior high school, Gatton joined a band called the Offbeats. They played the Top Forty hits of the day, and that gig led to other bar-band jobs that eventually led to Nashville. Gatton moved there for a few months late in 1967. He was working with a band that played at a club in Printer's Alley. After they packed it in, Gatton toyed with the idea of trying to break into the studio scene, but found himself without contacts in what was then a closed shop. "A couple of years later," he said, "I found I lived three doors down from Scotty Moore."
Gatton met Lenny Breau in Nashville. The son of the Canadian country singers Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, Breau was perhaps the most technically brilliant guitarist of our time. He could, for instance, play lead and rhythm at the same time. Given a small private income and a limitless supply of drugs, Breau would have played jazz. As it was, his day jobs were mostly in country music (he was in Anne Murray's backing group for a while). For over twenty years, he was in the process of "getting it together." Then he was murdered in 1984. Gatton thought Breau was the best ever.
Lenny was living in this apartment in Nashville," Gatton told Guitar World, "with no heat, no lights, nothin' but running water and a candle. And still he was playing the most beautiful music you ever heard. It was really sad. It was a crime." Breau and Gatton made an odd study in physical contrast. Gatton was chubby; Breau was gauntly thin. Breau, like Robert Johnson, had elongated, talon-like fingers. Gatton had short, stubby fingers that often got mashed in the course of doing body work on his cars.
By June 1968 Gatton was back in the D.C. area and had gotten married. His wife worked for the government; he did body work and other sheet metal work, and he went back to playing the bars around D.C. a few nights a week. By 1974 he was part of a country band with an uncountry name: Liz Meyer and Friends. Then he formed his own trio, Danny and the Fat Boys. It was around this point that the rare albums and underground tapes started making the rounds. In 1975 Gatton and the Fat Boys recorded a hard-to-find album for Billy Hancock's Alladdin label. Hancock claims to have bought the label name off the original owners, although there are probably a few lawyers who would like to argue that point.
The Fat Boys broke up, and Gatton's career took one of its hiatuses. He returned to music with a group called Redneck Jazz Explosion. Buddy Emmons played pedal steel guitar. They hit the local spots around D.C. and made a few ventures beyond; the one that everyone remembers was to New york to play the Lone Star. The band was documented on a 1978 release, Redneck Jazz, funded by Gatton's parents. It's something of an all-star session for its day and budget. Along with Gatton and Emmons, there's Chuck Tilley (who had worked with Roy Buchanan) and Evan Johns on vocals. Typically, the front cover photo was of Gatton's guitar - not Gatton himself. Other pickers began to conjecture about his "Dingus Box," a contraption that controlled tone and special effects that he clipped onto the guitar behind the bridge.
The group dissolved when Gatton cut his hand badly, severing some tendons. After a year away from the guitar, he let one of his buddies persuade him to go to Santa Cruz, California, to do some work outside music. His return to playing came with an invitation to play on a commander Cody album. That led to an invitation to audition for Roger Miller in 1980. For years, Miller's regular guitarist had been "Thumbs" Carllile, who positioned his guitar on his lap like a lap steel. Carllile quit Miller's lineup after Gatton's audition but latter returned. They played together for about a year and a half, a period that Gatton remembered as one of the high watermarks of his life.
Although he played Vegas and other spots with Miller, Gatton was still based in D.C. holding down an irregular gig at a club in Georgetown in a band fronted by Billy Hancock. Hancock was friendly with Robert Gordon, who was then spearheading one of those rockabilly revivals that never seem to quite happen. Gordon invited Gatton to play on one of his albums, then asked him to go out on the road. For a while, Gatton played with both Miller and Gordon, but eventually settled for a year or so of steady work with Gordon. He was dismissive of that period. "I had to play like I was twelve years old again," he said, "but then if you play with other people, you have to play what they want you to play."
Many of those who saw Gatton with Gordon have far fonder memories of the music they made together. It sounded like magic from one of the ringside tables. For years a bootleg tape of one of the gigs made the rounds among pickers, leading Amos Garrett to dub Gatton "the humbler." After the gig with Gordon ended, Gatton quit the business again for a while. "It was John Previti, who's my bass player now, who got me back into it," he said. "He called me up to do a little four-piece jazz gig, and it was really a lot of fun. I got addicted to it all over again, and it kinda evolved into another band, called the Drapes, with Billy Windsor singing. I brought the nucleus of my jazz band into his band with the horns and all, and we started doing soul music. We got the idea to cut some tunes, and that was when people started approaching me about management. I figured it was really time to make a move. I couldn't just sit out on the farm forever; I mean, this is the thing I do best.
"In my mind, I'm still sixteen and I've got forever, but the realization is coming that I don't. I gotta make a move. I like playing, writing and producing and the only thing I can't handle is the travel - but that goes with the territory." In 1987 Gatton released another record on the NRG label (the initials of his mother, Norma Rae Gatton, who distributed the record from her home in Georgia). Titled Unfinished Business, it's a bewildering mosaic. Side one of the vinyl version opens with "Cherokee," which is Gatton's salute to Les Paul; side two opens with Charlie Byrd's "Homage to Charlie Christian." Throw in an original blues, the old Santo and Johnny hit "Sleepwalk," and a goosed-up version of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's "Fingers on Fire," and you get some idea of the bases Gatton could cover. The problem was knowing where to file him. The album's cause wasn't helped by the cover art (courtesy of Shorty's Art & Sign, White Plain, Maryland), which featured a pencil drawing of four obviously full of deep personal significance for Gatton, but it wasn't a jacket likely to reel in the unsuspecting listener.
Then Elektra Records came calling with checkbook in hand. Major label deals can be a curse as much as a blessing. Budgets are bigger, distribution nightmares end, but the company wants to insure its investment by assigning a producer with the brief to come up with something for radio. Gatton said that Elektra gave him a fairly free hand when he was signed, only insisting that he produce a solely instrumental album for his debut. Their only suggestion was that he cut the theme from "The Simpsons" (the Hand-D-Gas fart at the end is probably Gatton's comment on the idea). When he went out on tour in support of the album, he worked with a vocalist and mixed instrumental and vocal numbers on a roughly fifty-fifty basis. "The vocal numbers are set up so I can play in them," he said, "but too many hot licks gets old. Something's got to keep this thing normal." Elektra's insistence upon a solely instrumental album at least made possible a clear, perhaps definitive, statement of what Danny Gatton could do.
At most of his gigs there was a little cluster of pickers sitting close enough to study his right hand. His explanation his right-hand technique was typically self-deprecating: "It came about out of basic laziness," he said. "I taught myself bluegrass banjo when I was twelve or fourteen, and then I discovered I could play steel guitar with a flat pick and fingers, and I took those techniques and applied them to the guitar. Then I met Lenny Breau, and he had a real long fingernail on his little finger, and he used it for his high notes and little chords to get this whole different sparkling little sound. I use that little finger for chord voicings, and it gives me a whole different texture." This explanation was delivered deadpan as if he were talking about how he dropped in at the bar on the way home from work, and met someone he hadn't seen since last week.
The title cut of the first Elektra album, 88 Elmira Street, was a direct homage to all the rockabilly pickers who influenced him. The listener can pick up quotations from the work of Scotty Moore, Al Casey, James Burton, and others. "I was playing Scotty Moore's original guitar on that track," said Gatton. "It's a Gibson ES-295, and I bought it trashed out twelve years ago. It sounded incredibly good; it had some magic in it, but I didn't know it was Scotty's. Then Billy Hancock kept offering me all kinds of money for it, way more than it should have been worth, so I said, "What's the deal?" He said, 'I think you've got Scotty Moore's guitar there.' He got out all these old photos, and this one had a different bridge and tailpiece and had a chip out of it exactly like Scotty's, so we called him and he confirmed it."
"Blues Newburg," from
sounds like a tribute to another D.C. guitar legend, Roy Buchanan, but Gatton said not. The two men had an uneasy relationship. Buchanan felt an often intense jealousy toward Gatton, and for his part, Gatton is somewhat loath to admit Buchanan's influence at all, although it seems all over "Blues Newburg." "I live in a town called Newburg," said Gatton, by way of explanation, "and we bought a house out in the country that was a wreck. Everything that lives, walks, or flies gets into the house - like I had a snake in my bedroom one time. So I had the blues in Newburg. It's a well-known area around D.C. for seafood - you can get Lobster Newburg and so on - and I had Blues Newburg."
Perhaps Gatton's strength lay in refashioning familiar pieces so that you heard them in a different way. He would state, restate, and paraphrase the theme, then dig into the changes. It was all a little more cerebral than Buchanan. Gatton was preoccupied with tone and texture - every note and every voicing seemed to be the product of endless experimentation.
Gatton must have been one of the first, perhaps the first act in what can loosely be called rock music to make his major-label debut at age forty-six, but he wasn't the product of major-label culture and didn't belong there. He explored a musical backwater of his own invention, but the public wasn't buying into it and Elektra dropped him. To Gatton, it was a relief as much as anything. He later recorded a jazz album for Blue Note and another record for a local label.
Then in October 1994 came the news that he had committed suicide. Those close to him say that Gatton, curiously like Roy Buchanan, was prone to bouts of depression. He had had a domestic argument, then tormed out of the house and over to his garage to work on his car. Later there was a gunshot.