Thursday, February 12, 2009

Danny Gatton

Phone rings, it's Ellis Duncan - can I come to see Danny Gatton play Les Paul's 75th birthday at the Hard Rock Cafe? Well sure, why not? I'd just read about him in Rolling Stone and Musician, features (no doubt) brought about by an appearance on the March '89 cover of Guitar Player, tagging him as the "world's greatest unknown guitarist". That night, he was shockingly good. Of his talent, there was no doubt. But what was he? A blues guy? A jazzer? A rockabilly dude or country picker? He did it all. A record company doesn't like it when artists cross musical genres. They like to slot artists into tidy little boxes for which there is an established marketing and promotion formula. Anything that doesn't 'fit' neatly makes them have to work harder, think of alternative ways to get the music across.
I checked out the albums Norma, his mother, had put out on her own label, NRG Records - 'Unfinished Business', 'Redneck Jazz' and 'American Music' by Danny & The Fat Boys.
I went to see Danny several more times at places like the Cat Club and The Lone Star and got to know him a little bit. I enjoyed his company immensely. He was a self-deprecating, funny, shy, family-man who loved a beer and a practical joke and decided, in the end, who cares what genre he fell in? It didn't matter. He was a devastating player, and people that gifted should have a forum. Elektra chairman Bob Krasnow green-lighted the deal and I went up to Bearsville Studios near Woodstock to hear what they'd been recording 'on spec', thanks to the generosity of studio manger, Ian Kimmet and owner, Sally Grossman.

A portion of the album had already been recorded but there was still some tracking, overdubbing and mixing to be done. Danny had wanted to make an instrumental record covering as many musical styles as possible with him front and center. I'd been obsessed with the films of David Lynch and was a huge fan of his music guy, Angelo Badalamenti, who'd recently done the score for Twin Peaks. I asked Danny if he would do something in that style and he came up with a version of Brian Wilson's 'In My Room' which chills - in both senses. Often Danny would pepper his live set with theme songs from tv or the movies ('Linus & Lucy', 'The Untouchables') so, knowing airplay was going to be limited, I asked him to consider having a crack at The Simpsons' theme. The show had debuted the previous year ('89) and was beginning to pick up an audience. I thought perhaps it might lead to some airplay. It didn't.

Danny Gatton
Bearsville Studios, NY


The sessions were, generally, a blast and we soon had a terrific record featuring a barnstorming rocker-shuffle, some nifty rockabilly, a 'lounge-y' Les Baxter piece, a jazz-rocker w/Latin percussion, 'The Simpsons' (complete with Bart fart gag), a couple of blues tunes (one sublime, the other sublimely sleazy), a riotous boogie, complete with rhythm-banjo and 'magic Dingus box' (a home-made device he'd attach to his guitar) and some wicked support from his ace band - Bill Holloman, Shannon Ford, John Previti and Billy Windsor. Brawner Smoot wrapped his sleeve note with "(Danny) has absorbed every significant American guitar style, honed his ferocious technical ability, and blended it all into his beautifully eclectic, inimitable and soulful guitar voice".
photo from the 'Redneck Jazz' booklet showing Danny's Magic Dingus Box
photo: Wayne Eastep
And Cub Koda would later say this about '88 Elmira Street': "It was indeed worth the wait, spot-welding blinding speed and immaculate chops that went in a million different directions (jazz, country, rockabilly, blues, you name it) to a musical sensibility that made this all-instrumental album a whole lot more than just yer average fretboard wanking jam-fest. Gatton's Telecaster really shines on diverse material ranging from Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" to the roadhouse shuffle "Funky Mama" to the off-the-wall rendition of the theme to The Simpsons. Kudos to Elektra for having the corporate balls to put this out; short, chunky, and middle-aged, Danny Gatton was a bona fide guitar hero for the '90s, putting the lie to the hard canard that only speedburner metal mega-hair dudes can make the front covers of the guitar mags." (All Music Guide)
The Danny Gatton Band
Shannon Ford
, Billy Windsor, Bill Holloman, John Previte, Danny Gatton

Tornado Alley, Wheaton, MD
photo: ht (scanned from a 3-D lenticular print)
So Danny and his superlative band did a little touring, got on some local telly, collected some good reviews and a Grammy nomination. Sales quickly hit 100K on the strength of his reputation and his live appearances. Musicians and fans talked about Danny with a great deal of reverence. He was, after all, known as The Humbler, but radio largely ignored the record, with the exception of Don Imus who'd use 'Pretty Blue' as a music 'bed' on his show occasionally. Backstage once, I heard a fan tell Danny that the NY Mets would play 'Slidin' Home' over at Shea during a game, occasionally. Around this time, Danny was invited to become part of a jazz super-ensemble with Roy Hargrove, Bobby Watson, Joshua Redman, Franck Amsallem, Charles Fambrough and Yuron Israel. This collaboration led to the album New York Stories Vol 1 (Blue Note, '92).
Danny Gatton
South Street Seaport
photo: ht
For 88 Elmira Street's follow-up, it seemed natural (this time) to feature some vocals on the record. After all, rhythm guitarist, Billy Windsor usually sang a handful of songs during their live shows, so Danny recruited Delbert McClinton, Rodney Crowell and James Lewis in order to get something on the album that might have a chance of some airplay. At the time, only Delbert was well-known as a singer. Rodney was a successful songwriter and producer of his (then) wife Roseanne Cash. To me, Lewis was a mystery. How, and why he ended up on the record beats me. Billy Windsor duly got his slot and Bill Holloman ended up singing 'Thirteen Women', originally the b-side to Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock'. Try as I might, I found it difficult to find anyone acceptable to Danny for vocal duties. Some of the songs chosen had been in the live set for a while. Both 'Sky King' and 'Harlem Nocturne' were getting their second outing on vinyl, and other tunes showed up out of nowhere. I'd never heard them do 'Satisfied Mind' or the loathsome 'Beat Of The Night' before, but Danny insisted they be included and, against my better judgment, I capitulated. The credits on the record suggest Satisfied Mind might have been an old recording as there's an entirely different set of musicians listed. All of that said, there are some glorious moments on the album. 'So Good', 'Tragedy', 'Puddin' and Pie', 'Cruising Deuce', 'Funhouse' and 'Sky King' all feature spectacular ensemble playing and Danny shines.
A note from Danny to Elektra's Valerie Vickers
(enclosing mastering notes) for 'Cruisin' Deuces

Released May 18, 1993, Cruisin' Deuces received decent notices, though not quite the raves of its predecessor. Delbert's scorching take on the Elvis medley couldn't muster any radio play and, this time, despite taking the band out on a nationwide tour, sales did not live up to expectations. Perhaps we should have stayed instrumental.
Cruisin' Deuces photo shoot
photo: Robert Kittila
After 9 years as head of Elektra's a&r department, I left at the end of August. It's hard to walk away from people you've brought to a label, particularly when they're as decent, as talented and as true-blue as Danny Gatton but I truly thought he'd be ok and would continue on his musical journey, amazing and inspiring others along the way. Sadly, the label dropped him, which must have been a big blow to his pride. Still, regular appearances (albeit more localized), sessions with Chris Isaak and Arlen Roth, an appearance on Conan O'Brien and a jawdropping guitar/Hammond organ workout with Joey DeFrancesco called 'Relentless' (Big Mo, 1994) kept him busy and his legend growing, so when the news came through that he'd killed himself in his garage in Oct of 94, it was a massive shock which still hurts today. One of the best.
For more pix, go here and click on 'slideshow'
Ralph Heibutzki wrote an informative and compelling biography about Danny called "Unfinished Business - The Life And Times Of Danny Gatton". Find it here.
And when you've bought all the cds and decide you want to play like Danny, buy this and practice. Hard.

The Danny Gatton Band
"Once I Had A Secret Love"

Danny Gatton (l/gtr)
Bill Holloman (keys/horns)
John Previti (b)
Shannon Ford (d)
Billy Windsor (r/gtr)
camera: Jehr Schiavo

Collector's Corner:

The Soul Mates
'Moonlight Cruise' b/w 'How's Your Sister' (Wilson Line Records, 1966)

Danny And The Fat Boys
'American Music' b/w 'Harlem Nocturne' (Aladdin Records, 1974)

Danny Gatton Band
'Ugly Man' b/w 'Love Is What You Need' (NRG Records, 1977)

Roger McDuffie & The Naturals feat: Danny Gatton
'Redskin Fever' b/w 'Love Them Hogs' (Medical Records, 1983)

Danny Gatton Band w/Billy Windsor
'Diggin The Dirt' b/w 'Honky Tonkin Country Girl' (NRG Records, 1985)

Danny Gatton
'Nit Pickin'' (Guitar Player Magazine flexi, 1989)

'Funky Mama' Elektra promo cd 1991

Danny Gatton
'Slidin' Home' Elektra promo cd 1991

Danny Gatton
'Sun Medley' (w/Delbert McClinton) b/w 'Satisfied Mind' (w/Billy Windsor)
Elektra test pressing, 1993 (unreleased)

Rockabilly compilation feat: Danny Gatton on several cuts
Renegade Records, 1998

comments welcome...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great write up. Thank you. I just came across this site. Well done. My brother was Danny's drummer from '72 - '89.