The Washington Post
THE FASTEST GUITAR IN THE EAST
By RICHARD HARRINGTON August 11, 1991 (original article)
THE FASTEST GUITAR IN THE EAST. OR THE WEST, OR THE SOUTH-OR ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET, REALLY. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK DANNY GATTON IS THE BEST GUITAR PLAYER ALIVE. SO WHY DO FAME AND FORTUNE JUST KEEP STRINGING HIM ALONG?
Club Soda is across the street from the Uptown Theatre, where someday “The Danny Gatton Story” could premiere in Cinemascope and Sensurround. It would be a riffs-to-riches Hollywood fantasy in which a struggling guitar virtuoso is discovered by a visiting talent scout and rushed into a recording studio from which he spins gold and platinum albums and finds himself (90 minutes later) with beautiful women, expensive sports cars and a Mansion on the Hill. The End.
Meanwhile, the real Danny Gatton Story is unfolding in this smoky, extremely crowded underground room. After 30 years, it’s closer to its beginning than its end. The dialogue is being delivered by Danny Gatton’s electric guitar, a ’53 Fender Telecaster, cleaving the thick Club Soda air with crisp tunes tossed out end on end, styles and genres blurring as Gatton’s left hand flies or floats up and down the well-worn neck of the Tele while his right hand alternates between surgery and sorcery on the chugging blues of “Harlem Nocturne,” the be-bop riffs of “Cherokee,” the bluegrass momentum of “The Orange Blossom Special,” the rockabilly romp of “Elmira Street Boogie” and the country twang of “Fingers of Fire.”
Guitar players in the house — always early, front and center — are drop-jawed. Most guitarists think in riffs and runs, but Gatton is languidly exploring assorted nooks and crannies of the songs’ distinctive melodies, blessing them with every sound texture imaginable even as he displays mind-boggling chops: simultaneously using a flat pick and three-finger banjo rolls; using his thumb and all four fingers of his left hand to play chords in extremely syncopated fashion; picking back and forth on the low strings to provide his own echo (Gatton calls it double-thumbing).
The speed is incredible — no one plays faster — but Gatton is also the master of texture, his right hand constantly switching and adjusting the volume and tone controls. It’s one thing to know where those tones are, another to keep playing blistering solos and constantly finesse those controls at the same time. Along the way, he’s paying homage to all the great guitar stylists who have inspired him and whose virtuosity he has not only absorbed but transcended.
The thing is: Danny Gatton can play anybody’s music.
No one can play his.
And there’s the rub: What do you do with someone who has no patience with boundaries and therefore obliterates them, who slips jazzy octave solos into a country tune, or finger-picks the blues bluegrass style, or plays complex chords where others might settle for single notes? In the age of specialized music, where it’s easier to promote something that is blatantly one thing, how do you sell someone like Danny Gatton who is all over the map?
Maybe the problem is packaging, and nobody’s figured out how to package him yet. Or maybe it’s that music is not just about variety and versatility, it’s also about communication — and Danny Gatton’s guitar talks too fast, in too many languages, to be understood.
Still, the fantasy persists. This is America, where talent is important but fame is what gets you the Mansion on the Hill — and fame has been flirting with Danny Gatton of late. If he really wants it, this middle-aged phenom may yet step into the spotlight that has eluded him all these years.
The clear sky looks like a soft blue blanket thrown across this bucolic peninsula reaching into the nearby Potomac River. The ashen land is flat and open except for occasional rows of stately cedars and a cluster of apple trees gently blushing as they wait for fruit. The isolated country farm borders a wildlife preserve underpopulated with deer and bald eagles, which may be why the half a dozen dogs and cats seem content to sleep the day away.
It’s so very quiet here that you can hear the wind sigh.
And maybe Danny Gatton too.
For three decades, the boy who grew up at 88 Elmira St. in Anacostia has been this region’s unstrung hero, a guitarist’s guitarist famous for not being famous, a musician nobody has heard who is better than anyone they have, a world-class virtuoso in a class by himself.
And yet here he is, living in a cluttered Charles County farmhouse that’s halfway between deterioration and renovation. This is no Hollywood fantasy. The classic cars sit rusting in a nearby field, waiting for restoration. The beautiful women are all in the family. But at age 45, Danny Gatton has put out his first major-label album, finally building on the interest and appreciation that have continued to accumulate alongside close calls, wrong turns and missed opportunities.
“Aw, I’ve been built up and let down so many times I should change my name to Otis,” Gatton says with more twinkle than sigh. It’s typical Gatton humor — casual, a bit self-deprecating, frustration tempered by laughter. “I’ve had so many snow jobs laid on me that hardly anything fazes me anymore. Elvis might come back from the grave — I might get excited about that.”
A couple of years ago, he got the kind of publicity burst most artists would play weddings for. In its annual “Hot” issue, Rolling Stone crowned Gatton 1989’s “Hot Guitarist” (“He is the fastest player alive — so how come nobody knows his name?”). Guitar Player went a step further, putting Gatton on its cover (behind a tragedian’s mask), proclaiming him “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist” and, after thinking about it, wondering “what famous guitarist could outplay him?”
Good question. The famous guitar players can pretty much be pigeonholed — this one rock, that one jazz, another country. There just isn’t anybody like Gatton, curating disparate American guitar styles, blending them seamlessly and with impeccable taste. It’s all there in any Gatton performance, sometimes in a single tune — the gut-bucket whomp of rockabilly, the artful simplicity of country, the anguish of the blues, the sophisticated harmonic approaches and chord voicings of jazz, all delivered with ear-numbing, eye-popping speed and with dollops of good humor, as when Gatton uses a Heineken bottle to play slide guitar on a Thelonious Monk tune.
The thing is, all these qualities that so impressed Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and hundreds of seeing-Gatton-is-believing converts were already in place in the early ’70s. And yet through the years, it always looked as if Danny Gatton was backpedaling away from commercial success. He was slow to record and reluctant to travel, opting for local beer joints over studio session havens like Nashville, Los Angeles and New York. There were occasional sideman gigs — usually for fringe frontmen with limited expectations — and while even that minimal exposure was enough to get musicians talking, Gatton himself seemed curiously patient and content working a modified Beltway circuit in a variety of bands filled mostly with friends. There was never great money to be made, but beyond the limelight and others’ expectations, there were things far more rewarding — as easily identifiable as Gatton’s laid-back life with his wife, Jan, and daughter, Holly Ann, and as intangible as familial roots dug deep in Southern Maryland. Still, the distance between making music and making a living at it never seemed to close. Gatton says he didn’t realize that “until I was in my early thirties, when it started to look like nothing was ever going to happen. I knew I played real good, a lot better than most people, but I just never hit that commercial nerve with anybody.”
Though he’s struggled with his weight, Gatton is old-fashioned handsome; there’s a rural clarity evident in both his features and his speech. In private, he’s charismatic in ways that have nothing to do with guitar god-ness. In the last few years, he’s tried to let some of his offstage charm come through on stage, where he used to play almost hidden from view. “I’m still not as good as I should be,” he says, “but I didn’t start out to be an entertainer. I just wanted to be a guitar player.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t think until two years ago I got desperate enough to really try to make it in this business. It really didn’t dawn on me between the eyes that if I didn’t get off my proverbial duff and do it, not only would it be too late, but we’d have to live like this.”
Gatton gestures to the Charles County farmhouse cluttered with things rustic and musical. “You wouldn’t believe the things that come in this house in the summertime,” he says. “Blacksnakes, bees, flies, crickets. I need some financial security to fix up this house — I owe it to my family.”
“We had a blond phonograph console with a roll-top that he couldn’t quite reach and the 78s in their cardboard envelopes,” recalls Danny’s mother, Norma, describing her son’s musical interests at age 2. “One of them was Harry James, with ‘Carnival of Venice’ on one side and “Flight of the Bumblebee’ on the other. Of course Danny couldn’t read, but he knew which side he wanted me to play — ‘Bumblebee’ — and so I would put it on for him. And he’d want me to play it again and again and again, and then he’d fall asleep with his back propped against the phonograph cabinet. He loved it — it was the only one he wanted to hear.”
The Gatton family came over from Wales and settled in Southern Maryland before the Revolutionary War. Danny Gatton’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both country fiddlers, and his father, Dan, played rhythm guitar with the Royalist Dance Orchestra, a swing-era fixture at the Willard Hotel in the ’30s. But, Norma Gatton says, the orchestra broke up just as she fell in love with Dan Gatton at the onset of the Second World War, and by the time Danny was born in Southeast Washington on September 4, 1945, the Gattons “just played around the house because they loved the music.”
What wasn’t on the Philco radio or the RCA television drifted into Gatton’s consciousness through the blues and rockabilly records his older sister Donna brought home. In the ’50s, Washington was a transition point for South and North, a time and place of musics blending rather than clashing, which may be why young Danny sensed no barriers between the Eastern swing of Benny Goodman and the Western swing of Bob Wills, between the basic honesties of country and the blues, between the blue-collar rootedness of R&B and rockabilly. It was all great American music.
When Gatton reels off his influences, it’s hardly surprising that they are the architects of modern guitar, the not-so-square roots of everything to come: Les Paul (the first and most lasting), Scotty Moore, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Duane Eddy, Cliff Gallup (who played for Gene Vincent), Charlie Christian, George Barnes, Joe Maphis, locals like Link Wray, Charlie Byrd, Roy Clark and Roy Buchanan, and Hank Garland, “the first really hot country guitar player I ever heard.” “Danny wanted to take lessons at 10,” Norma Gatton recalls. Danny’s first instructor told her it was “obvious” her son had already had lessons. “I thought they were pulling my leg, but Danny could come home and play the songs with not too much difficulty.” His guitar at this point was an $18 Stella Epiphone archtop.
Gatton’s father had sold his own guitar before Danny started lessons in 1954. But when he saw the Stella, “the old man said, ‘That’s junk, get rid of it.’ And he went out and bought me a 00-18 Martin,” Gatton says. “I had that up until my 12th birthday, when he took me down to Kitt’s and bought me a brand-new, blond ES 350 Gibson, just like the one Chuck Berry played in those days.”
The gift was affirmation of Danny’s promise, the thin-necked Gibson perfect for a youngster’s hands just as the electric era was coming into its own. The lessons began again — briefly. When Gatton was 13, his parents signed him up with the venerable Sophocles Papas, godfather to dozens of Washington-bred classical guitarists. But after three lessons, Norma Gatton recalls, “Mr. Papas said to us, ‘You’re wasting your money. He’s got such an ear that all he has to do is have me play something once and he can remember.’ That was his last lesson.”
The adolescent Gatton honed his craft on his own. “He loved music and didn’t want to be bothered with anybody,” Norma Gatton says. “He just wanted to come home from school and pick up that guitar and start playing. I never had to tell him to practice.” He’d play three to four hours a day.
When he was 13, mother took son to Reliable Pawnbrokers on Ninth Street NW to purchase a Vega Little Wonder five-string banjo; “before we got home from the store, he could play ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and he’d never even had a banjo in his hands before.” Soon after this he made his first public appearance, at the Cottage City Fire Department, with Dan Sr. backing him on rhythm guitar.
“They let Danny get on stage one night, and people threw money,” Norma Gatton says. “I think that’s when Danny’s ears went up!”
There would be other shows, banjo contests and country shows with Smitty Erwin, Dub Howard and the Thunderbirds, and a band led by neighbor Jack Reed. In the seventh grade, Gatton also joined his first band, the Lancers, followed by the aptly named Rockin’ Minors, the Phaetons and the Offbeats. This last group featured fellow guitarist Jack Casady, who would move to California and help found Jefferson Airplane, and Dick Heintze, a keyboard wizard who would be a crucial figure in Gatton’s development.
These bands started out playing the metro-area teen and CYO club circuit, and, after secur- ing fake IDs, rough and rowdy nightclubs, some downtown, others in rural extremes (Gatton refers to them as “knife and gun clubs”). Somewhere down the line, the Offbeats merged with the Downbeats, whose rhythm guitarist and lead singer, Billy Windsor, would become Gatton’s rhythm guitarist and singer 20 years later. “Our bass player had to go into the Reserves, and since we had a job, we asked Danny to fill in on bass,” Windsor recalls. During the band’s first break, the 15-year-old Gatton picked up a guitar and started playing like Chet Atkins and Les Paul — at the same time! “It was amazing,” Windsor says.
It was also surprising, since Gatton has never showboated, then or now. “Danny’s unique because he listened so well, his interest was so in-depth,” Windsor says. “As teenagers, we were all James Dean, talking about cars and girls. But Danny was so involved in his instrument, he’d taken out so much of his life as a kid to learn it. Most of us were running around playing baseball and he was sitting in his room, going over parts.”
When the British invaded in the early 1960s, it turned out to be very bad news for fledgling guitar heroes. The Beatles & Co. were “a step backwards; there were no hot licks in that stuff,” Gatton explains. “Not that I don’t like some of it, but it was just too easy.
“So I played soul music for a living and jazz and country music in the basement. Rockabilly wasn’t popular and very few bands really ever did that much of it. My bands were fired many times for playing ‘noncommercial’ music in ‘commercial’ clubs. We’d play old tunes that we liked, not what people wanted to hear. All the bands I’ve ever been in were like that.
“Whatever’s popular, I always run the other way,” Gatton says, without regret.
Given Danny Gatton’s level of accomplishment, one might be forgiven for believing he never did anything but play guitar. Not true. At 16 he fell in love with cars. “When I got my first car,” he says, “I kind of dropped off practicing guitar because I’m a motorhead for street rods and customs and always have been.” This love has fueled the “strings and wrenches” legend about Gatton, one that portrays him — unfairly — as a kind of mechanic/savant who’d rather stay down on the farm fixing up cars than bust a gutstring going on the road.
Not that there haven’t been cars, like the 1926 Model T roadster, the 1932 and 1950 Fords, the 1937 and 1957 Chevys, and others in parts or in storage, waiting till the house is fixed and the garage is built, “maybe next summer.”
The mechanical inclination surfaces in other ways as well. At 22, after his family had moved to suburban Maryland and he’d graduated from Oxon Hill High School (“just barely”), Gatton took up a profession — sheet metal work. “My father forced me to do that. He said, ‘You’re not going to be a musician unless you have a backup trade, because believe me I know what it’s all about.’ ”
It may not have pointed him toward any mansions on hills, but it changed his life in an equally dramatic way. In 1966, he was working as part of a construction crew putting up the new National Science Foundation Building at 18th and G streets NW, half a block from the old NSF office where Jan Firkin worked. “We used to sit out there eating lunch and whistling at this well-endowed blonde walking down the street every day,” Gatton recalls with a chuckle. “My fellow workers would go, ‘Wow, look at that!’ And I said, ‘Well, you all can look. I’m going to go talk some trash.’ ” “I didn’t hear that part!” says Jan Gatton, sitting in her downtown office at the NSF, where she’s a computer specialist. Jan, whose earthy beauty suggests Dolly Parton without gloss, was 22 when she met Danny. She was the only daughter of a military man who’d traveled the world before settling in Lynchburg, Va. Shy and reserved — she never dated in high school — Jan didn’t take notice of the trash talk, but of how nice Danny was. “I never knew he was a musician — not that there was anything bad about that. But it just never dawned on me that he was anything more than fixing the building. I was shocked to learn that he was so young. I guess the fact that he played in clubs when he was a mere tad had something to do with that.
“I didn’t want to get married,” Jan says. “We turned around three times the day we got married. I’d say, ‘No, no, we can’t do this.’ And Dan would wheel the car around, so furious. The third time, he said, ‘This is the last time. If I turn it around now, we’ll never get married!’
“I really didn’t want to take that step, but he was so darned nice . . .”
Gatton had been doing sheet metal work while also playing nights. “I was like a zombie for a couple of years,” he says. “I don’t say that Jan wouldn’t have married me if she thought I played music full time . . . but she had no idea that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Fooled her — she’s real mad now!”
Four months after they married, Gatton came home and said he was quitting sheet metal — he was tired of cutting his hands — and going to play full time. “I was wild, because it never occurred to me that anybody could make a living at music,” Jan says. “And I was right, because almost immediately our status changed. I can remember desperately trying to get an apartment in Marlow Heights and being told that they did not rent to ‘musicians.’ ”
Danny and Jan have been married for almost 23 years now, and he insists that “if it wasn’t for her having a steady job, I wouldn’t own anything. I’d be living in a Maytag box in Lafayette Park, with a tin cup, playing ‘Willie and the Hand Jive.’ ” Jan, he says, “doesn’t listen to my records, never comes out to see me play. She’s not interested in music — never has been, never will be — but she knows from talking to other people that there’s something here worth supporting.”
“I don’t think Danny knows that I understand his greatness,” says Jan Gatton. “I understand that he is magnificent, and I hope I can make him understand that. But the fact that he has such moral character is so much more important . . . It so attracts me that there is this person who is so good, so humble, so truthful.
“I think Dan feels at this hour in his life that he does need to provide for his family. It’s something you think about almost from the day you’re married — you’re starting to provide, to buy, to acquire, to move up. But with musicians, that’s not the central goal. And that’s what separates Us from Them.”
Even before he gave up his day job, opportunity started knocking regularly, but Gatton only opened the door a crack at a time.
“The first time I went to New York,” he says, “I was 19 and working with Bobby Scott, who wrote ‘A Taste of Honey.’ He said to come to New York and be a studio musician, but that town scared me to death.”
Before he got married, Gatton donned a tux and went on tour for a year with soul man Bobby Charles’s band, where “you didn’t screw up, you didn’t overplay, or underplay, and you did exactly what you were supposed to do. It was good discipline.”
While he was on the road with Bobby Charles, Gatton got his first glimpse of Nashville. “I thought it would be cool to be a Nashville cat,” he says. “That’s what I had eyes for at the time. But I wound up down there playing the same soul music as up here, just what they want to hear in Nashville.” During the tour, Woody Herman heard Gatton and promptly asked him to join the Thundering Herd, even though he couldn’t read the band’s charts. “But I’ve always had problems joining a band with a bunch of people I don’t know,” Gatton says. “It’s always been important to me — and still is — to be surrounded with close friends. It’s always this family thing I can’t get away from. I have to be really comfortable in my surroundings, so I didn’t do it.”
A brief summer tour with country stars Barbara Mandrell and Sonny James cemented his attitude toward road work. “The first time I rode on a bus with one square wheel, smelling diesel fuel, wearing somebody else’s too-tight clothes and hawking records between shows, I said, ‘This ain’t me, Jim.’ ”
Back in Washington, Gatton gradually rejoined the club circuit. The Childe Harold, snug above Dupont Circle, was the first club where he played “anything other than Top 40 music or moldy oldies.” He was still usually playing in someone else’s band, but “there was a lot of room to play.”
In the late ’70s, encouraged by musicians on the West Coast, Gatton packed a van, sold one of his antique cars for $2,500 and moved to Los Angeles for a short time, quickly finding that the musicians who’d invited him hardly played, and, when they did, had to drive 50 miles to make 25 bucks. Though he became friends with guitarist Lowell George, a Gatton fan from frequent Washington stopovers with Little Feat, he never cracked the lucrative L.A. session scene. (One veteran of that scene quipped that Gatton was “pretty good but he’s got a drug problem — he don’t take enough!” The fact is, he doesn’t take any.)
“I was so damn disgruntled with the whole thing,” Gatton says. “I didn’t want to take any more chances. I missed Jan and I had a kid coming, so I came back.”
A year later, Lowell George performed in Washington and invited Gatton to the concert. Coming offstage, George pulled Gatton into a dressing room, “saying his doctor had given him this little white powder. I really was ignorant of drugs — and still am — but he was sniffing heroin. He said, ‘I want you to finish out the tour with me; I’ll call you tomorrow.’
“I wondered why he didn’t call.”
In fact, Lowell George died in his sleep that night, victim of a heart attack brought on by drugs.
Gatton settled into a routine: He managed a club, Beneath It All, beneath Georgetown’s Crazy Horse, and well beneath him. Later he split duty backing up country storyteller Roger Miller and rockabilly raver Robert Gordon, and “when I was road-fried and had had enough of that, I went down to the Mousetrap in Waldorf to play some oldies with my buddies, drink beer and hoo-ha.”
When Credence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty came out of his long retirement in the early ’80s, he called Gatton to join his band; Gatton lost the number and never called back. And for a couple of years, he simply quit and went to work in the Waldorf metal shop of his friend Jay Montrose, “the finest welder on the planet.” He built cars and “huge aluminum boxes for defense contractors,” and didn’t play much. But bassist John Previti called him to sit in on some jazz dates, and Billy Windsor got him back to playing in a soul band, and soon everything melded into a group called Danny Gatton’s Funhouse. And the musical career kept going, even though it never took off.
Another night, another club, a rare Gatton sit-in with another guitarist, in this case Mike Harrington. Harrington spins off an impressively fast single-note eight-bar solo. Gatton, genuinely impressed, leans over and says, “Man, that was neat; can you do it again?” Chest pumping, Harrington spins out his solo once again — except that Gatton is playing along, at equally breakneck speed, in complex harmony, and with a jovial teddy bear smile. Gatton doesn’t do this to cut Harrington — he does it because he can, because it’s neat, because it’s funny. At the end of the number, both guitarists break out laughing at the outrageousness of the whole thing.
It’s a classic Gatton moment. He’s too good for his surroundings, and it shows — but somehow he’s never quite been able to break away. So whenever the name Danny Gatton comes up, the inevitable question follows: Why isn’t the guy a star?
Is it simply the packaging problem — the fact that he really is too difficult to pin down? “He’s such an insider’s player,” says Joe Gore, editor of Guitar Player. “Danny’s so stylistically diffuse, and so relentlessly virtuosic in styles that are usually mutually exclusive, that it may be off-putting to people to have so much coming at them so quickly, a situation even more challenging when it comes to marketing instrumental music.”
Is it that he’s unlucky or shy or absent-minded? Or is he just too stubborn? Why does someone with Gatton’s amazing hands gravitate toward car mechanics or sheet metal work, anyway?
In 1980, while trying to get into his garage, Gatton pushed his hand through a pane of glass. “There went the tendons,” he says, massaging his right wrist. “I couldn’t play for a year.” As it healed, Gatton disregarded the doctor’s orders — “He said, ‘If it breaks, you’re through’ ” — and moved a speaker, snapping the tendons again. There are certain dexterous moves he can no longer do, he says, “though I don’t think anyone can tell but me. But I listen to old tapes sometimes and there’s impeccable right-hand stuff going on that I can’t do anymore.”
Maybe Gatton lost some of his desire for stardom when his close friend and musical compatriot Dick Heintze died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1981. Gatton had known Heintze since the Offbeats days, and the keyboard virtuoso was as much older brother as musical peer. Occasionally they played together. Heintze was one of a kind on keyboards, particularly on the Hammond B3 organ. “Dick could play like Oscar Peterson,” Gatton says softly. “If you couldn’t keep up with him, you’d feel like a fool, and hardly anybody could keep up with him. I tried, but he always won. He was the greatest musical inspiration of anybody I ever played with, bar nobody, even to this day. I sure wish he was around. When he died, a big piece of me went with him.
“We never really got to do what we wanted to do. We had to hack out Top 40 tunes in the clubs, sneaking in a jazz tune here and there for a break song. People didn’t want to hear that. And then just about the time I started getting some recognition and could play what I wanted to play, Dick got sick and couldn’t play anymore.”
Maybe the problem is that Gatton wanted fame to come to him. All those years he had somehow expected producers and talent scouts to beat a path to his door, but they didn’t.
“I always wondered about that too,” he says. “There were just two people I knew in my whole life who’d made it in music. One was Jack Casady, who just flat fell into it with the Jefferson Airplane, and the other was Roy Buchanan, who they pestered to death.”
Buchanan was a great influence — he was the one who persuaded Gatton to switch from Gibsons to Fenders — but mutual respect was undermined by Buchanan’s professional paranoia and lifelong depression (he hanged himself in a Fairfax County jail cell in 1988). Buchanan, also a country boy rooted in traditions and locale (he didn’t like to travel and never did learn to drive), was “discovered” in the late ’70s but never took advantage of the momentum begun with a PBS special on Washington’s “great unknown guitarist” and a recording contract with Atlantic. “They forced him to do it, and he fought it every inch of the way,” Gatton observes. “They got him as far as they could, and then he didn’t take it any further than that. But I figured that’s the way it’s done — people come in and discover you.”
Or maybe you just can’t hope to go that far when your mother has to put out your records for you.
The first Norma Gatton product was a single called “Ugly Man.” “We did it out of frustration,” Norma Gatton says. “Danny was playing at Sam’s Crab House in Clinton and trying to get some decent bookings. I got swept up in it and I took those little singles and went around to the record stores. I was intimidated — nobody’d ever heard of him, and here I’m asking will they please try and sell these records.”
In 1975, Danny and the Fat Boys (all aptly named at the time) recorded “American Music” on Aladdin, a label owned by Fat Boys bassist Billy Hancock. But it was a dud, and Gatton’s mother stepped in again. In 1978, “Redneck Jazz,” a country-jazz fusion album costarring Nashville pedal steel virtuoso Buddy Emmons came out on NRG Records, which was really Norma Gatton.
“It consumes you,” says Norma Gatton, who fields mail orders out of her apartment in Atlanta, where she moved several years ago. “I couldn’t die unless I got something down on vinyl, so I had to get it done on my own.” Ten years later, NRG released “Unfinished Business,” an all-instrumental jazz, rock and blues album that still provokes a flood of orders from all over the world. With no promotion other than an occasional record review and a close-to-free full-page ad in a national music magazine (the editors were believers), each album has sold close to 10,000 copies.
That, and the continuing word-of-mouth, finally got the record companies sniffing, and at one point MTV announced that Gatton had signed with CBS Records — except that ink never met paper. “You wouldn’t believe the petty stuff you go through,” Gatton says of his wooing. “Plus, to tell you the truth, I think most of them haven’t got any ears; they don’t know what the hell they’re listening to. They know dollars, they don’t know music.”
The one who did turned out to be Elektra’s Howard Thompson, who had signed 10,000 Maniacs, the Sugarcubes and Suicide.
“I’ve never been frightened of picking people that are on the edge,” Thompson says. He first noticed Gatton on the premature MTV newscast and caught up with him at New York’s Cat Club. “I enjoyed the show,” he says, “but I ended up being incredibly confused by it: Some songs, Billy Windsor would sing, and, musically, Danny was all over the place. One derived a great deal of pleasure out of his technique and flair and all that, but I walked out with a million question marks: What the hell can you do with a guy like this?”
Thompson saw Gatton again at Les Paul’s 65th birthday party. This time, “Danny just blew me away.”
And so, 20 years into his professional career, Danny Gatton finally made it to the majors, signing a seven-record deal, tabling an already finished vocal-driven album and, at Thompson’s suggestion, going the all-instrumental route again. “In trying to introduce Danny to a wider audience, you play to your strengths,” Thompson explains diplomatically.
Which “88 Elmira Street,” the first of his Elektra albums, certainly does: It’s a sonic Whitman’s Sampler, even though there’s a lot missing — no real jazz or straight-ahead country, crucial facets of his playing that listeners don’t get an inkling of.
“I can’t do everything at once,” Gatton acknowledges. “I’ve got a seven-album contract, and maybe down the line I can do albums that are all country or all jazz, all this, all that — and maybe I won’t. If this works and people like the eclectic mishmash, maybe I’ll keep doing that. At this point, I can’t afford to get shelved. It all depends on the public whims.”
How all this plays out from the new hand Gatton’s been dealt by Elektra remains to be seen. At 45, he’s probably too old to become obsessed with fame or image. Though he must know deep down inside that he’s different, Gatton never talks about that side of things, and he never puts it in anyone’s face. Were Danny Gatton’s guitar his own horn, he would not blow it.
“Basically he wants to have a calm, peaceful life,” Holly Gatton explains. “Sometimes when Dad gets home, he tells me he gets tired of people expecting a lot from him.”
Expectations are being raised, meanwhile, by “Hot Licks,” a one-take 70-minute instructional video in which Gatton’s natural charisma comes through as he jovially transcends styles and spins out what will remain fantasies for most guitarists. Gatton wannabes can now learn to play on the Danny Gatton Model ’53 Telecaster. The most expensive custom-made guitar in the Fender line, it’s virtually identical to Gatton’s. In fact, he’s now playing the company’s prototype copy of the Gatton signature model, having traded the original to a buddy for “a gorgeous ’34 Ford that costs $18,000 — I made out on that!”
Gatton’s reputation continues to spread. When he agreed to do a guitar seminar last year at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the classroom so overflowed that the session was moved to a larger hall, and even then had to be piped over the intercom into an adjacent auditorium.
“88 Elmira Street” has been out since March. It made a small dent on the Billboard album chart — hitting Number 122 — but has sold only 80,000 copies. There was an initial brief promotional tour, opening for the Radiators, and Gatton is on another now. In performance, Billy Windsor’s vocals are prominently featured, though the focus remains on Gatton’s guitar.
When not touring, he still performs regularly around town — at Club Soda, the Birchmere, the 9:30 Club — but Gatton’s been here so long, been so available, that he’s taken for granted. In Toronto recently, 800 people braved a blizzard to hear him; in Washington they might not come down the street if it starts to rain. Radio stations here haven’t played much from the album and an in-store signing at a Kemp Mill drew only a dozen fans. There has been no video.
And so the real Danny Gatton Story continues today pretty much the same as it ever was. Except Gatton doesn’t practice anymore. He’s beyond practice — he rarely plays unless he’s on the job — though he’s listening harder than ever, trying to catch “the fine nuances of old music that people have missed.
“No one’s ever satisfied with their playing and I could certainly be a lot better than I am,” he says, “but I don’t really have a reason to try and be any better than I am right now.”
Holly Gatton does, however. Hers is the other Telecaster around the house these days, three-quarter-size and a true rarity. And her father’s reaction says a lot about Danny Gatton’s real views on the American Show Biz Dream.
Though he often talks about music with her, she says, “he will not teach me how to play guitar. Dad does not want me to have anything to do with the music business — he just doesn’t want me to get hurt.”
“She’s interested in paleontology,” Danny Gatton says, with relief, “and I’ve told her by no means, whatever you do, never ever be a musician. You want to play the piano around the house, that’s fine, but I’ll be damned if you’re doing it for a living. I wouldn’t wish that on my best enemy.”
Richard Harrington is the pop music critic for The Washington Post.