MERRY CHRISTMAS: UNPUBLISHED GATTON ARTICLE SEES THE LIGHT OF DAY
by Duncan M. Brown
First posted: Dec 25, 2008
Merry Christmas, whether you're a Danny Gatton fan, or following the other proceedings going on here. As a holiday treat, I've made this previously unpublished article available by special arrangement with the author, Duncan M. Brown.
Several of the events mentioned -- such as the posthumous releases -- have come to pass, but I feel that Duncan's article offers valuable insights into Danny's legacy, particularly through the key women in his life (including his widow, Jan; daughter, Holly; and late mother, Norma). Enjoy the story.
THE REDNECK JAZZMAN AND HIS FORMIDABLE WOMEN (2004)
By DUNCAN M. BROWN
“My dad would be appalled to see me in the music business,” says Holly Gatton. “He spent a lot of time to keep me away from popular music. No lessons. No playing in bands. And I could listen only to music he considered good! All the stuff I loved at 12 and 13—Michael Jackson and Madonna—were really lewd, he thought. A friend gave me a tape of the Red Hot Chili Peppers—which is kind of explicit, now that I think of it—and Dad recorded over it with Fats Domino!”
Gatton, a 24-year-old Virginia Tech grad student (hemlock beetles), has joined her mother Jan to launch a new family record company. Flying Deuces Records will handle the musical legacy of her father (and Jan’s husband) Danny, the DC-area guitar wizard who died in 1994. It will offer old Gatton recordings and issue new ones, on the Big Mo label.
The two formidable women did not fall into the record business by accident. They brought suit in 2000 against the family label, NRG (run by Danny’s mother Norma) in 2000 to take control of the Gatton recordings. They claimed that Danny had routinely shared with Holly his musical ideas (making her his true musical heir), and that Norma Gatton (who was aging) was putting out low-quality products, with amateurish mixes. The posthumous 1998 CD Untouchable could be offered in evidence of the second claim.
The suit was settled on April 2001. No one is going to get rich on the narrow taste for Gatton’s music. But they hope to keep his name alive among critics and record-buyers. So far, so good:
They just released FUNHOUSE, a live CD documenting a 1988 performance by Gatton’s big band of the time, plus famous pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons.
Rhino issued a nice 4-CD compilation, HOT ROD GUITAR: THE ANTHOLOGY, in 1999.
A 2003 biography (UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE LIFE & TIMES OF DANNY GATTON, by Ralph Heibutzki) documents every turn in his music and life (including his 1994 suicide).
Sixteen formal recordings under the Gatton name are available and in print on various labels, and dozens of bootleg CDs and videos (including Gatton’s instructional videos) are hot sellers on Ebay.
The Definitive Danny Gatton Web site (http://www.dannygatton.com/), a volunteer effort by family friend Steve Gorospe, provides astonishingly rich tapestry of Gattoniana for old fans and surprising numbers of new ones.
Gatton’s legendary basement tapes and his studio recordings “will give us a lot of hot stuff,” says Ed Eastridge of Big Mo. The Gatton estate included many cassettes of scorching live performances, as well as professional 24 track tapes. Outtakes from the Blue Note NEW YORK STORIES sessions are other likely sources.
The affair has split the Gatton family, with Norma and Danny’s younger brother (and occasional road manager) Brent, and his older sister Donna on the other side from Jan and Holly. Brent feels betrayed. “Jan and Holly weren’t involved in Danny’s music when he was alive, but they want to cash in now.”
A FABULOUSLY VOLATILE CAREER
Danny Gatton flirted with fame several times. He went from being the critics’ Next Big Thing in the 1970s, through decades in local honky-tonks and work as a sideman for country and rock stars, to “forgetting to call back’ John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival, and signing a major label deal—finally!—in 1990 at age 45. While operating beneath the notice of the mass market, he made serious contributions to the art of the guitar. Then he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, Oct. 4, 1994.
Gatton developed a unique jazz-country-rockabilly fusion by going strictly his own way. From the age of 10 he focused on music above all, sucking in new sounds and guitar licks from Roy Clark, Link Wray, and Charlie Byrd locally; jazz players like Charlie Christian; rock and rollers Buddy Holley, James Burton, and Scotty Moore; and country artists Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs; going to college in Les Paul’s guitar and recording experiments; and graduate studies in Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and Monk. He must have noticed Jimi Hendrix, but his playing showed no sign of it.
He issued a record every decade or so, and toured as a sideman when the money was right (with Roger “King of the Road” Miller, rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon, and others). Otherwise he hung out in his garage with a couple dozen old friends, drinking beer and working on guitars and hotrods and occasionally getting some music done. Every time he closed in on show business success, he made a sharp U-turn, back home to the garage.
His first rush of intense critical praise (in the late 70s) included a West Coast road trip in late 1979, to record there, including with Al McKay of the R&B supergroup Earth Wind and Fire. He quickly hotfooted it back—after only a couple of months—when he discovered how much he hated being away from his young wife Jan and family and friends.
So he couldn’t really tour. And he got bored playing the same songs in the same order night after night. In addition, he hated and feared the record industry’s functionaries (and suspicious of strangers generally). To top it off, he was self-conscious about his appearance--kind of short and tending toward chunky.
If you wanted to hear him you had to go find him, in one of those unlamented spots with Confederate flag decals on half the pickups. He’d be playing a Horace Silver number for a dance floor full of drunk segregationists, mixing licks from a Ricky Nelson record with soulful Wes Montgomery walking octaves. Guitarists from around the world made him a DC tourist stop.
But in the end he couldn’t resist the call of fame and money, because it offered a way to pay his debts to family and friends:
Jan paid the family bills for 27 years, with a wicked commute from Southern Maryland to her federal job in DC. This financial dependence rankled Danny, some say.
Norma invested tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours to his career, and was eager for him to succeed.
His daughter Holly, academically gifted, deserved the educational advantages that a more stable income could provide.
Musicians and technicians all welcomed the chance of a ride to fame and glory with Gatton.
In the late 80s he put out the word that he was open to a record contract. In 1990 he signed a seven-record deal with Elektra. 88 ELMIRA ST (in 1991) was a promising start, with some solid rockabilly tunes, a haunting version of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” and a futuristic lounge take on Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village.” It was nominated for a Grammy. CRUISING DEUCES, in 1993, the second Elektra CD, was nowhere near as fresh-sounding. In between was NEW YORK STORIES, VOL. I, an old-fashioned jam session on Blue Note Records, which suggests what he could have done if he had challenged himself musically.
A record contract is indentured servitude: working off the cost of recording and boosting sales by touring and touring and touring. Many musicians are comfortable touring year around, but Danny wasn’t. He grew more depressed the further away he got from home, and he started making excuses and then just stopped.
Elektra dropped him, of course. The local label Big Mo (run by old friends Ed and Dixie Eastridge) picked him up and recorded a couple of fine records that won’t appeal to the mass market, but show Gatton at his best: improvising his ass off. Danny was working more cheerfully and productively than ever, friends and colleagues thought. He was probably making more money than ever (from national TV commercials for Levi jeans and so on).
And then one damp October night, Holly phoned 9-1-1, because her mother had turned into a quivering jellyfish on the floor after finding Danny’s body in the garage, and was unable to call for help herself.
THE GATTON LEGACY
Jan and Holly plan to release a one or two new CDs every year, through Big Mo. They are by no means hungry, thanks to Jan’s government retirement and Holly’s education fund, built on donations from fans around the country.
The Gattons take pride in their rural traditions, in which obligations extend from generation to generation. Holly, Jan, and the Eastridges are working to pay those debts, just as Danny did. But they may have more realistic ideas about what success involves.
Jan and Holly see the Flying Deuces venture as a way to vindicate Danny’s reputation. They are willing to be “demonized” by some family and friends, Jan says, if it will serve that purpose.
“I love the music business,” Holly Gatton says. “Beyond my Dad’s recordings, I’m hoping to find young musical acts to manage and maybe record.” (That’s another thing her father would never have understood.)
Jan is satisfied that she did the right thing. “I was so grief stricken when Dan died,” she says, “that I just collapsed. He left me with all of those responsibilities, like finishing the house. That’s a job we used to share).”
Ed Eastridge, an old friend and fellow guitarist, says “Danny is one of the greats,” he says. “I’m sure he’ll be more and more widely recognized as time goes on.” He—like everyone in this story—is trying to repay the debt he feels to his old friend’s memory.
Danny Gatton Corner
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THE REDNECK JAZZMEN AND HIS FORMIDABLE WOMEN