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Sep 202015
 

danny+gattonOctober 4, 1994 – Danny Gatton was without a shadow of a doubt the most underrated guitar virtuoso the US ever produced…so far. He fused rockabilly, blues, rock, jazz, and country to create his own distinctive style at a mind boggling speed.

Born in Washington DC on September 4, 1945, he began his career playing in bands while still a teenager and began to attract wider interest in the 1970s while playing guitar and banjo for the group Liz Meyer & Friends. He made his name as a performer the 1980s, both as a solo performer and with his Redneck Jazz Explosion, in which he would trade licks with virtuoso pedal steel player Buddy Emmons over a tight bass-drums rhythm which drew from blues, country, bebop and rockabilly influences.

He also backed Robert Gordon and Roger Miller. He contributed a cover of “Apricot Brandy”, a song by supergroup Rhinoceros, to the 1990 compilation album Rubáiyát. Danny was ranked 63rd on Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of all Time in 2003 and on May 26th, 2010 but Gibson.com ranked him as the 27th best guitarist of all time. I would rank him in the top 10. He was Joe Bonamassa’s mentor in the late eighties, early nineties.

Danny tragically committed suicide on October 4, 1994 at age 49 at his farm 
in Newburg, Md. 
Friends and family were stunned by the sudden death of the internationally renowned musician, who was a longtime fixture on the 
Washington music scene. 
According to lt. Joe Montminy of the Charles County sheriff’s office, 
police received a call from the Gatton home at 9:30pm. An emergency 
medical services team arrived at 9:41pm and pronounced Gatton 
dead of a gunshot wound to the head that “appears to be 
self-inflicted,” Montminy said.

According to Danny Gatton’s brother, Brent, he and the guitar 
virtuoso spent much of the day restoring one of Gatton’s prized vehicles, 
an 1934 Ford panel truck. “We were drinking a couple of beers and 
talking about things in general, but when I left at around 6, he seemed 
fine,” said Brent Gatton.

Booking agent Patrick Day says he talked to Gatton “five times that day and there was just no clue. We were talking about a 
big wedding in Arizona he was to play on Oct. 22 for a lucrative sum 
and expenses, and Danny laughed and called it ‘Christmas plus!” 
later in the evening, Gatton’s wife, Jan, and daughter, Holly, 
returned from a school function and found Gatton somewhat agitated. 
Sometime after 9pm he left the farmhouse and, according to a source, 
said, “I cant take this anymore.” Gatton then went to a nearby garage 
and apparently shot himself.

As word of Gatton’s death spread, musicians, both local and national, 
expressed shock about the silencing of a guitarist famous for his 
mind-boggling chops and blistering speed, a master of texture and 
techniques who transcended such genres as country, blues, bebop, bluegrass, 
rockabilly and jazz through witty melds and supple, seamless segues. 
At Gatton’s performances, other guitarists tended to crowd around the 
front of the stage in hopes of getting a closer look at him working on his 
customized ’53 Fender Telecaster. To them, he was a master craftsman, almost beyond reach.

Those who stuck around and got to know him found a genial, down-to-earch, 
charismatic character with a great sense of humor. 
According to Chris Gill, an editor for Guitar Player magazine, Gatton 
was acclaimed for the diversity of instrumental styles he excelled 
in. “Unfortunately, from a commercial standpoint, that kept him from 
reaching the audience he should have, but it also earned him the admiration 
of countless musicians.” 
It was Guitar Player that put Gatton on its cover in 1990 and called him 
“The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist” (and then asked, “What famous 
guitarist could outplay him?”). A year earlier, Rolling Stone named him 
that year’s “Hot Guitarist,” with a story headlined: “He’s the fastest 
player alive–how come no one knows his name?” 
One reason is that Gatton was slow to record, reluctant to travel and 
declined to move to such major music centers as NY, Nashville, and 
L.A., where he would have undoubtedly become a recording session superstar.

His roots were clearly in Southern Maryland–his family first settled 
there before the Revolutionary War–and with his own family: his wife 
(to whom he’d been married for 26 yrs) and 13-yr-old daughter. 
“His family was his uppermost concern,” said bassist John Previti, 
who started working with Gatton in ’76. Previti had talked with Gatton 
on tuesday and said he did not sound at all despondent. “He was unhappy 
about money problems, and was trying to renovate the house. He was 
just trying to lead a good life and have a good life for his family.”

In 1991, Gatton signed a seven-album deal with Electra, his first 
major label after half-dozen albums on tiny, independent labels 
(including one run by his mother, Norma Gatton). He titled the 
first Elecktra album “88 Elmira Street” after the first Anacostia 
home where he was born and raised, but the album didn’t sell particularly 
well; neither did its follow-up, “Cruisin’ Deuces.” and the label 
dropped him. 
Gatton admitted once that he had trouble hitting “that commercial nerve,” 
but he also looked on his situation with understated wry humor.

Several 
years ago, he noted that “I’ve been built up and let down so many times I should change my name to Otis.” 
But drummer Dave Elliot, a friend of more than two decades and a 
former band mate, said he had sensed a low level depression “since 
I first knew Danny. He knew what the music business did to him and 
for him… but this can’t be blamed on family or the music business– 
Danny had something much deeper to do something like this. It’s not 
the blues, it’s depression, and there’s nothing you can do when it gets 
to that point.”

Brent Gatton said there was no particular incident that might have set his brother 
along the path he ended up taking. ”A whole lot of little things piled up on 
him and he just snapped.” 
There had been some high points in recent years, including Fender’s manufacturing 
of the Danny Gatton signature guitar, the most expensive guitar in its line. Gatton, who 
had a lifelong passion for cars as deep as the one he had for guitars, traded the 
original model for a ’34 Ford truck worth $18,000–and insisted he got the best deal.

He was the frequent poll winner–from 19 local WAMMYs (from the Wash. Area Music 
Assoc.) to guitar player’s reader’s poll (he was named best country guitarist in 1993 
and was runner-up in the year of his death). 
But there had been hard times as well. It would seem that his biggest blow 
came when he was dropped by Elektra, but Previti says Gatton actually was “relieved–we’re not 
pop stars and it was a big load off him.”

Gatton than released a critically 
acclaimed small-label offering teaming him with jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco and 
was working on a live recording with his current trio. 
The year before, Gatton’s bassist, singer and close friend of more than 20 years, Billy 
Windsor, died of a heart attack.

Given Gatton’s dislike of traveling, opportunities to work were somewhat 
limited. “There were just too many gigs that beat you up,” said Previti, noting that 
gatton might be willing to work four-day weekends, or two weeks at most, but that he 
did not want to be away from home for long. 
“Danny was always searching for security for his family,” said Gatton’s drummer, 
Tim Biery. “More than anything on this earth, he loved Jan and Holly.” 
In recent years, Gatton had made moves from being a guitarist’s guitarist to 
becoming something of an entertainer, but too many seemed overwhelmed by his skills. 
As Guitar Player had noted, Gatton was “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.

“Technically, no one could touch him,” fellow musician Jonn Jennings said. “No 
one. He did things that one shouldn’t be able to do on guitar and he was learning to 
emote to meet his technique and that’s what so sad, that we won’t get a chance to hear 
that.”

For someone who had received so much acclaim, Gatton was burdened with a surprising 
sense of insecurity. When Partick Day told Gatton about the Arizona gig and the high 
fee, “Danny couldnt believe they would pay that ‘just for me’. He’d tell me he had a 
hard time even facing the audience: ‘They just look at me and I get nervous.’” 
“There was no single instrumentalist in any style, on any instrument, that did what 
he did,” added Previti. “He was in a class by himself–no question, he could do 
anything he wanted to. Even after all these years, Danny continued to come up with 
stuff I never heard before, and it was always amazing to me. I never took it for 
granted.” Neither y the way did Danny Gatton. He’d been musically intensive since the age of 2, 
and a virtuoso by 10 (teachers, including fabled Sophocles Pappas, told his parents that 
lessons were useless because Gatton could hear anything once and play it). Instead, 
he remained a populist student, listening to the radio and his family’s records, 
absorbing blues, rockabilly, jazz and western swing, country and other 
blue-collar-rooted music of the ’50s. Gatton always paid homage to the great 
guitar stylists who originally inspired him and ultimately joined them as inspiration 
to others.

He started playing in bands at 13, graduated from teen clubs to 
nightclubs and even became, briefly, a hired guitarist in the bands of assorted 
country and rock-and-roll mini-stars. 
But Gatton also retired several times, stopped playing in public and working in a 
Waldorf metal shop. Rumor had it that when Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John 
Fogerty came out of his long retirement, he offered Gatton the guitar slot in his 
band. Gatton never called back. 
“He was so talented you’d think his whole life would revolve around guitar, but it 
didn’t,” says Dave Elliot. “He was more of a person than a musician. Danny’s whole 
approach didn’t have anything to do with being a star–he played for his soul and his 
guitar. I guess being a regular guy and a musician just doesn’t work in the end.”