October 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.”