Danny Gatton

I’ll wager that most of you don’t know the name. He was a guitar player from Washington, D.C.

Like some other great players I can think of — Roy Buchanan and John Bushnell come to mind — Danny Gatton was revered by his peers (“revered” is almost an understatement) — but never achieved the renown he deserved. He put out some albums of his own, and worked was a sideman for Roger Miller and Robert Gordon, but was little known by the public outside of his local club circuit.

From Wikipedia (visit the article for the many links this excerpt contains):

Gatton’s playing combined musical styles such as jazz, blues and rockabilly in an innovative fashion, and he was known by some as “the Telemaster.” He was also called “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist”. His most common nickname was “The Humbler”, owing to his ability to out-play anyone willing to go up against him in “head-cutting” jam sessions. It was Amos Garrett, guitar player for Maria Muldaur, who nicknamed Gatton “The Humbler”. After a successful gig, Garrett would pull out a tape of Gatton and tell his band, “You think we played well tonight. Let’s take a minute to listen to the Humble-lizer.” A photo published in the October 2007 issue of Guitar Player magazine shows Gatton playing in front of a neon sign that says “Victims Wanted”.

However, he never achieved the commercial success that his talent arguably deserved. His album 88 Elmira Street was up for a 1990 Grammy Award for the song “Elmira Street Boogie” in the category Best Rock Instrumental Performance, but was beaten by Eric Johnson with “Cliffs of Dover”.

His skills were most appreciated by his peers such as Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, and his childhood idol Les Paul. During his career, Gatton appeared on stage with guitar heroes such as Alvin Lee and Jimmie Vaughan, the latter literally walking in one night on a Gatton club gig. There is also an apocryphal rumor about an on-stage “head-cutting” jam between Gatton and fellow Washington DC-area resident (and Telecaster player who also held the title of The Greatest Unknown Guitarist) Roy Buchanan. (Gatton had roomed with Buchanan in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid ’60s and they became frequent “jamming partners”, according to Guitar Player magazine’s October 2007 issue). He also performed with old teenage friend Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen (from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) as “Jack and the Degenerates”. Those recordings were never commercially released, but live tapes are in circulation. In 1993, Gatton was invited by rocker Chris Isaak to record tracks for Isaak’s San Francisco Days CD. Reports of where Gatton’s playing can be heard on the CD vary, with unconfirmed reports placing him on either “Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me)”, “5:15” or “Beautiful Houses”. Gatton reportedly brought a customized Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster to the recording session.

YouTube has many clips of Danny Gatton; you can start here, here, and here.

I got to know Danny slightly, when my friend Lance Quinn was producing a record for Robert Gordon at the Power Station while I was a staff engineer there in 1984. Nice guy. And man, could he play.

I’m sad to tell you that, like Roy Buchanan’s, Danny Gatton’s story does not have a happy ending: he shot himself dead in 1994.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    Brilliant guitarist. I have the CD where he does brilliant covers of the Beach Boys’ In My Room and (of all things) the theme song from The Simpsons.

    Posted June 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  2. I caught Danny in live performance once at a Washington street festival. He was among the half-dozen or so finest electric guitarists in my experience.

    His lack of commercial success was, I believe, down to his versatility. He could, and did, play in a huge range of styles. But most audiences have limited tastes. They want minor variations on the same thing over and over. (Blues fans are the bottom, in my view. What started as a creative expression among rural blacks, expanded to black urban culture, and was sometimes thrillingly taken up by (mostly white) electric guitarists devolved into a default mode for a zillion bar bands — pleasing audiences who want to hear the same patterns continually).

    I believe it played a large role in Danny’s tragedy that he was far above this cookie-cutter playing, wanted to push out in every direction. But the variety was too much for the comfort of blues, heavy metal, or even folk-ish audiences of his time.

    Posted August 1, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink