The music world lost one of its most talented, yet chronically underexposed members when Danny Gatton died of a self-inflicted gun blast on October 4, 1995. His blazing virtuosity combined with a love of country, bluegrass, jazz, rock, and rockabilly to produce technically complex compositions infused with a soulful expression reminiscent of guitar legends Eric Clapton and the late Les Paul. Though major labels waited 20 years to release a Gatton record, the Washington, D.C. native built a cult following among other musicians who remain awed by his incredible abilities. Longtime friend and bandmate Evans Johns remarked to Guitar Player, “Danny had God’s hands. I heard God come out of his amp.”
After years of major-market obscurity, Gatton released two albums on Elektra Records in the early 1990s. 88 Elmira Street, released in 1991, captured critical attention and a Grammy nomination, though sales were modest. With critical praise and major-label support, the future looked very bright for Gatton. However, management changes at Elektra two years later left Gatton suddenly without a contract even though he had recorded only two of the seven records his deal stipulated. Contributing to Elektra’s decision to drop Gatton was the fact that he played so many styles of music so well. From a marketing standpoint, his records are nearly impossible to categorize and difficult to promote to any single demographic. Rolling Stone editor David Fricke told the Baltimore Sun, “He was so well-versed in so many genres that he was almost the classic outsider who didn’t fit into any category.” For his part, Gatton told Guitar Player, “I never understood why certain players would limit themselves to just one style.”
Born in the Anacostia section of Washington, Gatton grew up in a home where music was a constant. His father was a professional guitarist who played in big bands around Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, while his grandfather and great-grandfather were fiddlers. Gatton knew music would be his career at a surprisingly early age. “I must have been two years old because I was lying in a crib. The sun was shining, and I started hearing this beautiful improvisational music,” he told Guitar Player. “To this day, I don’t know what it was; it sounded like something from heaven. After that I knew I was going to have to play, and I’ve been hooked on music ever since.” After two years of lessons, Gatton’s instructor told his parents that no more training was necessary—the 11-year-old could sight read just about any composition and imitate guitar licks after hearing them only once.
After a brief stint with a Washington teen-club band, the Lancers, in 1957, Gatton was well on his way toward a musical profession. At 14, and with the help of a clever
Born Daniel Gatton, Jr., September 4, 1945, in Anacostia section of Washington, D.C.; died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, October 4, 1995, New-burg, Maryland; son of Daniel Gatton, Sr. (a guitar player in big bands in the Washington, D.C. area) and Norma (operates NRG Records of Alpharetta, Georgia); brother, Brent; married wife, Jan, 1968; daughter, Holly, born in 1981.
Began taking guitar lessons at age seven; professional career started at age 14, playing in Washington, D.C. teen-club band, the Lancers; joined the Offbeats shortly thereafter; played in and around Washington for many years with occasional New York performances; recorded American Music, 1975, on Aladdin Records, then released Redneck Jazz in 1978 on NRG Records; left for Nashville, c. 1968, to work as a session guitarist, returned to Washington six months later; after a hiatus in his musical career, returned to eventually record Unfinished Business in 1987; signed first major-label contract in 1990 with Elektra; released 88 Elmira Street and Cruisin’ Deuces before being dropped by label; recorded jazz album, New York Stories, 1992, for Blue Note Records; signed to Big Mo Records of Vermont; released Relentless, 1994; toured Europe and the United States, summer 1995.
Selected awards: Grammy nomination in 1991 for 88 Elmira Street; received over 70 Washington Area Musician’s Awards (WAMMIES) over the course of his career; named best country guitarist by Guitar Player. 1989-93.
fake I.D., Gatton began playing in Washington clubs with several bands and quickly built a solid reputation as an outstanding young guitarist. According to Jack Casaday, who eventually played with Jefferson Airplane but started on the Washington nightclub circuit with Gatton in a band known as the Offbeats, “If you had Danny in your band that night, then you had a good band,” reported Rolling Stone. His notoriety soon landed opportunities to join other acts in New York and the rest of the country, but the acutely modest Gatton preferred to remain in his hometown. It was his modesty and some simple bad luck that joined together to leave Gatton a regional legend, but nationally unknown.
Gatton continued honing his talents in the 1960s, spending time studying the jazz guitar styles of Wes Montgomery and Howard Roberts, and maintained his Washington club schedule. The Offbeats played constantly around the D.C. area and managed to find gigs in New York and other East Coast cities. Looking to finally make a name for himself outside his familiar Washington surroundings, Gatton met up with fellow Washingtonian and rockabilly guitarist Roy Buchanan in Nashville in the late 1960s and worked as a session musician. Only six months later, a homesick Gatton returned to work in Washington cover bands. Offered a job with pianist Robert Scott for a steady New York City gig, Gatton declined in favor of his hometown. Gatton felt that if Buchanan—who claimed in 1970 that he was asked to join the Rolling Stones—could carve out a well-respected career from Washington, then its clubs could propel him toward the same. “[Buchanan] didn’t have to go anywhere to be discovered,” Gatton said to Rolling Stone.
Gatton formed Danny and the Fat Boys in the early 1970s after a respite from performing, during which period he managed a guitar shop in suburban Maryland. The group’s reputation grew quickly as Gatton dazzled audiences with Fender Telecaster wizardry, marked by his beer-bottle slide-guitar technique. Sparked by mounting regional interest, Gatton and the band released American Music’m 1975. The album and its successor, Redneck Jazz, received some critical attention and today rate as collector’s items, but sales were low. Based on the band’s popularity with critics and musicians, more than one major label showed interest in signing the band and re-releasing Redneck Jazz. After bringing Gatton to New York for a private performance, the label reportedly decided against his band based on a single label executive’s vote against them in final negotiations.
While Gatton’s decision to remain around Washington contributed to his lack of major-market success, his career is also marked by an occasional bad turn of fate. Once offered a job playing with former Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, Gatton accepted, only to learn of George’s untimely death due to a heart attack the following day. Years later, an agent called to see if Gatton would be interested in supporting John Fogarty, formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival, in an early 1980s solo tour. After telling the agent he would call the next day to confirm plans, Gatton forgot to make the call, distracted by his second passion, restoring old cars. He told Rolling Stone, I just plum forgot about it. I went back to screwing the grill on the car and didn’t think about it anymore.”
Though the record-buying public remained largely unaware of his gift, music professionals never ignored Gatton’s talent. Asked by Blue Note records to play in a jazz quartet in 1992, Gatton’s work on the album, New York Stories, again found critical praise. He appeared on albums by Chris Isaak and Arlen Roth, and with the release of Relentless in 1994 on Vermont’s Big Mo Records, Gatton was at his highest point yet on the commercial scale. American and European tours in 1995 accompanied growing sales and ever-present critical support, raising only more questions as to why he chose to end his life. “He was more of a person than a musician,” Dave Elliot, former band-member and longtime friend, told the Washington Post. “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.”
Gatton’s reputation among his peers was cemented with feature articles in Guitar Player, Rolling Stone, Guitar World, and Musician. Gatton was constantly hailed as one of the biggest talents in contemporary music. A 1989 issue of Guitar Player claimed Gatton to be “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist.” Gatton supported both Robert Gordon and Roger Miller in session work and his technique was chronicled on instructional video and the pages of guitar magazines. In recognition of Gatton’s musical innovations, Fender Guitars issued a limited edition Danny Gatton signature model Telecaster with the custom fixtures Gatton built into his vintage 1953 model. The guitar featured a solid steel tail piece and hot-rodded pick-ups, upgrades Gatton used to create blazing arpeggios and rhythms built on his unique finger-picking style. It was a style Gatton himself termed “redneck jazz.”
American Music, Aladdin Records, 1975.
Redneck Jazz, NRG, 1978.
Unfinished Business, NRG, 1987.
88 Elmira Street, Elektra, 1991.
(Contributor) New York Stories, Blue Note, 1992.
Cruisin’ Deuces, Elektra, 1993.
Blazing Telecasters, Sky Ranch Records, 1993.
(With Joey DeFrancesco) Relentless, Big Mo Records, 1994.
Baltimore Sun, October 6, 1994.
Dallas Morning News, June 25, 1993.
Down Beat, January 1995; December 1994.
Guardian (London), October 14, 1994.
Guitar Player, January 1995; November 1994; July 1993.
Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1994.
New York Times, October 7, 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 18, 1989.
Sacramento Bee, July 2, 1993.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 4, 1993; August 26, 1993.
Record (Bergen Co., New Jersey), October 7, 1994.
Washington Post, October 6, 1994.
Washington Times, October 11, 1994; October 9, 1994; October 6, 1994.
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