June 1, 2003

Danny Gatton, Tom Principato
Blazing Telecasters
Nearly ten years after his untimely death, Danny Gatton seems like a phenomenon that came and went with the speed of one of his jaw-dropping solos. But, for decades, Gatton was one of the best-kept secrets of the Washington D.C./Maryland area, dazzling local club audiences before finally breaking out on a national level in 1991 with his tour-de-force album, 88 Elmira St. A country/jazz/rockabilly guitarist of seemingly boundless ability, Gatton was also a guy who was probably happiest just playing locally with his friends—one of whom was blues guitarist Tom Principato.

A new DVD release, Blazing Telecasters, provides a golden opportunity to witness Gatton years before he became legendary, as he and Principato—a fine picker in his own right—stretch out on six instrumental tracks (with repeat takes of two songs added as a bonus). The 45-minute television studio performance (which also features John Previti on bass, Mike Sucher on keyboards, and Tony Martucci on drums) finds the two guitarists trading solos in a relaxed and mutually respectful manner. Gatton shifts in and out of warp speed so effortlessly it’s almost scary, and just watching him do his classic beer-bottle jazz thing, or simulate a pedal-steel are enough to make one feel, well, humbled. We spoke with Tom Principato about what it was like to play with the undisputed master of the Telecaster.

Give us the history of the Blazing Telecasters band.
I’d known Danny since 1974, and we used to hang out and do gigs together. During one of the times when Danny sort of went into retirement, I attempted to get him playing again by doing a bunch of shows with him in my band—which we billed as “Blazing Telecasters.” This DVD is a performance we did for Maryland Public Television in May 1984.

What is it about the musical environment in the Washington D.C., area that could spawn such a guitarist as Gatton?
There’s a particular guitar tradition around here that goes back to Link Wray and Roy Buchanan, and much of it is centered on the Telecaster. Roy was the most influential guitarist in Washington in the ’70s, and Danny was influenced a lot by him. But where Roy was focused on one thing, Danny became way more versatile.

Do you remember the first time you saw Danny play?
Yeah. He had a ’53 Tele with stock pickups, a 4x10 Bassman, and an Echoplex. Back then, his style was James Burton and Chet Atkins and a lot of rockabilly. Later, a sort of Charlie Christian/ Wes Montgomery thing started to come out in his playing. In the late ’70s, Danny released Redneck Jazz with Buddy Emmons on steel, and, at that point, it seemed like he just started putting all those styles together at once.

What was it like playing with him?
It was both intimidating and stimulating. I just tried to hold my own. We had such contrasting styles, but they were complementary. He was definitely from a honky-tonk country background, and my background was blues. But we met in the middle with the swing stuff, which we both loved. Danny wasn’t competitive or a head-cutter, but it was clear that he could dominate. So once you accepted that he was the king—and I never had a problem with that—you’d just get up there and have fun. If you could keep up with him, it was really cool.

Describe the gear you’re both using on the DVD.
Danny had a silverface Fender Vibrolux and a ’53 Tele with Barden prototype single-coil pickups. This was around the time he and I first hooked up with Joe Barden, and my Tele also had two Barden single-coils. I used a ’53 Fender Pro along with an old Fender reverb unit and an MXR stereo chorus.

What kinds of things did you learn from Danny?
I saw how cross-pollinating styles could be a really cool thing, and that’s something I do now. Danny also did this thing where he’d play guitar by himself while the band laid out. He’d just go off and start playing stuff he’d never done before. Danny was also the first guitarist I ever saw play jazz chords through a Leslie speaker in the style of [organist] Jimmy Smith.

Was there anything unusual about the way his guitars were set up?
No—his guitars always felt great to me. In fact, Danny was an excellent repairman, and I used to take my guitars to him for setups. He could also do the more complicated stuff, like making nuts from scratch, and he knew how to work on amps, too.

Did it seem like he was optimistic about his future?
Yeah. I think he knew he was going to get a lot more attention as time went on, but Danny was such a homebody. He liked to tinker with his cars and guitars, and he didn’t like to travel. I think he had sort of relegated himself to just playing the clubs around D.C.

What changed after he signed with Elektra?
He didn’t seem as happy. There was a lot of pressure on Danny to get out and tour and sell records, and I don’t think he was comfortable with that. His first album sold pretty well, but the second one didn’t, and then he got dropped. I think that was a big setback for him.

When was the last time you saw Gatton?
It was about a year and half before he died, at a benefit for a drummer named Dave Elliot who had played with Danny [on Redneck Jazz]. I remember thinking that he seemed kind of down. Danny didn’t volunteer much about himself, though, so all you really ever saw was the guy who was smiling and shaking your hand and playing great guitar. I still don’t think anyone really understands what happened to him. Powerhouse.

—Art Thompson


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