WASHINGTON — His nickname was “The Humbler,” because that’s what Danny Gatton did to any guitarist who tried to match him lick-for-lick.
Born in D.C. 70 years ago, Gatton’s guitar mastery and distinctive style earned him the respect of guitar legends Eric Clapton, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Les Paul, even though Gatton was once dubbed “the greatest guitar player you’ve never heard.”
Gatton, who committed suicide in 1994, said his blend of rock, jazz, blues, rockabilly, country and soul came from the Anacostia Delta — the title of an in-the-works documentary about Gatton’s music and its impact.
“Danny was a Telecaster player,” says film co-producer Ken Avis. “That was key to his sound — it was a very rootsy, American amalgam of styles, a gumbo of styles.”
“Everything was melded together, and each style he played as if he were a master of that style,” says Avis. “And that style became known as the ‘PG County sound.'”
Based in Prince George’s County during the late 1970s and ’80s, Gatton and his bandmates honed what became an iconic musical style.
“This was a sound that was very much it’s own, genreless sound,” says Avis. “It broke all the barriers of all kinds of music.”
Gatton’s instrumental-based sound had similarities to another rootsy D.C. musician — Roy Buchanan.
Rolling Stone listed both Gatton and Buchanan on its Top 100 Guitar Players of All Time. Yet, Danny Gatton’s wealth of skills never made him a rich man.
“I think there was a definite sense of frustration about his lack of financial success, throughout much of his career,” says Avis.
Gatton didn’t care for traveling outside of the D.C. area, says Avis.
“He played hundreds of gigs at places like The Cellar Door, The Dixie Pig, The Bayou — these clubs that no longer exist. He was living, as most musicians in Washington, D.C. do, from gig to gig.”
After releasing many records on a label created by his mother, Gatton got a national record deal with Elecktra Records. With promotion, Gatton’s visibility increased around the country and overseas.
“He was struggling to get by, and that was reflected when he did die,” says Avis. “There were a number of tributes to help support his family and his daughter.”
In October 1994, Gatton locked himself in his garage on his farm in Newburg, Maryland, and shot himself.
“Some folks think Danny was dealing with depression for a long time; others say there was no sign of depression — people he spoke with that same day,” says Avis. “So, it’s one of those mysteries we’ll never really know the answer to.”
Avis says the new documentary is told firsthand by musicians who played with Gatton, many of whom are still playing in the D.C. area.
“There’s going to be a show at The Birchmere, featuring 30-plus of the musicians who played with Danny, bringing together his various bands over the years,” says Avis.
The sold-out Sept. 26 concert, featuring performers including Gatton’s longtime bass player, John Previti, and Billy Hancock, Dave Chappell, Dave Elliott and Tom Principato will be filmed and recorded for the documentary.
Gatton’s music has influenced so many musicians who are anxious to tell their stories of him that Avis expects editing the film will be a challenge.
“We’ll have to see how we can meld all of this into the length of a movie.”