Guitar legend Danny Gatton referred to the Washington region as the “Anacostia Delta.” (Claudio Vazquez)
The film “Anacostia Delta: Home of the World’s Great ‘Unknown’ Guitarists” promises to shed light on the lasting influence of guitarist Danny Gatton and the music of D.C. and Prince George’s County roadhouses and honky-tonks.
(A sneak preview of the documentary, still a work in progress, is sold out for its Feb. 25 screening at AMP by Strathmore. )
Gatton, a child prodigy who was called “the humbler” and “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist,” played his first paying gigs at 13 and could reputedly play any song by ear. His technical prowess humbled other aspiring pickers and sent many back to the woodshed. But beyond the speed and flash, Gatton moved audiences with his bluesy lyricism. His suicide at age 49 in 1994 shocked the D.C. music community and musicians worldwide.
In June 2015, 30 instrumentalists performed in concert at Alexandria’s Birchmere music hall to honor his legacy. Fifteen were guitarists, and most of them played a Telecaster, the bulky solid-wood model that produces the piercing treble tone favored by Gatton and guitarist Roy Buchanan.
“About three years ago, the idea of rekindling something about Danny on a concert stage took root,” said the film’s director, Bryan Reichhardt. “Not only putting together a film but events and festivals. One of our models was ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ [Wim Wenders’s film about Havana musicians],” Reichhardt said. “Danny was the fulcrum. We knew people would rally around that but we really wanted to tell the story of D.C. Danny synthesized everything but [the music] was already a melting pot.”
Chick Hall Jr., far left, Tom Principato, Frankie Shegogue and Anthony Pirog perform in the documentary "Anacostia Delta: Home of the World's Great 'Unknown' Guitarists." (Jeromie Stephens)
The “Anacostia Delta,” Gatton’s nickname for the Washington region, is a play on the Mississippi Delta, home to an instantly recognizable style of blues. And the bright and twangy synthesis of country, rhythm-and-blues and jazz played by guitarists such as Gatton and Buchanan is as unique to the Potomac region as deep blues is to the Magnolia State. This D.C. style could be described as a mix of guitar twang and Hammond B-3 organ soul. But that’s only part of it.
The stylistic gumbo took hold in the 1960s because so many of the area’s musicians worked six or seven nights, often at the same bars and often with audiences expecting they would take requests.
“If you were around during the 1950 and ’60s, well into the ’70s, if you were in a country band, you were expected to play everything. You had to play jazz, standards, Top 40,” said John Previti, the film’s music director and former Gatton bassist.
“I remember working with old-timers on wedding gigs and they’d play medleys,” he said “They wouldn’t name the songs, just call the key. Luckily, I knew the melodies. Danny was like that. His eyebrow would go up and you’d have to follow where he was going.”
In one filmed interview, singer Ron MacDonald from Gatton’s first professional band, the Offbeats, recalled a lounge gig where, with impish delight he performed an entire set of different versions of Erroll Garner’s “Misty” — “Misty” in a Latin rhythm, “Misty” as a ballad, “Misty” as a shuffle — just to see if people listened.
A common denominator for many players was a desire to remain in — or return to — the D.C. area. Reichhardt noted that most “don’t seem to be thinking, ‘I’m going to Nashville to make it.’ ”
“Musicians in this area — somehow they want to make a living at it but they don’t want to change what they do,” he said. “They don’t want to conform. Danny didn’t want to be pigeonholed musically. And he loved [restoring] cars as much as he loved playing music.”
The film combines music and interviews to highlight Gatton’s career, touching on local musicians who influenced him. There are sections devoted to guitarist Chick Hall Sr., who ran the Surf Club, the Bladensburg honky-tonk; R&B saxophonist Joe Stanley, who led one of D.C.’s finest variety bands, the Saxtons; and Stanley’s guitarist Frankie Shegogue.
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Shegogue, an unheralded virtuoso from Southern Maryland, befriended the 10-year-old Gatton while both were trying out instruments in a store, and he later mentored the youngster. Buchanan, whose string pyrotechnics rivaled Jimi Hendrix for innovation, also casts a tall shadow in the narrative.
Musician Dave Chappell, who was Gatton’s protégé, appears in the film. (Jeromie Stephens)
The concert included a reunion of Gatton’s early band, Danny and the Fat Boys, with singer Billy Hancock; a tribute by bassist Steve Wolf and steel guitarist Gary Lee Gimble to Gatton’s Redneck Jazz collaborations with pedal-steel guitarist Buddy Emmons; and a performance by Tom Principato, who coaxed him out of a brief retirement in the 1980s. Appearances by Gatton protégé Dave Chappell, former Miles Davis sideman Mike Stern and jazz player Anthony Pirog, who was 14 when Gatton died, brought the joint Gatton-Buchanan legacy forward.
The Anacostia Delta Trio, with Previti, guitarist Jim Stephanson and pianist Tim Ford, is scheduled to perform before the screening. A question-and-answer session with the film’s creators will follow, with outtakes and interviews that won’t be in the final film.
The filmmakers emphasize that the AMP presentation is not the final cut that they hope to eventually present at festivals and market to theaters, television and for DVD. The next scheduled screening is May 24 at the Alt Guitar Summit, a festival in New York City.
“We’re raising money to pay for the music rights for future screenings and for footage from old television shows and photos,” said producer Suzanne Brindamour. “Certainly, we’ve received many things from musicians themselves but we’ve had to dig for archival elements. ”
“How to fit it all in is the challenge,” she added. “There were so many great stories. With so many great guitar players, we are afraid of leaving something out.
“We wish we could do an entire series on Washington music.”
“Anacostia Delta: Home of the Great ‘Unknown’ Guitars” Film preview with live music, doors open 6:30 p.m., Feb. 25. AMP at Strathmore. Sold out.