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John McGann

06/29/2012

john mcgan/1

by Huck Bennert and Chip Taylor

I first met John McGann in 1990 when I was working as a house engineer at Wellspring Sound. The studio at this point was in a small basement in Newton Center. We were working on a jazz-bluegrass CD for John’s good friend and musical partner, Hiro Arita. Lots of uptempo Django Reinhart-type stuff. It became clear very quickly that not only was John an INCREDIBLE musician who could play nearly any stringed instrument, but he was also a really nice guy and had a wicked sense of humor.

 
A few quick stories I’ll always remember:

 The next time we worked together was on a session for John’s friend – Irish tenor Billy Walsh; mostly a folk and bluegrass CD. John played the most beautiful acoustic guitar solo on one of the ballads; the song name escapes me. For a couple days we were all talking about what an amazing sounding solo it was. A few days later I came in to discover that during an overdub session one of the other engineers had accidentally recorded over half of the solo! We spent the better part of that day trying to recreate it; John playing beautiful solos one after another, but none had “the juice” of that original solo. It’s like the tale of the fish that got away, only a few of us will ever know how big that fish was; and nobody would believe it if we told them.

On a tongue-in-cheek song called “Alone and Sober Again” Billy sings about how great it is to be sober even if he’s alone. In the background is the “drunk chorus” of all his friends singing along in the bar. The late Johnny Cunningham – a brilliant fiddler – and John McGann, among several others, are having a bit of an inebriated argument in the background in between trying to sing each of the choruses as they go by, getting worse with each attempt. It’s hysterical! The very last thing you hear as the last note of the song fades out is John slurring the words, “I’ll bite ya”. John didn’t really remember saying that line, but as the engineer I heard it over and over again as we were mixing, cementing it in my memory. For years after, whenever I’d see John at a session the first words out of my mouth as I’d go to shake his hand would be, “I’ll bite ya.” It always made him laugh.

During the Hiro Arita sessions, Hiro was insistent on fixing up any small mistake on his many solos. This is before digital editing, so we were punching in on analog tape. LOTS of punching. Hiro had this funny way of asking to do a punch. He would suck air through his teeth (Ssss) and then slowly say this: “(Ssss) … I … ah … I wondah … if … could I … ah (Ssss) … do a … ah … punch in at ” – such and such a spot. He said it that way every time. Well John, who was his good friend, thought this was hysterical, especially considering how many punches we were doing. So he starting imitating Hiro. Tape would stop and before Hiro could ask, John would get on the talkback and do the imitation back at Hiro. Hiro would laugh, of course, and it would be a while before we could continue. This became a running gag between me and John long after Hiro’s CD was done. Anytime I’d be doing an overdub session with John, and he needed me to punch him in, he’d do the imitation of Hiro.

Over the 20 years I knew him, John recommended me for many many recording gigs that ultimately led to relationships with the other players: Frank Ferrel, Peter Barnes, Bob Childs, Jim Whitney, Dave Mattacks, Joe Derrane, Johnny Cunningham, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez – to name a few. I’ll always be grateful for this. I had a standing invite from John to stay at his house in Roslindale if I happened to be recording in the Boston area and didn’t want to sleep on the studio couch. “Come by even if you don’t need a place to crash. We’ll hang out and have a few beers.” With the changes in recording technology over the last decade, I’ve found myself doing more mixing at home in Maine and less tracking in the studio. It’d probably been 3 or 4 years since I’d seen him. In the back of my mind, though, John’s invite was still there and I always intended to take him up on it. But I never got around to it. Now it’s too late. Let that be a lesson to us all.
 
            To John McGann, a true Rock & Roll Joe.
 
            May all the mandolins in heaven play in tune.
 
- Huck Bennert (May 2012)

It was 2001. Carrie Rodriguez and I were just back from touring Europe on behalf of my solo album, “Black and Blue America”. Carrie was killing the audience with her fiddling, her harmony singing and something new – a duet of “Storybook Children” – which was totally taking down the house. Not being totally stupid, I had written several songs for us to sing. And now we were ready to record our first album together.
 
Having never met John McGann, but after hearing great things about his musicianship from Carrie, engineer Huck Bennert and others, I called him on the phone.  I remember liking him immediately and asked him to play guitar and mandolin and be band “leader” on our first duet album, “Let’s Leave This Town”.
 
The other principal musicians we hired were all John’s friends – the great Dave Mattaks on drums and the soulful Jim Whitney on upright bass. We recorded in a humble studio in Boston – Rear Window – actually in the basement of a private home.
 
Before recording, the musicians stood around the piano and took notes as Carrie & I sang the song. After one listen through, we’d play the song again and John would join in. From the first note he played I knew some magic was about to happen. The thing I immediately loved about his playing was his use of silence. He never interfered with the message of a song, he only added to it – playing the prettiest and warmest bluegrass-like licks that accented my acoustic guitar and complimented Carrie’s fiddling perfectly.
 
After the success of our first album, Carrie and I came back to do it again – with the same soulful line-up, which led to our #1 Americana album, “The Trouble With Humans”. Again, John’s beautiful playing is all over that album as well.
 
But for Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, our success all started with that one-of-a kind magical John McGann guitar intro to our first hit, “Sweet Tequila Blues”.
 

 
Every so often Carrie and I would return to play in Boston – on a few occasions John would stop by and join in. It’s been several years since I last saw John, but I was so saddened by the news. What a warm, kind guy and what a magical player! Thanks John! – CT

 
A few weeks ago Carrie got the sad news and sent this loving email:
 
“On a much more somber note….one of the guys in that bluegrass band (we opened for) told me that he heard John McGann had just passed away. I don’t know much except that he had cancer and it moved pretty quick. It’s so sad…he wasn’t that old. I remember that he had young kids when we were making our records…he used to talk about them a lot when we were recording. He was such a great guy and sure added a tremendous amount to those records we made.”

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, Guitarists, Instrument

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

03/05/2012

sister rosetta tharpe

by Rosanne Cash

I heard my dad mention her many times, and heard him say she was his “favorite singer.” It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I really listened to her myself, and I understood what she meant to my dad, and how influential she had been. I can imagine him listening to hear over the radio, that combination of spiritual and badass, and how my dad integrated that VERY combination into his own musical persona. Read Full Article

Posted in 1950s, Decade of Note, Guitarists, Instrument, Singers / Tagged ,

Andrew Gold

06/08/2011

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Once again we have to add another Joe a little earlier than we planned – Andrew Gold died this past week.

Gold had a few big hits as a solo artist but he still is a true Joe. His work as a studio musician in Southern California during the 70s helped define a whole sound. He played multiple instruments (piano, guitar, etc.) on Linda Ronstadt’s breakout album, Heart Like A Wheel, and her subsequent hit records. Check him out on guitar and backing vocals here on Linda’s cover of the Everly Brothers classic:

Gold went on to record with Maria Muldaur, Carly Simon, Karla Bonoff, Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Jennifer Warnes, Nicolette Larson and many others. But despite all this great work, Andrew Gold will probably be best remembered for the use of his song “Thank You For Being A Friend” as the theme song for Golden Girls.

Here at Rock and Roll Joe we will remember all the good stuff.

Posted in 1970s, Guitarists, Keyboards / Tagged

Pete Girardi

05/26/2011

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{Today’s Joe comes from Al Gorgoni, a Joe himself. Apart from his influence on Al, Pete’s guitar from 1957 remains one of the most famous guitars in history. The “Teardrop” model by John D’Angelico is rare and unique and was made specially for Girardi. Read more about it in Guitar Heroes.]

Pete Girardi was my teacher, my friend, my big brother and if guardian angels exist, he was mine. There are people we encounter that open doors for us that completely transform our lives. Pete did that for me. He was a traditional player from the Django Rienhardt school of playing. He loved music and played with such passion and emotion. I think that’s what inspired me most. He was the kind of musician that causes you to feel something, that wonderful kind of bliss that wakes up your heart.
That was his gift.

He taught me how to read music and sent me to Joe Biviano to study theory. What I learned from Joe enabled me to do the work in writing and arranging that I was called on to do later .
Pete took me under his wing. I would have my lesson on Sunday at 12:30 at his parent’s apartment where he lived. After a while his mother and father began inviting me to stay for Sunday dinner. His parents were Italians who had immigrated to Argentina and then here.

After eating a wonderful meal the instruments would appear. Ralph, Pete’s father played the accordion, the kind with buttons instead of keys. We would accompany him on beautiful South American tunes as well as Italian songs that I had heard ever since I can remember. We had a great time.

After a year or so Pete got a job in Greenwich Village. It was in a very nice supper club called Charles the 4th. It just happened to be on the corner of Charles and Fourth St. He invited me to work with him. Just the two guitars. We would play sets and accompany various singers for the show. We did standards, show tunes, continental music, some jazz, and certain beautiful Italian classic songs. I learned the gig by Pete calling out the changes to me over his shoulder while playing the leads. All this was happening at the time I started in the music business. That’s another story.

Al Gorgoni

Posted in 1950s, Guitarists, Teachers/ Family

Cornell Dupree

05/17/2011

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“Not many people read the back of albums.”

That’s what Cornell Dupree told an interviewer years ago. But here at Rock and Roll Joe we do read the back of albums and an awful lot of them featured Cornell Dupree’s name next to “guitarist.” He played with the best of the best – Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr and Miles Davis all featured Dupree on their records.

One of Cornell Dupree’s signature riffs can be heard on Brook Benton’s version of Rainy Night in Georgia – a truly great song.

But Dupree’s best work may have been with Aretha Franklin. He played on some of her biggest studio hits like Spanish Harlem

And Dupree was also part of her touring band (he started out with the King Curtis band) and can be heard on her seminal live recordings like the amazing Live at the Fillmore West.

Cornell Dupree went on to work on his own projects, including a stint with the jazz funk band Stuff in the 1970s.

We had hoped to post about Cornell Dupree sometime in the coming year but we had move it up because he passed away last week at the age of 68. But his music lives on and he will always be a true Rock and Roll Joe.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Guitarists

Baker Knight

05/11/2011

Baker Knight

I never met Baker Knight. I wish I had. But what little I do know about him has held my interest for almost 50 years.

Baker was born in Birmingham Alabama in 1933. He played guitar, wrote songs and fronted several local bands including Baker Knight and the Knightmares.

With dreams of making it big, Baker moved to LA in 1958, hoping to get his songs recorded, secure a recording contract or become a movie star. For several years he struggled with little success in any of these endeavors.

A chance meeting with Ricky Nelson provided the songwriting break he needed.

Nelson decided to record two of Baker’s songs which helped establish him as a songwriter. The two songs Nelson recorded were Lonesome Town which reached #6 on the Billboard charts and I Got A Feeling which reached #11. Ricky Nelson recorded many more Baker Knight songs as did Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Gilley.

[This was the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year in 1975]

Throughout his life Baker continued to write, record and release his own recordings but found little solo success.

He returned to Birmingham Alabama in 1985 where he unfortunately developed and struggled with some serious health problems. He died in 2005.

Lonesome Town in my opinion is one of the greatest rock n roll ballads ever written. It certainly may be one of the saddest.

Baker has yet to be recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Songwriter Hall of Fame.

A true Rock and Roll Joe.

Kevin Hale
Westlake Village California

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Guitarists, Songwriters

John Vandiver

04/25/2011

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by Robert Earl Keen

I grew up in Houston, Texas, in the the sixties and seventies.  The Houston music scene at the time was healthy, albeit somewhat undefined.  Lightning Hopkins, Houston’s most famous bluesman, was feeling his oats.  The Thirteenth Floor Elevators had a national hit.  And when you turned on your radio and heard “This is Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, y’all.  Put that hamburger down and let’s all do the Tighten Up!” Well…you had to do what the man said, and get to dancin’.

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were writing songs there in the late sixties.  Their presence gave way to a new and vibrant group of singer-songwriter folkies who emerged in the early to mid-seventies.  Houston became a small haven for these young song slingers.  Pool halls and beer joints abandoned their hardcore, country shuffle bands and started holding open mike nights.  Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, Eric Taylor, and Lyle Lovett were among this throng of troubadours who played for tips and beer in the neon coated Gulf Coast nightlife.

I loved them all.  However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver.  Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son of Santa.  He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters when he broke into “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy.  He had a gentle speaking voice that turned into a golden megaphone when he belted out “Send Me to the Electric Chair” or “Saint James Infirmary”.  His timing was atomic and the solos he played were melodic and rocking and unimaginable to me given that he played solo.  John was equally magnetic when he fronted a band or was called up to lead a finale, but the magic was seeing one man make so much sound.

Vandiver was humble and gracious to other performers, whether he was giving a short history on the song he was about to perform or sharing the bill with national touring acts, he was more than generous.  I remember seeing him open for Willis Alan Ramsey to a packed house.  John started his set by explaining that he was the opening act and we could talk and scream to our hearts content while he was on stage.  Then he paused and said, “Willis is the greatest thing going and you guys need to listen when he sings.”  Of course as you can guess, John wound up doing three encores.  So in the end it wasn’t just the music, it was the man and warmth and courage you could feel every time he took the stage.

John Vandiver was murdered in 1985 by some drug dealers who mistakenly thought he was the involved in a high level cocaine operation.  When they realized their error and wound up empty handed, the dealers shot John and slayed his girlfriend.

Shortly after the tragedy, John’s friend, guitar maker Bill Collings packed up his one man shop and dedicated his life to helping the police find John’s killers.  Collings could not stand to see the case go dark.  He worked tirelessly with the Houston detectives until eventually the assailants were apprehended and sent to prison.  Bill reopened his guitar shop and within a few years was making some of the finest guitars in the world. He still makes them today.  You would have to ask Bill, but I believe Bill found his calling and his muse in the musical life and tragic death of his dear friend, John Vandiver.

Posted in 1970s, Featured, Guitarists, Unsung Hero / Tagged ,

Hank Garland

03/13/2011

hank garland

by John Platania

Hank Garland was one of the first guitar players I ever listened to – along with Chet, Wes & Jimmy Bryant. “The Unforgettable Guitar Of Hank Garland” was for me, a very early introduction into jazz. Then I bought “Jazz Winds From A New Direction”. There may be a third album but I think that’s the extent of his solo output. Sadly, a car accident ended Hank’s career in his prime. I never knew Hank was primarily a country picker until years later – and an “A” team guy at that.

To this day those aforementioned albums still hold up. Just amazing playing. They offer up no clue that Hank’s main gig was as an ace country picker. I don’t know of any guitarist who could own either genre so completely.

I’m not really familiar with all that Hank did as a session player. However one session I heard years ago that must have been his was The Everly’s “Don’t Blame Me”. The guitar playing on that record is not only very jazz-like, but it is some of the most exquisitely tasteful, from-the-heart playing you’ll ever hear. Later, I had the chance to ask Harold Bradley (another unsung guitar hero) if that was Hank on that track and he confirmed it.

Posted in Featured, Guitarists

Greg Gwardiak aka Greg Richards

01/04/2011

By Chip Taylor

Greg Gwardiak – (changed his name to Greg Richards)

If it wasn’t for Greg, I wouldn’t be making music today. Here’s the story:

When I was in high school, Greg was the lead guitarist for one of the only country bands in New York’s Westchester County area. Like me, he lived and breathed country music. And through that connection, we became friends.

Greg wasn’t a schooled player and he wasn’t about flash of any sort. He played up-tempo songs so understatedly cool & warm and the ballads so soulfully sad. Unexpectedly, the lead singer of his group quit. Greg said I could take over his job if I learned to play guitar in three days. Up until then I played only ukulele.

So Greg taught me three chords, gave me a capo & let me borrow his “second” guitar. The show went on as scheduled. I started writing songs for the band and we made some rockabilly demos. When all the major labels turned us down with a form letter, Greg walked the streets of New York trying to get us a deal -which he did! It was with KING RECORDS, a New York all black label run by legendary A&R man/producer, Henry Glover (from Hank Ballard & The Midnighters and James Brown fame). Henry was personally involved in all our King recordings.

In the 70s and 80s Greg often played with Tammy Wynette on her East Coast tours.

Greg passed away in the late 1996 – Here’s a big toast to my old friend. THANKS GREG!

Posted in Guitarists

Al Gorgoni

01/04/2011

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By Chip Taylor

In the early 1960s, I wrote a song called “Springtime”. I was living and working in New York. I needed a guitar player that sounded like he was from West Virginia or Tennessee. Someone suggested Al Gorgoni. What a great day that was for me. Not only was he perfect for that demo, but he was perfect for all my country flavored stuff.

Al & I became great friends. We recorded a duet hit together. Billed as Just Us, “I Can’t Grow Peaches On A Cherry Tree” sold over a half million copies in 1964. We produced James Taylor, Evie Sands and one track (Brooklyn Roads) for Neil Diamond. And we wrote a bunch of songs together, including “I Can’t Let Go” for The Hollies and Linda Rondstadt, “Pretty Colors” for Frank Sinatra and “Sweet Dream Woman” for Waylon Jennings.

Al was lead guitarist on hundreds of hit records in the 60s. And how about this for a R&R Joe hero – he played that amazing signature guitar lick on Brown Eyed Girl! Whether he was playing acoustic or electric guitars or arranging parts for an orchestra (he did that brilliantly as well), this was/is one soulful guy.

Posted in Guitarists

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