By KENNETH JOHNSON
March 9, 1997
Thomas Gable doesn't move so fast these days, not nearly as fast as that night 35 years ago in an Alabama club when a jealous husband waving a gun sent a frightened audience rushing the stage and Gable and R & B legend James Brown out a back door.
His 69-year-old body, weakened by a stroke and heart attack, won't allow the kinds of wild guitar tricks and stage antics that earned the North Carolina-born bluesman his nickname, ``Guitar Gable,'' in the 1950s.
Time and the hard life of a traveling blues performer have drained Gable. He has to sit in a chair to play guitar (which he still does like no one else). He'll freely admit he's rusty, that his chops aren't what they used to be.
But when this gently grizzled bear of a man, a musician whose guitar licks can be found on a string of influential blues and R & B records from the late '50s, picks up his sunburst-colored electric guitar and strikes the first note, his massive thumbs bending steel strings as if they were rubber bands, one thing becomes clear: There's still magic in those hands.
If a select group of younger musicians and friends in Charlotte and Gastonia has anything to do with it, a new generation will get to experience that magic.
`Ready to do it'
Guitar Gable -- a musician who's shared the stage with everyone from Buddy Guy and Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin, Rufus Thomas and Albert King -- is back.
And he's writing, singing and recording new material.
He's still got it, too, according to guitarist Joe Convery, part of Gable's current band: ``Sure he does. I've done 2 1/2-hour sets with him. He's strong and ready to do it. In the right venue and when people come there for the right reasons, he's a blues artist.''
It's a fortunate turn of events for the Gastonia resident. He wasn't sure if he'd ever play guitar again after suffering a simultaneous stroke and a heart attack in 1987, while in San Francisco.
Gable, who was born in Salisbury and has lived all over North Carolina, was sent to the James A. Quillen V.A. Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn., to recuperate. His speech therapist turned out to be a blues music aficionado and a fan of Gable's.
``I had been lying up in the hospital for about six months before he discovered who I was,'' Gable recalled. ``He said, `I'm going to be more strict on you because I want you to get better so you can get out and play. You're wasting your talent here.' ''
Gable moved back to Gastonia after he was released from the hospital. He lives alone on a fixed income, without a phone or a car, his performing days nothing but a cherished memory, rekindled every time he looked at the newspaper articles about him on his apartment wall.
Until Neckbone found out about him, that is.
Neckbone, whose real name is Pete Fox, the popular host of a blues show on Gaston College's WSGE-FM (91.7), heard that Gable was still alive and tracked him down. He put Gable in touch with guitarist Convery about a year ago, and the two started collaborating.
``I had heard of the guy throughout the years, and I had heard some of his stuff. (But) I didn't know he was still around,'' Convery said. ``To be offered the chance to sit with him and write and record, it's just an amazing thing. There aren't too many of these guys left.''
Convery and Gable assembled a band and have been playing in Charlotte, usually at the Moon Room on South Tryon Street, for the past six months. They've also recorded a cassette tape of new tunes with Danny Fox, Neckbone's brother and a Gastonia studio owner and music producer.
Creating a unique style
Gable's musical re-emergence comes after a long and colorful career.
He started listening to popular American music early on, first Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, then folks like B.B. King and Muddy Waters when he was in his 20s. He got his first guitar, a Supro, when he was 9 years old, having been exposed early to the instrument thanks to his father, a folk guitarist. He developed a unique, self-taught style he still uses. Gable lays the guitar flat on his lap, the same way contemporary blues guitarist Jeff Healy does. But instead of using his fingers to form chords on the neck while picking the strings, he uses only his thumbs.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Gable became the guitarist for Gospel singer Madame Edna Gallmon Cooke. He came to the attention of Nashville-based Excello Records and Crowely, La., producer Jay D. Miller. Miller and the label were champions of a group of musicians that played Louisiana blues, also known as swamp blues, a sound characterized by trebly guitar leads, doom-laden vocals, and plenty of reverb. Excello released numerous Gable-penned tunes, including classics such as ``Congo Mombo,'' an upbeat number known by its instantly recognizable guitar licks, and the soulful ballad ``This Should Go On Forever.''
Gable also started incorporating tricks into his act in the '50s, playing the guitar behind his head or his back, playing it with his elbows, putting it on the floor -- outrageous, attention-grabbing antics that foreshadowed Jimi Hendrix.
While not as widely known as other artists in the swamp blues genre, Gable's playing nevertheless influenced a healthy chunk of musicians, including brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan.
``That's what made me get over when I played in Hollywood.'' he said. ``In California and New York, they got guitar players that make me look sick. But what gets me over is my style. There's no other guitar player in the world that plays it like me. I got my own style.''
While not as widely known as other artists in the swamp blues genre (Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim), Gable's playing nevertheless influenced a healthy chunk of musicians, including brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan.
Anson Funderburgh, a popular Texas blues guitarist, covered Gable's hit ``This Should Go On Forever'' on his first album, released in 1984. ``I love that Excello sound. There's a certain sound that those guys had; it was just the coolest. A lot of that stuff just sounded real haunting; it had an eerie sound.''
``Chattie'' Hattie Leeper, a DJ for Charlotte R & B station WGIV in the late '50s and early '60s, remembers playing tunes by Gable on her old program and announcing his upcoming concerts. ``I would give him a plug when he was in town,'' said Leeper, now chairperson of Gaston College's Radio Television Broadcasting and Technology department.
And blues musicians/collectors like the King Bees' Rob Baskerville in Boone and Charlotte's Tone Deaf James were shocked and excited to discover that Gable was still alive and performing.
Others are just as surprised -- and skeptical. Some have questioned Gable's authenticity. Causing more confusion is the fact that Gable's record label hired at least two other guitarists to perform under the same name, a common practice in the blues world of the era. There are still musicians out there said to be using the Guitar Gable name.
But Gable's new producer, Danny Fox, has no doubt in his mind.
Fox remembers seeing Gable play for the first time: ``When I saw him throw his guitar down and hit it with his thumbs, I said, `Man, this (guy) is the real thing.' I've never seen anybody play like Gable.''
And Fox recently tracked down an original 78 rpm record of Gable's hit ``Congo Mombo.''
``That's Gable on there; there ain't no doubt about it,'' said guitarist Convery.
As with many of the black performers of the day, Gable never received royalties for ``Congo Mombo'' or any of the other songs he wrote and played on.
``I was unfairly treated. We all were treated wrong. But there wasn't nothing we could do about it back then,'' Gable said. ``It's no sense of getting angry, though, because that's not going to help anything.''
Fox has managed to track down some minor royalties. Gable received a check recently from the AVI label, which owns the Excello name. Fox is continually writing record labels and publishing companies in search of others.
But Gable seems more interested in his musical future, not his past: ``What I've got to do now is start a new life. That's what I'm doing in the entertainment world.''
And he's doing it with gusto.
``The stuff he's writing now is better than what he was writing then,'' Danny Fox said. ``He's got 40 or 50 more years under his belt. He's got the desire to do it and the ability to do. He's not 100 percent these days, and the people who come to see him realize that. And this isn't the polished contemporary stuff.
``Hopefully we can generate some interest. He's still got a lot to give.''
Although Gable didn't sing on his old records, his new material features both his lyrics and vocals, plus plenty of those twangy guitar leads. Ten new tunes can be found on his new cassette, ``No! I Ain't Dead Yet!''
Said former DJ Leeper: ``He's a super talent. He deserves a break again. It's time now for him to resurface. I'd like to see him get back on the stick and get his name back in the lights again.''
Gable's all for it.
``This is my living; this is my occupation. I'd like to do it every day,'' he said.
``I like to make people happy with my music. It makes me feel good to have people enjoy my music. And the bigger the audience, the better.''