Pretending to be Danny
In 1975 I heard George Benson's guitar playing for the first time. I was young (I turned 20 in November of that year) but had been playing guitar professionally since I was 14. School functions, coffeehouses, night clubs, parties- you know the deal.
I had taught myself in the mid-to-late '60's by listening to records. Hendrix, Cream, Mountain, Santana. Guitar trios, mainly. Conceptually, the music I liked was improvisational and that's why I wound up loving jazz.
I was also influenced by acoustic oriented songwriters - James Taylor, Neil Young etc.
George Benson was completely different than anything I had ever heard before. I bought every George Benson album I could find. Very shortly that led me to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Pat Martino. During this time I also discovered John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Al Dimeola, John Scofield, Barney Kessel and many more.
After a couple of years of trying to teach myself that George Benson style I had to admit to myself that my “talent” wasn't enough - that MAYBE in 10 years I could fake it but I would never know what I didn't know.
At that point I began to look for a teacher. I bar-hopped incessantly looking for a guitar player who played the way I wanted to play, who played that stuff I was hearing and couldn't figure out. It seemed like every guitar player I talked to said, "John Elliott".
I wasn't convinced however. John didn't even play guitar; he was a piano player (the guitar subculture is very inbred). Little did I know that John was the guy who would eventually put it all together for me. In the meantime I found Danny Embrey.
"This," I said to myself, "is the guy!"
Every Sunday night I would go out to his steady gig at the Boardwalk Restaurant, and listen to him play with his trio; Greg Whitfield on bass and Don Van Fleet on drums.
It was an exciting time for me - what I was hearing was exactly what I wanted to be able to play. It became one of my life goals just to get good enough to keep up with these guys. In addition to that, I talked Danny into giving me private lessons.
I studied with Danny in August-September of 1978. At my 5th lesson Danny said,
"This will be your last lesson because I'm moving to L.A. next week and I don't know if I'm ever coming back."
I was devastated.
"What'll I do?" I asked.
Danny said, "You need to study with John Elliott. I got all my shit from him. He's a little tough but it's worth it."
THAT was the understatement of the year! In resignation I said, "Ok, I might as well go to the source. It seems like all roads lead to John Elliott."
Danny gave me John’s number and told me he had a year's waiting list, but that he would call him and put in a word for me. A week later I phoned John,
"Yeah," he said, "Danny told me about you, you're on the list, it’ll be about a year." (More on John Elliott.)
The next time I saw Danny he was on the Johnny Carson show playing with Sergio Mendez.
He subsequently played all over the world with Sergio and also Clare Fischer. He's toured and/or recorded with such notables as Gary Foster, Steve Houghton, Alan Broadbent, Gene Harris, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Sheppard, Barry White, Shelly Manne, Monty Budwig, Annie Ross, Sam Most, and Leroy Vinnegar.
He spent years touring and recording with Karrin Allyson. Embrey appears on eight of Allyson’s recordings, has toured worldwide as her musical director and was co-producer on two of her albums: “I Didn’t Know About You,” and “Azure-Te.”
Eventually, he did come back to Kansas City where he continues to perform and teach.
In the ensuing years, Danny and I would cross paths now and then; I subbed for him a couple of times with the Sons of Brasil and also with David Basse.
In 2001, Danny wrote a review of my method book, "Vertical Truth - Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar" for Jazz Ambassadors Magazine.
Several years ago, I was playing a steady Sunday night jazz gig with a drummer and an upright bass player - it was the drummers' gig.
At the end of the gig one night the drummer says, "I'm not going to be here next week so you guys will need to find someone."
I looked at the bass player and said, "Is there a drummer you would prefer?"
He says, "Uuhmm...I'm not going to be here next week either."
"Ok," I said, "I get it, I'm going to have to put a band together to play this gig next week."
So on a whim, I called Greg Whitfield and Don Van Fleet, and they both took the gig! Ha! I was as giddy as a schoolgirl! It only took 30 years!
At the beginning of the night they were both looking at me, waiting for me to call the first tune, and, savoring the moment, I just started going, "Heh, heh, heh, heh!"
They were like, "What? What's so funny?" And I'm like, "Heh, heh, heh, - I'm playing with the Danny Embrey Trio... only now it's not Danny, it's ME!"
Don looks at Greg and says, "You just never know how you're gonna affect someone, do you?"
“Nope” says Greg, "You don't."
We then proceeded to cross one of the items off my bucket list; I played a gig with the Danny Embrey Trio - and pretended to be Danny.
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