Q&A with Texas guitarist Gary "Gator" Millhollon (Ray Reed & Gator) world-class musicians living and playing the Blues

"Blues brings people together and it always will."

Gary "Gator" Millhollon: Real Blues

Ray Reed & Gator are two world-class blues musicians living and playing in the DFW area of Texas. Between the two of them, they have worked with the "whos-who" of the blues world: Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Jimmy Reed, Johnny Winter, George Thorogood, Keb Mo, Jimmy Vaughan, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Louisiana Red, Guitar Shorty and more. Ray "Ray Boy" Reed Ray Reed, from Maypearl, a small town just south of Ft. Worth, TX, was born the son of sharecroppers in 1940. Granddad Willie Parramore showed Ray his first guitar, and he learned his first song from Uncle Bob. Growing up he listened to records on his grandma’s Victrola such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Little Son Jackson, and Rosetta Tharpe. He saved his money from working in the cotton fields and at the age of 16 he bought his first guitar at a pawn shop in Ft. Worth. Since then, he has played all over the US and represents the origins of delta blues as played in South Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Former bass player for Freddie King, Ray knows it all from his vast experience in playing and singing the blues.                Gator on stage / Photo by David Lanford

Gary "Gator" Millhollon played for 10 years with T-Bone Turners Band and with Missing Pages in Austin, Texas. He spent more than 15 years playing the Indian casinos in the Southwest with the Blue Rhythm Kings. Gator has played in London England and Dublin Ireland, and all over Texas, NM, Colorado, Arizona, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Memphis.  Between the two of them, they have worked with the "whos-who" of the blues world: Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Jimmy Reed, Johnny Winter, GeorgeThorogood, Keb Mo, Jimmy Vaughan, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Louisiana Red, Guitar Shorty, Joe Tex, ZZ Hill, Bob Corritore, and more.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues people and culture?

Charlie Musselwhite once said, “Blues people play the blues because they love it. They don’t play for money or popularity.” I think that’s right on the spot. People who love the blues feel the blues and know that blues is about life. They appreciate each other and the universal bond that is there. I don’t care if I’m in London, Dublin, West Texas, Mississippi or Austria. I can start playing a shuffle in E and everyone on stage jumps in and follows.

What does the blues mean to you?

Blues is the origin of most popular music in America….country, rock, pop, ragtime, Dixieland, jazz all came from the blues. It’s the mother of the music here. I’m sure that many older cultures (such as Greek, Chinese, Middle-Eastern) have their own “original” music but in the US, blues is the starting point.

How do you describe Gary Millhollon sound and songbook?

My sound is probably not too very special. I usually play my 335 or Les Paul through a Fender tube amp, sometimes a Bad Cat or a Peavey Delta Blues—occasionally a Marshall or a Vox. I play my Tele occasionally but not much my Strat. I do use my Strat now and then for recording a rhythm track, but the Gibsons are my favorites —but my sound is a little bit of Freddie, a little bit of Jimmy Reed, a little bit of some of the other greats. Like most players, I take what I hear that I like.

Songbook—lots of Freddie and Jimmy Reed, some Albert, BB, Hound-Dog, Guitar Slim, Slim Harpo, some Jimmie Vaughan, some Buddy Guy, some Rolling Stones---Keith is a true bluesman at heart and some of his riffs are sweet. I also like to play Ray Charles and Junior Wells. I occasionally pull out an Elvis rock-a-billy song just for fun. You know his first hit---That’s All Right Mama---was really an Arther Cruddup song---great bluesman from Mississippi. Elmore James, Tampa Red---I could go on for pages, really. So many great bluesmen over the years.

What characterize GATOR music philosophy?

Blues is real and you can feel it. Some of the greatest blues folks are ones we’ve never heard of. I’ve gone through Mississippi and just walked in and played juke joints. There are men, and women, out there who have been playing 40-50 years in the same little club every week and never anywhere else. No one outside that town knows who they are---but some are every bit as good as some of the famous ones.  

My philosophy is to play what makes people happy and play what makes you happy. Occasionally, someone will walk up to me at a break and say, “hey you shouldn’t have played that one song---that’s not a real blues song.” We call them Blues Nazi’s.  I tell them to go the Library of Congress and you will find the song list that Muddy Waters was using at house parties before he got discovered. It has lots of blues songs, but it has songs by Arthur Godfry, Hank Williams and other folks you wouldn’t call bluesmen. 

One night, after a concert backing Willie Dixon, a guy in the house started playing piano while everyone was talking with Willie. He started playing a Hank Williams song and one guy there says “Don’t be playing a country song while your company here is Willie Dixon.”  Then Willie says, “Leave the man alone. Hank William is one of the best blues writers and blues singers that ever lived.” So, don’t put too many labels on the blues and try to block it in like it’s a bug in a jar. As my current blues partner, Ray Reed, taught me (that he learned while he was Freddie King’s bass player) “You gotta give the people what they want.”

"I hope more people discover and get into the blues. I fear that they may not." (Ray Reed & Gator jammin' / Photo by Candi Hume-Thompson)

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well, yes. I was a rocker when I was a kid. At 5 years old, I saw Roy Orbison play with his band in the parking lot of a furniture store in Odessa, Tx. I’d never seen electric guitars before. It blew me away. He wasn’t famous yet, just a local boy but he sure was good. When I was little, the radio stations in the US didn’t play music by Black people. So, Little Richard would play a song on a small AM radio station in Alabama or Mississippi that played what they called “race music.” Elvis would hear it and sing the same song and it would go to #1 because he was white so it got airplay.

 I was a kid and got a little transistor radio. There was a station in Mexico that was 500,000 watts and it would broadcast out and you could pick it up. Well, Wolfman Jack was the DJ and he didn’t give a crap about white or black so he’d play everything. When you hear Muddy, Wolf, Little Richard, Big Joe Turner you say to yourself “OK, that’s where this stuff comes from and it’s fucking GREAT!!!!” So, by the mid 50’s, you started hearing Jimmy Reed on the white stations, then Chuck Berry, and then it broke on through.

Why do you think that the Texas Blues scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

Well, Texas has it all---blues, rock, country, Tejano, German polkas, black gospel—I mean Texas is the ultimate melting pot for music. Lot of folks don’t understand that “the South” starts in Florida and ends up in southeast Texas.  When you get to east Texas you can’t tell where Texas ends and Louisiana and Mississippi begin.

You ever look at the list of blues musicians who came from Texas? ---try this short list-  Freddie King, Steve & Jimmie Vaughan, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lil Son Jackson, Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, Smokin Joe Kubec, Leadbelly, Mance Lipscomb, Lonnie Mack, Delbert McClinton, Guitar Shorty, Big Mama Thornton, Pee Wee Crayton, Doyle Bramhall (and his son), Ray Reed, Buddy Whittington, WC Clark, Anson Funderburgh, TuTu Jones, and I’m sure I’m leaving about half of them out. In fact, only Mississippi can come close to producing as many famous blues musicians and singers as Texas.

But, I’ll be honest, the blues crowds are good in Texas but not among most of the young people. I see that less than 10% of the crowds are young---most are middle-aged or older.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

I have been so fortunate to back many of my heroes in the blues. One of my greatest nights was after a gig when Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton told me “Gator, you are now an official member of the Muddy Water’s Band blues family.” My brother Ray Reed was named a Living Legend by the City of Fort Worth last year. He’s a tremendous player and a dear friend. Buddy Guy is one of the most honest and kind persons I ever met. We had a couple of times together and I helped out his late brother once when he was in town without an amp. Buddy remembered that little thing.  George Thorogood is a fine fellow with a great sense of humor. Louisiana Red touched my heart like Ray Reed. Playing with him and Bob Corritore was a golden night for me. Keb Mo—twice—has shown me his kindness. He’s probably one of the most talented guitar players of any genre of all time but a sweet and humble man. Tu Tu Jones and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith—wonderful, talented and fun people. If James Brown was the hardest working man in Soul, Willie took that honor in blues. When he finished a gig, there was a ring of sweat on the floor completely surrounding his trap set. You’d wonder how a man that slim could lose what looked like 10 pounds of water.  Johnny Winter---what an artist! And he was a living, walking library of the blues. He knew ALL of them, knew their stories, knew their licks. You could name anyone and he’d play their style—exactly! Also a very kind person.  Big Memphis Jerry-when I first met him he was playing outdoors in Memphis on Beale. I walked up and said “I’m Gator from Texas—will you let me sit in? I know all the stuff you’re playing.” He’s a HUGE guy and very intimidating he didn’t say anything. I said, “I’ve got a brand new bottle of Jack Daniels we can share after the gig—it’s right there in my gig bag.” He grabbed his microphone and yelled, “Hey everybody, my main man from Texas, Gator, just showed up and he’s gonna join us—give him a hand.” It was a great and fun night.

Canned Heat—wonderful guys—just regular guys who happen to be fantastic blues players.

Possibly my biggest influence was a little-known guy named Alvis Wheeler Glaspy. When I was a young boy, he lived across the street from me and my parents in Austin, my home-town.  He was a one-man performer who could play anything on the piano and guitar. He was local and he would let me sit at his feet when he practiced. When my folks would be at a house party where he played he’d let me sing with him and he gave me my first guitar—a great big old Harmony acoustic with f-holes.

"The simplicity. Many people want a polished, finished product. Now Joe Bonamassa is a fantastic player and singer and his band is absolutely top-knotch. I love listening to him and watching. But I also love the down home blues. When you hear a group of guys who can play live like Jimmy Reed or Slim Harpo did---warts and all---it just warms my heart." (Photo: Gator & Buddy Guy)

Are there any memories from James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Chuck Berry which you’d like to share with us?

Well, Pine and Cotton were both great. Pine told me some great stories from his younger days---started out as a guitarist til his girlfriend caught him with another woman. Beat him so bad that it tore the tendons in his left arm and he couldn’t play guitar anymore so he took up piano.  James Cotton—just passed a few weeks ago---what an incredible harp player and a heart of gold.  So kind and sweet. His stories of when he first met Muddy were amazing. Muddy had fired Lil Walter and saw Cotton playing somewhere and hired him on the spot. Well, in those days they didn’t put pictures on the record covers. Cotton was a huge fan of Muddy’s but had never seen him. Cotton told him to get lost---didn’t believe that he really was Muddy Waters.

Chuck Berry---well, he was as important to blues and rock as anyone who ever lived. Personally, I can’t say he was the nicest man I ever met but he was cordial to me. He could sure rip a musician apart if they messed up---whew! I felt sorry for one guy who he told to get the hell off the stage in the middle of a concert---and did it loud.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

The simplicity. Many people want a polished, finished product. Now Joe Bonamassa is a fantastic player and singer and his band is absolutely top-knotch. I love listening to him and watching. But I also love the down home blues. When you hear a group of guys who can play live like Jimmy Reed or Slim Harpo did---warts and all---it just warms my heart. Blues jams in Mississippi, South Chicago, and East and North Texas still have some of that. It’s like real leather—it has a few scratches and scars---but it’s real and that’s where it all came from. It’s hard to find that. Guys like Ray Reed and Chuck Berry mix it up every time they play. If you do the same song with them 10 times, every time---they do it different—a different key or a different pattern or a different rhythm. It keeps you on your toes and it makes it very real and immediate for the players and the listeners.  In 2010, I was talking to Buddy Guy before a concert. He’s asking me about Jimmie Vaughn (since I’m from Texas) and we talked a little about how we miss Stevie.  About that time, Jimmie had just released his CD Ballads and Blues. It just full of the style of what I call “juke box blues of the 50s” style. It was all recorded live and was just so real. I told Buddy I loved the CD. He said, “Gator, that CD is about all I been listening to  lately---ain’t that great?” Yes---he felt what I felt for that CD and for Jimmie. Three months later, I run into Jimmie and I have my old 1937 EH-150 guitar amp. It’s the old Charlie Christian blues amp of the 30s. It’s tweed and looks like a suit case. When you snap it open, you take off the back and plug in your guitar there and put the back out of the way til after the gig. I show Jimmie and it has all of these guys signatures I’ve talked about above----Muddy, Buddy, Pine, Willie Dixon, etc.

Jimmie says something like---this is fantastic. And I say, “Yeah and that spot right there is for your autograph.” He says, “Gator, I’m not that good a bluesman to have my name next to these guys.” I said, “Bullshit---you’ve got 2 grammys, you’re world famous and Buddy Guy just told me that your new CD is all he’s listening to these days.”  Jimmie just smiled real big and said OK and signed it.

That type of respect for the blues of the past is one of the many great things about Jimmie Vaughan.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope more people discover and get into the blues. I fear that they may not.

(Photo: Gator & Pinetop Perkins)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That real music with real instruments and real people playing them becomes the norm again. Not to knock my fellow Texan, Beyonce, but Joe Walsh said that her last CD had 6 producers and 1 musician listed on it. So, I guess, some guy with a keyboard and computer played everything. People must like that kind of music, but I see her on TV and she’s beautiful and a fine singer but it’s a big choreographed dance sequence with digital music playing behind them.

What has made you laugh from Canned Heat and Guitar Shorty?

Canned Heat were great guys. At the time I was playing a Dr.Z amp (Maz Jr212) and their guitarist (forgot his name—sorry) was intrigued by it. We got to have guitar talk. They were real people and played real music. 

Last time I saw Guitar Shorty we were playing at a blues festival and so was Guitar Shorty. Keb Mo was the headliner. That picture where he and I were laughing---here’s that story. Shorty says “man Keb’s drummer is hot stuff” which he is of course.  Then Shorty says “I’m gonna catch up to him and hire him away from Keb.”  Now, Keb’s won something like 12 grammys, he goes from Dallas to LA to Madrid to London to Australia in a jet. Shorty and his band are travelling together with their gear in a Dodge van on a 12 city tour. I mean, that van was trashed and they were squeezed in there like sardines. No offense to Shorty who is a fantastic player and  performer, but hey, man--- you gonna steal Keb’s drummer away? I think I said something like---Yeah, Clapton’s gonna hire me to play all the solos on his next CD and he’s gonna play rhythm guitar.

What touched (emotionally) you from Louisiana Red?

Red played and lived in Germany for many years---30?—because he made good money over there. People in the US didn’t know him much so he’d get here and play to small crowd who would pay 1/3 or ¼ for tickets that the guys in Europe paid. But he loved America—his home country and he was a veteran.  So he’d come back every year or so and do a small tour.  When he got in for his gig, his plane had got stuck somewhere and he’d been on the plane for something like 18 hours. He was old, tired and beat. The plane staff had spilled coke all over his treasured old Kay electric. He came in the club about an hour before the concert and I was introduced to him. Bob Corritore the ace harp player was with him and they were very close.

I tell Red what a great treat it is to meet him, how I loved his music and his style and tell him that it’s such an honor that he would go through and play the gig and not cancel.  He just smiled and shook his head and said “That’s okay GA-REEEEEE.” He said my given name- Gary-- just like my grandma used to say it—not Gary but GAAA-REEE” Now, I knew his history---his life was full of bad things—his mother died at his birth, his father was lynched and killed by the Ku Klux Klan when was 7, he was beat and mistreated by his adopted parents til he ran away with his little guitar at around 12 and lived on the streets. He eventually made it up to Chicago where Muddy Waters took him in and taught him a great deal and got him gigs. So---here is this guy with this long troubled life, and then all the stuff that had happened to him over the last 2 days on the plane and he’s still as sweet as an angel—smiling all the time, making little jokes. Just an absolute saint of a man. The concert was great—very old-time delta blues—great playing and singing—very kind to me in every way. When he signed the poster for me he said, “GAAAREEEE you really are a special friend to me.” He hugged me for a long time. I never saw him again, but I’ll never forget the man. I still listen to his CDs often.

"Blues is the origin of most popular music in America….country, rock, pop, ragtime, Dixieland, jazz all came from the blues. It’s the mother of the music here. I’m sure that many older cultures (such as Greek, Chinese, Middle-Eastern) have their own “original” music but in the US, blues is the starting point." (Gator and band on stage / Photo by David Lanford)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Well, I was always a guy with a day job who played on weekends. When I was in my 20s I made the decision that I might not ever be good enough or lucky enough to make a good living as a musician, so I went the routine of a “weekend warrior.”  When I lived in New Mexico, I used to play the casino circuit. They had about 10-15 casinos because of all the Indian tribes there. Often blues and soul guys would come into town and my band would open or back them. One night a gentleman who was an R&B hitmaker I won’t name was visiting with me before the gig. I asked him, “What’s it like to have 6 hits in the top 10 on the pop charts?”

He said “Gator, for the first few years it’s great. Then the hits stop. Slowly the crowds get smaller and the pay gets to be less. You’re on the road all the time, so your wife divorces you, your kids don’t know you. One day, you wake up, you’re 60 years old, no family and you don’t know how to do nuthin else. You’re stuck singing the same damn ten songs 4-5 nights a week and staying in a shitty hotel. You were a lot smarter than me. Thank God you chose the right path.”

What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, I’m probably not the guy to ask such a heavy question. But I know that when I play blues---there is no black and white on the stage or in the crowd. When I go down to Mississippi and walk into a juke joint where I’m the only white guy—it’s no big deal. Blues brings people together and it always will.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

As it relates to blues, I’d say the following: 1943—go to a house party with Muddy Waters in the delta before he was discovered and became famous.

Ray Reed & Gator - Home

Photo by Candi Hume-Thompson

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