Today during Berklee College of Music’s commencement ceremony, Matt Glaser nudged me and shared somber breaking news: “Johnny Gimble just died.” In a split second, the world became a little less swinging.
Johnny Gimble: legendary fiddler; consummate entertainer; deft bandleader; witty raconteur; kind, generous teacher; family man. Only last week, Matt and some of our string faculty were enjoying and analyzing Johnny’s extraordinary “Beaumont Rag” solo from his “Fiddlin’ Around” LP (Capitol 11301, 1974).
After the second hearing, Mimi Rabson shook her head in admiration: “What a sound! We should require every Berklee string player to learn that!” Matt agreed: “It’s the greatest improvised violin solo on record.” Though Johnny would have been tickled to see the joy his playing gave us, I’m positive that he would have shrugged off our urges to canonize it.
Johnny frequently summarized his approach to improvisation by relating a life-altering conversation he had with his elder brother following one of the Saturday night dances they had played as teenagers in rural Texas:
One night, as he was driving me home in his pickup, my brother said, “Johnny, I’m disappointed in you.” I said, “Why?! I thought I played well tonight!” He said, “Johnny, you played the same solo you played last Saturday.” From then on, I decided to never play it the same way once!
In the happy, lucky hours I spent listening to Johnny, learning from Johnny, jamming with Johnny, and even teaching by his side at Mark O’Connor’s San Diego String Conferences, Johnny ceaselessly amazed me with the freshness of his improvisations and musical ideas.
In reality, his fecundity was rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of Texas swing. He could teach you classic riffs and solos that he had learned from many of his heroes and role models: Cliff Bruner, J.R. Chatwell, Jesse Ashlock and many others. He could make tricky licks simple and accessible by breaking them down. If you did want to learn a tune or a solo note-for-note, he would teach you.
Johnny constantly enriched and deepened other musicians’ knowledge. If you loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, he made sure that you also knew Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. If you admired one particular “Beaumont Rag” solo, he made sure you knew about several others by multiple artists from different eras. Often, he would demonstrate them from memory.
When Johnny found out I also played viola, the first thing he asked me was “Have you heard Don Decker? He played viola in T. Tex Tyler’s band. There aren’t a whole lot of records, but he was really good.” Johnny should know; he was one of the first fiddlers to add a fifth string to his fiddle so that it could encompass the viola’s deeper range.
Throughout his career, Gimble also distinguished himself with his voice, singing in unison with his improvised violin lines, harmonizing, fronting his own bands with lead vocals. I can’t recall a concert, class, or jam that didn’t include a healthy dose of Johnny’s singing.
Johnny knew his music theory, but more than anything, his playing was rooted in his ears and in hours of listening, both on the bandstand and off. At his 1996 Texas Swing Camp, he taught an advanced group one of his formidable, double-stop augmented riffs. I asked, “How do you know when to use it?” He smiled and said, “Just keep your ears open. You’ll start to hear it.” He was right. Hear it for yourself at 2:36 in this video of Johnny playing his classic tune “Fiddlin’ Around.”
We musicians could easily spend the rest of our days studying Johnny’s music, striving for his impeccable rhythmic drive, and seeking to embody his generous, gregarious stage presence and personality. However, in many ways, we would be missing the point.
Johnny Gimble strove to be creative, not merely imitative. His music was a gift that he shared in full measure for the joy and sake of others- not for his own gratification or glory. We should definitely transcribe his solos, teach his licks, and play his tunes, but more than anything, we should preserve his legacy as he exemplified it each day: jam, sing, laugh, share, teach, and never play it the same way once!
Thank you, Johnny!
Doc Wallace, May 9, 2015
Enjoy a documentary on the life of Johnny Gimble:
And a vintage “Sweet Georgia Brown” video featuring yours truly. There’s certainly a lick or two from late night jams on this tune with Johnny at fiddle camps: