The Best Blues Player You’ve Never Heard Of
Without Guitar Gabriel, there might never have been a Music Maker Foundation. James “Guitar Slim” Stephens, a blues player our co-founder Tim Duffy documented during his graduate studies, told Tim that if he really wanted to understand the blues, he had to find a man named Guitar Gabriel.
Tim’s searches led him all over Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Gabe’s hometown. When he finally met Gabe, Tim says, “it was like meeting an international treasure.” Guitar Gabriel could improvise and make up new songs on the spot. He could play guitar as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins, perhaps even better. And he spoke eloquently about his guitar playing. He once told Tim, “I can do more with a guitar than a monkey can do with a peanut.”
Guitar Gabriel was born Robert Lewis Jones in Decatur, Georgia, on October 12, 1925. He moved with his family to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he was only 5. His childhood memories were of his life on the farm where his father was a sharecropper. And music was always part of his family life. His great-grandmother — who was born in slavery, lived to be 112 and played the banjo and called set dances — raised him. His grandmother played the pump organ, and his grandfather played the banjo. His father and uncle were blues guitarists and singers. In fact, his father, Sonny Jones, had recorded with the blues legend Blind Boy Fuller. And all of his sisters were exceptional gospel and blues singers.
That extensive musical upbringing made Gabe an authentic blues troubadour and a walking encyclopedia of blues and gospel. He knew literally thousands of songs. He performed an eclectic mixture of gospel and Piedmont, Chicago, and Texas blues styles, all done in his own gritty, Piedmont-rooted idiom that he called “toot blues.” The lyrics he wrote were astonishingly accurate — and often sharp — observations of the conditions of the sharecropping life. Consider this couplet from his “Southland Blues:”:
I said people talk about slavery time
Well, I believe it’s happening right now
And he always draped his lyrics in imaginative guitar settings and sung them with a heart-wrenching delivery.
Gabe lived by his wits for his entire life, riding the rails, traveling with Black circuses, and over his lifetime, he became a brilliant entertainer. He liked to make people smile, and he was superb at doing just that. But it was his playing that most amazed people. Gabe was probably the best blues player Music Maker ever had the privilege to record. The first album we recorded with him, “Deep in the South,” was exceptional, and it attracted the ears of many. People would hear Guitar Gabriel—even famous blues players such as Eric Clapton—and just say, “Oh, my God.” The extraordinary quality of Gabe’s music attracted many supporters who helped us launch the Music Maker Foundation. A lot of the relationships we built with Gabe helped us build Music Maker. We remember him so fondly because we owe him so much.
Guitar Gabriel was born Robert Lewis Jones on October 12, 1925. He died April 2, 1996.
Top photo by Tim Duffy.