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The late, great, unheralded singer/songwriter/accordion shredder and sometime Orange County resident Chris Gaffney used to say he remembered first meeting with living, great and future Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/guitar shredder and pride of Downey Dave Alvin in an alley next to the late, great and grimy Huntington Beach club the Golden Bear in 1981, when Alvin’s band the Blasters rode the crest of what was then called “new music” with revved-up, old-timey American music.
“Um, I have a vague memory of that gig and being in the alley talking to a couple of guys about music,” Alvin says by phone somewhere in the 323 area code. “He was probably right.”
But Alvin’s recollection pegged their first meeting as being five years later, when he went to drink beers and see his then-girlfriend bartending at the since-torn-down Hollywood dive bar Raji’s.
“It was Tuesday night, a slow night, and the band playing was Chris’ band,” recalls Alvin, whose deep baritone is just as effective telling stories as it is crooning them. “Lucinda Williams was on the same bill—that’s how long ago it was. Chris’ band was doing a Ray Price country shuffle, and I thought, ‘Wow, you don’t hear that every night.’ And then he dedicated a song to Hawaiian Gardens, and I thought, ‘What kind of guy dedicates a song to Hawaiian Gardens?’ So I started heckling the band—in a good-natured way—telling them to play something for Bellflower. We got into this Heckle and Jeckle routine, and when they were done playing, a friendship was born right there.”
Years went by, Alvin rose to icon status among aficionados of “Americana” music, and Gaffney—though hugely popular in these pages, at San Juan Capistrano’s Swallow’s Inn and among Southern California music critics—toiled in relative obscurity.
“He got kind of fed up with trying to survive as a musician for a variety of reasons; some of it had to do with his mom’s death,” Alvin says. “I started taking him out on the road with the band. I couldn’t afford to pay him, so I took him out as the merch guy. The deal was he would get a cut of whatever T-shirts and CD sales he made, and I would get his hotel room. Then he would come up onstage in the encore and play his accordion, sing a song, engage in onstage antics.”
During Alvin’s encore in Philadelphia, Gaffney dutifully left the merchandise table, crawled onto the stage and belted out “Cowboys to Girls,” a song written by Philadelphia music legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and popularized in the mid-1960s by Philadelphia soul group the Intruders.
“The next day, the review of the show says that perhaps the highlight of the show was when the merch guy got up and sang a song. Gaffney never let me forget that,” Alvin says before breaking into a bronchial laugh.
Afterward, Alvin’s accountant “juggled the books” so Gaffney could remain onstage full-time. “Every now and then, we’d be in the middle of nowhere, and Gaffney would just let it drop,” he says. “‘Perhaps the highlight of the night was when the merch guy got up to sing.’”
Gaffney, who later took up residency at the Swallows and Long Beach’s Blue Cafe with the Cold Hard Facts, seemed ready to capture long-elusive success with his tight, Tex-Mex-meets-R&B outfit the Hacienda Brothers. Then he got sick. He succumbed to liver cancer at 57 in April 2008.
Alvin memorialized his longtime friend by producing Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney on his label, Yep Roc, and putting together a tribute show during March’s SXSW because Austin, Texas, “got what he was doing musically, and they got his personality.” A Gaffney tune will be included in Alvin’s set Saturday at the Coach House, where he will promote Man of Somebody’s Dreams and his own Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, also on Yep Roc.
“The thing about this CD is that, to me, it’s Chris’ shot,” Alvin says of the tribute disc. “It’s not even his last shot—it’s his shot, period.”
People in the business already know “what a great singer he was,” which is why Alvin had no problem getting Joe Ely; Los Lobos; Calexico; Alejandro Escovedo; Tom Russell; James McMurtry; fellow Hacienda brother Dave Gonzalez; and Alvin’s label mates Peter Case, Jim Lauderdale, The Iguanas, John Doe, Robbie Fulks and Anaheim’s own Big Sandy (with Los Straitjackets backing him) to lay down Gaffney songs. Alvin also contributes (“Artesia,” poignant), as does Gaffney in the closer (“Guitars of My Dead Friends,” haunting).
“It was not difficult to get people to do it,” Alvin says. “The sad thing is we could have done a two-CD set.”
Because selling an album dedicated to an artist “99.9 percent of the people in the world have never heard of” necessitated using bigger names (“I would have got Barbra Streisand and the Jonas Brothers if I could,” Alvin says), many of Gaffney’s closest friends, such as Rosie Flores, Jann Browne and Patty Booker, are not on the CD. “We had to get people the record company would get excited about,” Alvin says apologetically.
But he makes no apologies for giving his friend his shot.
“This is now part of my business card, if I had one: ‘Singer, Songwriter, Guitar Player and Chris Gaffney Promoter.’ It has to be because the highlight was when the merch guy came up for a song.”