Bluesman Amos Garrett’s enchanted journey

A prophet is never respected in his own village. This seems particularly true of Toronto-born blues guitarist Amos Garrett. For years, Garrett’s name appeared in the Calgary music listings with his steady band the Eh! Team, playing so regularly it would have been easy to take his presence for granted.

Over the years thousands of people sipped Scotch and tapped their feet along to his music, perhaps without realizing that Garrett was the one who played the guitar solo on the first Canadian song to be certified gold by the Recording Industry of America, Anne Murray’s recording of Snowbird. Garrett also played the solo on Maria Muldaur’s hit song Midnight at the Oasis, which charted in the Top 10 worldwide. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page said in 1975 that Garrett was his favourite guitar player after Jimi Hendrix.

Those things alone would be enough to cause awe beyond the simple and wonderful pleasure of just hearing the man play live. But when you add the fact that Garrett recorded with Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Garcia, and hundreds of others, it seems more like the listener is partaking in a musical fairy tale than just another Saturday afternoon sitting in a dark club downtown.

From Garrett’s first paid gig – which just happened to be at Carnegie Hall – he was stealing the show, although perhaps not in the way he intended. His memories of that moment?

“I remember being scared to death,” says Garrett from his High River home with a laugh.

The stage manager would not permit Garrett, who was accompanying Mike Settle as the opening act for comedian Vaughn Meader, to keep two guitars onstage because it “distracted from the look.”

“So I had to keep my second guitar on a guitar stand behind the curtain, and drop curtains in big symphony halls in theatres like that weighed tons, I mean many tons. And in big symphony halls like Carnegie they’re ancient and they’re cloth or inch thick felt and they have more dust in them than you could ever possibly imagine. I was wearing a tuxedo and patent leather shoes.”

The two stage hands who were supposed to part the curtains never showed up. So Garrett had to fight his way between the curtains to get his next guitar. “I had this really expensive – especially at that age, I was only 22 – this expensive, delicate acoustic guitar that I had to protect from this (curtain). It was like being crushed between two tiger tanks.

“I had to go through the curtain myself, and take my guitar off, and then pick up another very valuable acoustic guitar and put my other guitar down then fight my way through the curtain again. And by the time I got through the curtain, the dust in the curtain was essentially pale grey and snow white, and I was wearing a pitch black tuxedo. I looked like the abominable snowman.

“I got the biggest laugh of the whole night; I got a bigger laugh than the (comedy) act.” Suffice to say, Garrett informed the very experienced stage director that for the rest of the six-week tour both guitars would remain in front of the curtains. Seeing murder in Garrett’s eyes, the stage manager agreed.

“That’s what I remember about my first night in the music business.”

As for memories, Garrett says he’s enjoyed all of it, although he doesn’t remember the recording sessions as well as he does live performances. Usually. The exception to this is his time spent on the infamous Festival Express train that carried Garrett as part of Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird, along with Janis Joplin, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Mashmakhan and others, across Canada. 

I mention I didn’t realize he played on the tour.

“Yeah, I didn’t (realize) either. I don’t remember much. Almost none. It was one of the biggest drunks in the history of the music business. I remember the shows were very poorly attended. There was a free music for the people movement that was going on at the time. There were only three shows, one of which was in Calgary. I do remember being onstage in Calgary, I think it was at McMahon Stadium — (it was) long before I knew really much about Calgary.”

As for recording sessions, the Midnight at the Oasis session stands out. Garrett was touring with blues legend Paul Butterfield on his final tour, and after playing a concert in Los Angeles he went to the North Hollywood studio knowing he had to leave the next morning for the next tour stop. The songwriter, David Nichtern, who was playing acoustic rhythm guitar on the track, was a good friend of Garrett’s.

“We recorded the basic rhythm track for the song – you always do that first. When we were finished they wanted me to play a solo on it. I had to do it right away because I had to go to San Francisco the next morning. I got the first overdub and I went in and did it very quickly. 

“(Nichtern), who wrote good songs, didn’t like the solo at all. He was also starving to death; he was just breaking into the business. He was sleeping on his mother’s couch and having a hard time making a living.

“He didn’t really have a big vote in it because it was Maria’s record and her producer’s. I had a little say in the matter, not much, I was just a side man, but we said we all liked it – a lot. It became a very famous solo. The solo stayed, we went with it. It became a big hit record.”

Later, Garrett was walking down La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles on his way to a recording session. “A Mercedes pulled over and the window rolled down. David leaned out the window and said, ‘Hey Amos, love the solo, Baby, just loved it, what a gorgeous thing.’ It got a lot of press, too, and all kinds of stamps of approval from people in the industry, so anyway, David learned to like it.”

Garrett calls Great Speckled Bird “a creative experiment. Ultimately I don’t think it suited either Ian and Sylvia or us in the long run, but at the time it was quite exciting because it was one of the first ventures into a minor pop music form called country rock. 

“There were maybe three bands who were experimenting with it at the time, basically playing country and western music but with a much heavier beat from the rhythm section. That would have been The Byrds, who converted over from a psychedelic, Haight-Ashbury kind of style of music to falling in love with the country thing, and also an off-spin of The Byrds called The Flying Burrito Brothers, and us. And we sort of pioneered the form and that was sort of neat. It didn’t last very long as we all went off in different ways.”

During the talk of the past one of Garrett’s old haunts, Calgary’s King Eddy, which was torn down and then rebuilt from its original bricks as Studio Bell was created, enters the conversation. It’s similar to the old Eddy, but not quite the same.

“Thank God! Thank God,” Garrett interjects. “It really came apart at the seams the last decade – I was really glad to see it go.

“And I love the new Eddy. Oh, my, what a great place to play. The people are really neat and they give you a square deal and the pay is good if you draw well which I do. The stage is fantastic, the sound is great. It’s just a dream club. They’ve really made an amazing addition to the music culture of this country, let alone Calgary.”

As for why a man who traveled constantly on tour, lived in Toronto, San Francisco and other places chose to live near Calgary, it was musical opportunities that brought and kept the famed musician here. When he went solo after being Muldaur’s band leader for years, he found that the nightclub scene in the U.S. was “going to hell in a handbasket.” Some Canadian gigs revealed that six-nighters were common, a band touring between Winnipeg and Vancouver could make enough money for the long van rides to be worth it, and Calgary was the geographic epicentre of the scene.

It helped also that Garrett had come to Alberta with his father and younger brother on bird hunting and fishing trips while in his teens, making southern Alberta a favourite.

As he approached his ninth decade with so many miles and songs behind him, one wonders if the sweet thrill that comes with playing music might be wearing off.

“No, the one thing that doesn’t change is I’m still improving. I’m at my age where I still have my hands and my voice is as good as ever and I’m still learning. That’s the most important to me. The other day I said if I realize I’m not learning any more, that’s it, I’ll quit. I’ll go fishing. As long as I’m improving and getting better and pushing the guitar envelope further, that’s what excites me.”

Amos Garrett and Julian Kerr play the Calgary Midwinter Bluesfest on Friday, Feb. 28 at Gasoline Alley in Heritage Park. For more information go tohttps://www.calgarybluesfest.com/20MWschedule.php.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.