I REMEMBER LITTLE JUNIOR
By ‘BOOGIE’ BOB MELTON
Reading time 45 Minutes
I saw Gary Stewart levitate once
I saw Gary Stewart levitate once. It was at the Fort Pierce Hotel, a funky old place that was a hot spot in town. The place would be packed every time we’d play. Gary was singing “Rave On,” the old Buddy Holly song, and he was getting down on it. For some reason a girl down in front of the stage was yanking on his pantleg while he was doing the song. Gary was trying to get loose from her, and all of a sudden it looked like he did a little tap dance right up the side of her body in mid-air. He suddenly went sideways and danced along her in the air without touching her. I was going, ‘What the hell did I just see…?’ it was freaky. I still don’t know how he did it. Gary could spook you.
Now, you might think I am exaggerating. I’m not. The music and the moment often consumed Gary. There were times I expected his hair to just burst into flames due to his unbridled passion for the music. And for life.
Looking back over more than fifty years in the music business, I’ve never seen a more dynamic or exciting performer in any genre of music, and I’ve seen most. Nothing I’ve done since has matched standing right there onstage next to Gary Stewart, swapping guitar riffs. I’m talking about early in his prime, before fame rearranged him. He’d grin that wide grin, with a look of wild ecstasy in his eyes. They seemed to shoot sparks at you. Gary challenged every note being played to explode with a vengeance. He sang with a controlled yet primal abandon, from the tip of his boots to the top of his hat.
And if he thought I was letting up – even just a little – Gary gave me a swift kick in the rear. Right onstage, and more than once. He wanted everyone to be as totally involved as he was. It got to be very challenging at times, because he never let the intensity drag. It was like playing music in a hurricane. It was magic.
I first saw Gary playing at the local Fort Pierce community center with the Tom Cats around ‘59 or ‘60. I was probably 10 or 12, he couldn’t have been more than 15 or so. Gary was a fifties rocker then, with a nice, slicked-back black ducktail haircut and sideburns. I remember he did some Chuck Berry and hits of the day like “Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” He already had the intensity in his performance that would drive him on to become the greatest honky-tonker ever.
I was impressed with his raw talent and edgy swagger. Gary sang and played every chance he got. He took part in all the school talent shows and local teen dances. It was only a year or two later that he married his lifetime sweetheart Mary Lou. She was an older girl, he was just 16.
I got to know Gary a bit and started playing myself. Our paths diverged for several years before crossing once again. I was playing in a band called the Phoenix, the house band six nights a week at the top country music lounge-restaurant in town, Frankie n’ Johnny’s. Gary was an old favorite around town by then and had recently moved back to Florida after a successful Nashville songwriting stint as well as some time on the road playing piano with Nat Stuckey. We got to be good friends and would play guitars together at his house a lot.
In early 1974 Gary started sitting in with us at Frankie n’ Johnny’s, and every time he walked in things got crazy. The word would spread across town like wildfire, and within 20 minutes the place would be wall-to-wall pandemonium. The place was usually very calm while we played classic country for the dinner crowd, but once Gary came in, the volume went way up and the music took on a southern blues-rock flavor.
Gary had gotten hooked on the Allman Brothers, especially Duane’s slide playing. We would sit around his house for hours working out the twin guitar parts to their songs while he perfected his slide style. When he jammed with us it was loud Allman Brothers Band-style music. The crowd loved it and got bigger and wilder every night.
One night we had a very rare Saturday night off, so we had a party at my apartment. About 10pm we got a call from Frank at Frankie n’ Johnny’s. He said this band was supposed to play the Valentine’s Ball at a place on the other side of town but had broken down and wasn’t going to make it. Frank wanted to know if we could go there and fill in. He said we could name our price if we could get there right away. It was at the Elks Hall on 25th Street, over in what was then was known as ‘colored town.’ We said, ‘Heck, yeah’ and started loading equipment.
When we got there, they were trying to kill time by introducing the couples as they sashayed across the dance floor – ‘Now here’s the most beautifulest Miss Beatrice Peabody!” We were the only white people there. There was just a sea of black faces before the stage. They didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t, either.
Gary pretty much took control of the event. He started doing every R&B song there ever was. When we got going, the audience fell right in. Our dates were sitting at a table, and a couple of black guys from the audience came over and said, ‘Say man – you mind if we dance with your dates?’ We said, ‘Heck no, man, if they want to dance, have at it!’ Everybody had a big time. They kept throwing more money at us, we played almost all night. Some guy who called himself Ace King came up with a sax and the crowd loved it. They wouldn’t let us quit.
Gary was loving it. He knew that music and he got way into it. He was really having a time.
Frank couldn’t handle the young wild crowd we were attracting at Frankie n’ Johnny’s. Gary would bring in this hot little string of amps that he was trying out and let things just get screamin’ trying to get his slide guitar playing down. It didn’t take but 20 minutes to get the place wall-to-wall with cowboys and hippies both. It would get loud and rowdy, and Frank, the guy who ran the joint, would just get beside himself. He felt Gary was bringing in the riffraff, so he told us either Gary had to go or we did. We loved the music we were playing with Gary, so after almost two years as the house band we left – Gary had gotten the band a gig at the Fort Pierce Hotel, so we told Frank goodbye (Frank, who was a great guy, later claimed he always promoted Gary.)
We shifted gears at the hotel and went straight into southern rock and raucous country. That was where the Phoenix got really tight. Gary really liked that rhythm section – Howard “Bingo” Folcarelli on drums, Darryl Dawson on bass, me on guitar. Fred Bogert’s keyboard playing was the icing on the cake. It was a really fun time there. And some of the best music ever. We’ve tried to find tapes, but nobody has any.
We’d do crazy stuff there. Sometimes we’d do shows with “Rockin’ Ricky” – that was the fifties-rock alias of our band member Fly Hornsby. Fly sang some, faked playing guitar, and did lots of comedy. For one Rockin’ Ricky show, Fly rode in the front door on a motorcycle. We spray-painted an old guitar gold for Ricky that he smashed on stage, and we had an old bathtub that he got in to do “Splish Splash.” The Blind Melon Chitlins Blues Show was another crazy thing we did. Fly came up out front in an ambulance with all the lights and siren blasting. Then they brought him in on a gurney. We did another show where the band was all dressed as aliens from outer space. We wanted to land outside in a flying saucer but couldn’t find one.
During this period producer Roy Dea signed Gary to RCA. It didn’t interfere much at first. He would go up to Nashville, record for a few days, then come back and play our gig with us. His first RCA single, a kind of a bluegrass version of the Allmans’ “Ramblin’ Man,” didn’t do much. Then something happened that changed everything. “I See the Want-To In Your Eyes,” Gary’s next single release, had only been out for a few weeks, and all the DJs loved it. They started playing the hell out of it – until Conway Twitty covered it, and his star power took Gary’s record out as his went to #1. Many DJs were not happy about that and had preferred Gary’s version. So they took it on themselves to flip the record over and push the B-side, which was “Drinkin’ Thing.” They made the song a #10 Billboard hit in the summer of 1974.
Gary’s next single “Out of Hand” went to #4. Around the same time RCA put him on the road as Charlie Pride’s piano player (Gary replaced Ronnie Milsap in the band), and “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” went to #1. He had a lot of mixed feelings leaving with Charley Pride, because he really liked what the Phoenix were doing – he had hoped he would be able to take us all with him and get his own show going. But the Phoenix dissolved into ashes. Fred Bogert, our keyboard player, had tried to get Gary to take only himself (and not the rest of us) to Nashville so he could serve as Gary’s musical director. That really pissed Gary off, and when he told us about it, it kind of soured the whole thing for the rest of us, so we just split up and went our own separate ways for a while.
As a person, Gary was just as hard to define as his music. He was somewhat shy offstage at times, and a little vulnerable even though he was a wild man onstage. He never was really comfortable with the fame that came with success. Gary did not care for being a star. It really didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t like what everybody expected from him. He’d do weird stuff and act weird, especially at first when he wasn’t used to it at all. Gary would get all embarrassed and act all silly when fans asked for his autograph. He never did get into it.
His parents were just sweet mountain folks. His dad never said much. George was very quiet and stayed out of everybody’s way, didn’t get in the middle of anything just kind of watched everything. I can’t remember having but two or three conversations with him. Gary’s mother was the opposite of George, always smiling and trying to keep everybody in a good mood, just a real sweetheart. A typical mountain momma. She was so proud of Gary. When they first moved to Fort Pierce they just lived in a little shack, just a shanty shack. They had no money.
They lived in that house until Gary became a hit. When he first made a bunch of money, the first thing he did was to build his folks a beautiful home right where that little shack had been.
Gary was just a small-town country boy who wanted to keep his life as simple as possible. The more pressure the world applied to him, the more he found places and ways to hide.
About a year or so after the Phoenix broke up
About a year or so after the Phoenix broke up I was playing in another band with Darrell Dawson, Rockfish Railroad (the name came from a North Carolina railroad called Aberdeen Rockfish Railroad; everybody called us Rockfish). It was a unique band for the time. We did not use a drummer, and we did a lot of bluegrass music as well as rock, country, Eagles, Beatles, Dan Fogelberg, John Prine, and Marshall Tucker. Gary loved it. In fact, he recorded one of the songs we did a lot called “Leah” and used our arrangement. The writer Patrick Carr came to see us with Gary one night and described us as “the heretic sons of Bill Monroe.” It suited us.
This was when RCA gave Gary the chance to have his own show. The main reason Gary hired us was because of Darrell and I being in that band – he was really loyal to what we had done together in the Phoenix. We were like three brothers. Rockfish Railroad was Ralph Profetta on banjo and steel guitar, Donnie Coleman on acoustic guitar, vocals, and fiddle; Chris Casses played electric guitar and mandolin; Darrell Dawson was on bass and vocals; and I played electric and acoustic guitar, and vocals.
We just needed a drummer. So Gary hired an old friend, Larry “Mouse” Munson, a rock drummer. The variety of styles we played was a good fit with Gary. It allowed him to develop his love of southern rock while also letting him go any direction he wanted in the country realm. And the band opened the door for him to explore his bluegrass and mountain music roots. Gary reached back into his Kentucky holler heritage to take it all to another level. He had a deep feeling for that music.
Gary and Rockfish Railroad took our first road trip not long after New Years of ’75, and on that trip had our first adventure playing the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona. We wound up returning to Window Rock every few months to entertain the Navajos, who would turn out to be some of Gary’s biggest fans. Our first gig there was a very memorable event for all of us. We had never experienced anything quite like it.
Their civic center was a big round empty room with a stage against the wall. The place was packed shoulder to shoulder with Navajos as we took to the stage for our twenty-minute set before bringing Gary on. They swarmed the stage, and there were only a few guards there. Security was dangerously lacking.
No one expected the crowd’s reaction to a Gary Stewart show. Not the organizers, not security, and certainly not us. Those people went absolutely wild when we started playing. The cops were no deterrent – and we were in a tight spot, even though the audience were not violent or threatening. We didn’t even finish our first song before they were on us screaming “Gar-ee! Gar-ee!” The audience started coming up on the stage. One of the ladies was scooting around the stage on her bottom, grabbing onto Donnie Coleman’s leg. They wanted Gary out on stage now. The only thing to do was give them what they wanted, so the stage was cleared, Gary came out, and they went crazy!
Gary had the audience in the palm of his hand all night. Gary mesmerized the Navajos, and he knew it. Honestly, I can’t imagine Elvis or the Beatles getting a bigger response. Gary fed off their excitement, and he fed it right back to them. The interaction was amazing. His high tremolo voice sent them into a frenzy. They couldn’t get enough!
When the show finally ended after several curtain calls, the audience stayed until they were sure it was really over. They would’ve paid us five grand to play there every week. We couldn’t go out there but every three or four months, because that’s all we could take. Just one show for those people was intense. The Navajo were wonderful fans, and they still love his music passionately to this day.
When we first started playing Gary would be the first one to show up. He’d really set a good example. He was very meticulous about his hair, what he wore, his jewelry, the way his pants fit. Gary always wore women’s cowboy boots. They were lighter, had thinner soles and he could move around in them better – they were more comfortable, weren’t as heavy. So it was always women’s cowboy boots or Indian moccasins onstage. He had to look right and feel right for the occasion.
Gary was great to work with and a lot of fun on the road. We’d be going somewhere in the bus and if we came upon an antique store or an old junk store he’d have us pull that bus right over. He’d spend an hour in there looking for old blues records or who knows what. He’d buy all kinds of weird shit.
Once we were in Texas heading for Waco in a rented Ford station wagon
Once we were in Texas heading for Waco in a rented Ford station wagon, running late after our bus broke down. We stopped to hit the john and get gas. We were trying to hurry, but the hood wouldn’t close. We tried to monkey with it for a few minutes. When Gary came out of the bathroom, he saw us struggling with it. He just jumped up on the car in front of the windshield and started kicking and stomping on the hood until it went down. Bent the hell out of it, but we got it latched and hauled ass.
We got to the gig late, and the owner was giving Gary some shit about the way we were dressed – t-shirts and Levi’s (the way we always dressed and had to make excuses for a lot). Gary told him our ‘wardrobe van’ had broken down in Dallas. Just to wind the guy up Gary said that David Alan Coe was coming in to play with us in a little while if it was OK. The owner had a fit, and we went in the dressing room laughing our asses off.
Gary was full of surprises. He’d do these crazy bird calls that he could throw around the room, and sound like they were coming from different places. He loved to do them in crowded restaurants, then point all around. People would go nuts trying to spot the bird. Once he did those calls in a packed cafe in Texas, and while everyone was distracted by the bird noises, he started crawling around the room on all fours whining like dog and begging for food. We were practically rolling on the floor watching everyone’s reactions. Gary loved to shock people.
Gary could come up with some wild ideas when things got boring. I’ll just say that we used to do some crazy shit, and he was always the instigator. Women loved him, and he was like a kid in a candy store around fawning female fans. He and Mary Lou were inseparable, but he could not resist partaking of life’s pleasures on the road. Lou was fantastic, a good lady. She always pampered him – Lou even made sure he had rubbers when he was out on the road. She put up with so much.
At one time Gary and Lou decided they were going have an open marriage, because she couldn’t stop him from philandering. It got to where Gary was even having girlfriends in Fort Pierce. That was something he hadn’t really done before, and when he did, Lou decided she was going to philander about, too. One of the people she ended up doing the hanky-panky with was our old bandmate Fly Hornsby aka Rockin’ Ricky. Gary, he never forgave Fly for that. I knew that an open marriage would never work with Gary. It just wasn’t in him.
In February 1976 we recorded a handful of white-hot demos with Gary at Bradley’s Barn, including his song “Hollywood,” later recorded by Alabama. That session will go down in history. Gary produced and arranged it all, Bobby Bradley engineered. It was very loose, but at the same time very intense. It was before our bandmember Ralph got a good grip on playing steel, so the great Weldon Myrick did that. On “Hollywood” I did the guitar arrangement on the intro and turnarounds and our other guitar player/mandolin player did the fills. Gary playing wild piano on “4th Of July” and he also plays acoustic guitar on “Stella Mae.” Me, Darrell, and Donnie sang the background parts. “Bedtime Stories” is such a killer. We really got a kick out of the lyrics – “I’m gonna love you four ways, baby/ Deep and long and hard and wide.” Sadly, none of these recordings ever saw the light of day.
We never did Gary’s songs the way he recorded them. We had totally different arrangements. Gary would do them completely different from the records, except for the big hits like “She’s Actin’ Single,” as there wasn’t a whole lot you could do with a straight country number like that. Other songs we would really kind of funk up and make even more rowdy – especially songs that tended to be that way already, like “Little Junior.” We’d really get those honkin’.
Gary really wanted to record with us. That’s what he wanted, that’s what he was shooting for and that’s he was hoping they’d let him do. But RCA executive Jerry Bradley believed in doing it the Nashville way, with the same A studio players that were on every record. Jerry’s a great guy, but he didn’t understand what could’ve been done with Gary and all the potential he had. RCA really stifled Gary a lot. Frustrated him a lot. And caused a lot of his problems, I’d say.
Not that those Nashville recording sessions weren’t great. Gary loved doing the bluegrass segment in our shows, and that inspired a session at RCA with some of the finest bluegrass pickers in Nashville. Darrell, Donnie, Chris, Lea Jane Berinati and myself sang backup on these songs: great bluegrass versions of Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” and “Pretend I Never Happened,” plus Gary’s song “Easy People.” That was a fantastic session. We did that in studio A, the big studio. Buck White played the mandolin, Josh Graves was playing the dobro, and the guys from Hee-Haw were playing the banjo and fiddle – Billy Williams and Bobby Thompson. That was a magical session. Gary was really wired, and in a good way. The Nashville pickers, they loved him. They really got into his intensity, they thought he was really kickin’ it.
In 1976 we did a big show in Mobile where Rockfish came out first and then were joined by Gary, opening for the Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson. Gary liked Willie a lot – in fact, we turned him onto Okeechobee Purple. Now, that was a song Gary wrote (“I am a pirate/I’m also a dreamer/With my ship in a bottle/On a bookshelf next to me”), but it was also a strain of pot friends of mine used to grow in Okeechobee. They’d pack it in jars, store it in the freezer and sell ‘em for 2-300 bucks. It was pure purple, sticky like glue and one toke would knock you on the floor. We turned Willie onto some of that stuff, and he about went crazy. Every time we went out there to Texas we’d have to take him a jar.
That Mobile show was a great. I never could understand why Gary was so averse to doing those kind of bigger shows. He just didn’t feel comfortable and didn’t like doing them. He had a real aversion to those type of situations. I don’t know if he felt intimidated or what. I never really could figure it out.
Gary just liked playing them honky-tonks. He didn’t care if they were little places or big places. We’d play Gilley’s, the Yellow Rose of Texas, the Aviatrix up in Abilene…they were gigantic places, but they were honky-tonks. People could get right up there in front of the stage and that’s what he liked – as long as he could interact with people up close, Gary was OK. He didn’t like ‘em out there where he couldn’t see ‘em. He had to feed off energy of the crowd, so he hated those big stadiums.
Gary’s music refused to be classified as any one genre. His country had a rock flavor, and his rock had a country flavor – it varied with the song. That was why RCA never knew what to do with him, and it frustrated Gary to no end. They wanted pure country from him, and he just wasn’t. He loved it all and he was influenced by it all. He had to play what he felt, and if he couldn’t, he wouldn’t play. There was no compromise for him.
The last band I played in with Gary for any amount of time was Train Robbery, which later became the Honky-Tonk Liberation Army, a name I came up with (neither Gary nor I liked Train Robbery). That was around 1980. Bingo and Darryl were both in that band, so Gary was reunited with his old rhythm section. He loved that. It lasted about a year. RCA was putting a lot of pressure on Gary to get with the program and do the big civic centers and multiple act shows. As usual, he wouldn’t do it and they couldn’t get him to do it.
So RCA started pulling their money and backed off a lot on his distribution funds. And promotion money. They were trying to put pressure on him by not promoting him as much, but he just refused to do the stuff they wanted him to do. It got to where we were having a lot of cancellations – he was either cancelling stuff or RCA was cancelling stuff. We had a lot of overhead. We’d bought a bus. It was bad.
And drugs were starting to take effect. They were starting to kick in pretty good, with several of the guys in the band as well. Gary was into Quaaludes. He would get really sloppy and it was hard to take. One night we went over to where Billy Eldridge’s band was playing. Gary got up onstage. He’d dropped a Mexican Quaalude, and by the time he got to playing, that thing had hit him.
Gary tried to do “Statesboro Blues” – oh my God, it was the most pathetic thing you’ve ever heard or seen. He couldn’t hardly stand up or stay in front of the microphone. And slow – “Wake…up…momma…turn…your…lamp…down…………low.” It was more like the “Statesboro Waltz.” We ended up carrying him out of there. I had his legs, Darryl had one arm, Bingo the other and we carried him out like a sack of taters.
Gary loved the Allman Brothers, but they were not the best influence. I remember Gary did a show with Hank Williams, Jr. and Gregg Allman and another bandmember came pulling up in a bright blue Smokey and the Bandit car. They came inside, and Gregg had a bag of cocaine that would’ve choked a mule, it was so big. They commenced to get into that.
This was when Gregg was married to Cher, and it was coming undone. Gary and Gregg would check in to someplace in Palm Beach so they could tell their record labels they were drying out. Then they’d sneak out at night, score, raise hell all night and check back in come morning.
I remember sitting in a hotel with Gary and Dickie Betts in Macon, jamming acoustic guitars all night until the sun came up. There was a lot of George Dickel, marching powder and everything else…
Like so many others before, things began to go downhill for Gary
Like so many others before, things began to go downhill for Gary. His performances would suffer when he was high. It was sad to see what was happening to him, the way it was taking him down. Drugs took over a big part of Gary’s personality. He was just different person, and it was hard for everybody to deal with. I knew what he was like before all of it when he was a just pure, unadulterated music machine, and seeing what all that stuff did to him was terrible.
At the same time Gary became more frustrated with the music business in general and in particular the way he was treated by RCA. I could tell it had become work for him and wasn’t as much fun. He went through a lot of changes. As I’ve stated, Gary was never one to compromise. If he couldn’t do it his way, he flat wasn’t going to do it, and it was getting really hard to do everything his way. Eventually RCA dropped him.
Gary was not at all good with money, which also became a problem. Part of my job was keeping up with money on the road, collecting it at the end of the gig. I’d turn it over to him and he’d keep it in a little suitcase. He was like a little kid with money. He’d never had it and didn’t know how to act with it. In addition to everything else, Gary got in a lot of trouble with the IRS. it left him broke he had to sell all his publishing.
Gary and I wrote several songs together, plus a bunch that we never finished. “One More” he recorded on the Gary album. The other song I contributed to was “Honky-Tonk Man,” the B-side of one of his last RCA singles, but it took me decades to get the actual credit.
One day in 1980 Gary drove over to my apartment on Emerald Avenue. This was unusual in itself because Gary never drove himself anywhere. One day his old black Mercury was just out front of my place. He came in and announced that we had a song to write. He’d met a Bakersfield songwriter who used to play with the Everly Brothers, Ronnie Coleman, and Coleman had given him an unfinished song. “I kinda like the guy and I want to help him. We need to write this,” said Gary. “We’re not gonna take any credit for it.”
An unusual request, but I said “OK, Gary if you don’t take any credit I won’t. But if you get credit, then it would only be right if I got it.” So that’s all we did that day – we sat down and finished the song, and I had as much to do with it as Gary. That day he was perfectly sober, not high on anything, and he drove home. I didn’t think any more about it.
Then I saw Lacy J. Dalton had recorded it. And Gary’s name was listed as co-writer. I mentioned it to Gary, and he said, “Oh, Boogie, I forgot you even helped me with that.” It was too late to fix the credit, but Gary called Forrest Hills, his publishing company, and arranged for me to get my cut of the publishing. Unfortunately the paperwork was never finalized – and when Forrest Hills was bought by Sony, my participation was forgotten. It took a lot of effort, but I finally got official credit in 2007 (thanks in great part to Jerry Bradley and Troy Tomlinson). I was never bitter to Gary (or anybody) about it. While never a hit, “Honky-Tonk Man” has gone on to be recognized as one of the great Gary Stewart songs, and I’m proud I was a part of it.
Gary had a lot of tragedy in his life, including the loss of his sister Griselda and his son Joey. He’d try and not to let that stuff out, hold it in. Gary kept those feelings from practically everybody except those closest to him. He didn’t want to appear vulnerable.
He never stopped reaching out to me for some kind of comfort, even many years after we stopped working together. When the phone would ring at 3AM I knew it was Gary. That’s when he liked to talk. I’d pick up the phone and he’d say in that low twang of his, “Boogie, this is Nanook of the North. I need some nooky.” He’d talk about his complicated life and I’d listen to his pain. We’d stay on the phone until he’d about pass out or I would fall asleep.
Many nights he would try to talk me into coming back on the road with him, and sometimes I would for a week. It was difficult, though, because I had a family and a business and was trying to maintain a normal life. I even went out to Texas a few times. We always had a great time, but it was also painful to see what he was going through. He needed more help doing everything and functioning on a day-to-day basis. His energy level had declined so much, and he didn't keep himself up like he used to. Nor did he stay on top of his guitar playing, and he didn't even seem to care about it much. His voice was not what it used to be.
I have a picture of us together at his house in the 90s. Gary doesn't have his teeth in, his hair is all disheveled and he has a stoned look on his face. I was pretty worried about him at that point. It was rough to hear his music at the end, when he was really slipping vocally, like on that Live at Billy Bob’s, Texas album. That’s just a shell, a shadow of what he once was. That was a result of everything bad that happened to him. I don’t like listening to that stuff. It’s just not him, not who he really was.
When Lou died, Gary called me late at night and he sounded like he had had enough. He was very dark and dismal. It was not long before Christmas, and I didn’t know if he could handle it. I told him I would come down and stay with him for a while. I didn’t know how I would get away from my family and business commitments, but his situation seemed desperate. I knew he was in a lot of danger. We talked for hours about all Mary Lou was to him and how he didn’t think he could go on without her. I knew he was right. She did everything for him. Mary Lou kept him alive, basically. I could tell he was very, very borderline. Slipping away.
I told him I would get down there as soon as I could, and I meant it. It was near Christmas, though, and I couldn’t make the trip for another week. Next thing I know I got the phone call. Gary was dead.
I was in shock. It unnerved me that I didn’t get down there to see him, that I let it get away from me. I wish I had left the next day. I don’t like to think about it.
It’s still really hard to get a grip on. Gary had been like a brother to me for so long. It was so sad and happened so quick. His death left me with an empty feeling that has never gone away.
At the same time, Gary was such a strong presence that he has never really left. Sometimes I think I hear that unmistakable laugh of his and I smile knowing he is looking down at us from a better place. And he’s with Mary Lou.
These days I love to hear his music when it comes on the radio or when I’m walking through a mall. The stuff Gary did at his prime, at the top of his game when he was kickin’? You can’t beat it. Jerry Lee Lewis never had nothin’ on Gary Stewart.
I can’t think of anybody who performed with the intensity and the excitement that Gary did. Or that got so high on the music itself. He wasn’t just putting on a show for the crowds. He was there. He was that involved. It was totally real.
One of my favorite memories of Gary was the night we were playing at Mr. Lucky’s in Phoenix.
There was a baby grand piano onstage and it was in tune. We never took a keyboard with us, and during rehearsal Gary went over and tinkled the keys a bit.
That night in the middle of the show, he went straight over to the piano and leapt right into the old Stonewall Jackson hit “Don’t Be Angry.” He really got into it, playing the hell out of that piano. I’d never heard him do that song before or since. It was fucking awesome and blew the band away.
Gary could murder a song like that. He could take a ballad and just squeeze out every drop of blood.
Gary lived everything he sang. He wasn’t singing about something that he didn’t know about. He lived it all.
I would have never experienced life to the fullest without knowing him. His tremendous zest for everything during those early years took life to another level for anyone along for the ride, and what a ride it was.
Thanks, Gary, for taking me with you.
Note: all photos are from the collections of Bob Melton, Shannon and Tommy Schwartz.
Bob Melton was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee and moved with his family to Fort Pierce, Florida at the age of five. His first band, the Sand Trippers, recorded a single that is highly coveted by collectors – “Say You Love Me.” Bob has had lifelong involvement in music and acting, and in addition to playing extensively with Gary Stewart, he played guitar for and wrote songs with Dean Dillon. In recent years he’s done a lot of acting work in such films as Steel Country, Game Night, Manifesto: The Unibomber, The Man In The Attic, Terror In The Woods, Jungle Cruise, Avengers: Infinity War, and Welcome To Pine Grove, and he’s been featured as a reoccurring zombie in The Walking Dead.
NOTE: Bob has a rather unbelievable connection to this volume – he was in Walk the Walk. You can see him playing guitar about 12 minutes in. “[Director] Jac Zacha was an interesting fellow, a pretty typical Hollywood director type. He asked me to do the soundtrack but I was leaving for Florida, and by the time I got back (only a couple of weeks) he had gotten someone else. I had told him that I wanted to do it, but he seemed in a hurry about everything. He was on a pretty tight budget.” Bob had never seen the picture until we showed it to him, which, says Bob, was “TOO COOL after fifty years of looking for it!”