- Rick Mauch
Area music legends happy, healthy but still singin’ the blues
Ask any Cajun and they’ll tell you how delicious gator is.
And when it’s Gary “Gator” Millhollon teaming up with his great friend Ray “Ray Boy” Reed playing the blues, the tunes can get pretty tasty.
Gator, who now lives in Granbury at age 70, and 81-year-old Fort Worth resident Ray have been playing together for almost seven years. However, their love of the blues dates back to when they were single digits in age.
“I was 5 years old when I saw Roy Orbison playing in the parking lot of a furniture store in Odessa, Texas (1954),” Gator recalled. “He was still just a local boy. Electric guitars and drums. I said, ‘I gotta do this.’”
Ray was 9 when he realized he wanted to be a professional musician and the blues bug bit him.
“My family all played music, and I was listening and learning,” he said. “When I was 15, I had picked cotton all week, made $15, bought a guitar and came to Fort Worth from Maypearl, Texas. I was working washing dishes and at a car wash. I was trying to play and get paid. I got a few gigs and then a few more.
“My sister was called Lady Pearl, and she was a great singer and performer. She decided to let me in her band, and I started playing all over with the Lady Pearl Band – Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Corpus Christi, Waco. I played with Freddie King, Eddy Feltz, ZZ Hill, Tyrone Davis, Joe Simon and more I can’t remember.”
It was in the Metroplex, in fact, where Gator and Ray met and decided to join forces.
“I spent 20 years in Austin playing. Then I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I founded the Blue Rhythm Kings and we played the casino circuit,” Gator said. “After 22 years, I moved back to Texas and chose the DFW area. I went to a jam one night and met Ray there. We played together and it really clicked.”
Given who they have played with throughout their careers, it’s no wonder their combined sound produces magic. The list of legendary musicians with whom they’ve shared the stage would fill a hall of fame. They’ve also produced some stories that make a person stop still in their tracks and listen.
“It’s hard to pick, Chuck Berry, the legendary Muddy Waters Band with Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith were mind-blowing for me. But Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter and several others were amazing as well,” Gator said. “Of course, Keb Mo just was incredible when we both played at a couple of blues festivals. Jimmie Vaughan is not only a Texan like me, he’s a fantastic and ‘true’ blues artist. He is also the most humble guy you’d ever meet.
“One of the most emotional nights was playing with Louisiana Red, who was such a fantastic Delta style player and who was the happiest person I’d ever met. Here’s a guy whose mother died at his childbirth, who’s father was lynched by the Klan when he was 11, and who lived on the streets until he got to Chicago and Muddy Waters took him in. Although he was only marginally popular in the states, the Europeans consider him one of the greatest of all time. He spent his last 20 years living in Germany, but came back occasionally to do small tours. I’ve never seen a person so at peace with the world and with himself – a very spiritual and kind person but one who had a great sense of humor.”
Ray reflected one particular special experience when he was playing bass for Freddie King.
“We played some gigs in Fort Worth and he decided to stay at my house instead of the hotel. So we’d stay up most of the night with him drinking and we were talking about everything,” Ray said. “He was one of the greatest ever – taught me a lot.”
Gator added that he remembered a quote from Eric Clapton saying as he looked back on his career, the one guy who taught him all he needed to know was King.
And speaking of Gator, how he came about his nickname is in itself an interesting story he likes to share.
“Back in my Austin days, one of my good friends was a Cajun who grew up in the bayou and had moved to Austin. One night we were intoxicated and visiting the bayous in Louisiana, and he said he’d show me how to catch an alligator,” Gator said. “It was scary, but the alcohol helped, and we did catch a 4- or 5-footer but released it when we realized we wouldn’t know what to do with it. When my other friends found out, one started calling me Gator and the name stuck.”
Among their many anecdotes from days on the road, Gator recalled a time when Louisiana Red played a joke on him onstage.
“He was known for playing in many styles, sometimes including strange tunings on his guitar. On this night, I was playing my Les Paul and he was playing an old green Kay guitar,” Gator said. “He turned to me and said, ‘Let’s trade guitars on this next song. I’d sure like to play that black Les Paul.’ He was sitting, so I took his guitar, set it down and handed him my LP. He immediately started playing a song and singing the first verse.
“I walked back over and put on his old Kay guitar. He immediately turned and said, ‘Take it, Gator,’ indicating I should play a solo. Well, I could see he was in A, so I slid down to the fifth fret and started playing a solo, but what came out was horrible and I suddenly realized his Kay was tuned to something like open G minor. I looked over at him and he was slapping his knee and laughing while I struggled to finish the solo.”
Ray has been named a Fort Worth Living Legend. In his typical laid-back style, Ray downplayed the honor.
“I feel it should have been some I played with that helped me learn to play the blues instead of me, but I appreciated it a lot,” was his short response to the honor.
Their musical journey has introduced them to quite a few Hollywood stars whom they’ve entertained. Of course, along with that come more cool stories.
“Jeremy Irons was very polite and supportive of our music. He was much smaller and shorter than I would have thought, but very kind and hospitable. He was having a good time and trying not to attract attention to himself,” Gator said. “One movie, which included Christopher Walken, ended up never being released and it was to have had our song in the bar scene.
“The best I could do was to get him to say, ‘Gator has a good band but they need more cowbell.’ That was enough for me to be able to quote him.”
Gator and Ray have quite a collection of recordings, many are on YouTube under Gary Millhollon, and there are also some under his YouTube pseudonym Gatorblue.
“We keep threatening to release a CD, but today it seems that downloads are where most people get their blues, so we’re rolling with that at this time,” Gator said with a grin.
They also keep a full schedule. But then, blues musicians are known for playing well into their lives. As for how long they’ll continue, neither is saying, only that they’re still having fun.
“As long as we have our health, I think we will both perform. We really augment each other well, and sharing the load on vocals and guitar solos means it’s a bit less demanding than for bands where you’re doing it all,” Gator said.
“The legendary Charlie Musslewhite said it best, ‘The reason that all of us in the blues are like a family is that we play for the music that we love, not the music that might make us more money.’ I can walk into a blues club in London, Dublin, Clarksdale (in) Mississippi, Phoenix, anywhere, I can sit down and say ‘let’s do a medium shuffle in G with a 1-5-4’ and everyone just takes off and plays the song. Blues people have their own language and understanding of what’s happening.”
Ray added, “I think I’ll cut it loose in a few years for more time with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but I enjoy it still. I have a lot of enjoyment with Gator and many of the other musicians I play with like Killer Bug, Larry Lampkin and others.”
Then he said with a smile, “When you perform, you gotta give the people what they want, not what you want.”