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In the footsteps of kings


This story is about living a dream. It's about how a small-town guy, who started as a rock 'n' roll superfan, became an industry player and now makes a living working with his childhood idols. Danny Griffin cut his teeth on his parents' old 78s, following his passion for music into the new wave era. After years spent working as a roadie and networking, he landed gigs managing the comeback of the Sun Rhythm Section (the musicians who backed Elvis during his early career) and working for The Rolling Stones. It's a rock 'n' roll journey that began in North Carolina in the early '80s, snaked through scores of bad clubs, college shows, recording studios and rooming houses, and dropped Griffin--almost 20 years later--at the doorstep of rock's pioneers.

I met Griffin, now 43, over a decade ago, when he helped out my old band, Let's Active, on a tour. He'd found out about Let's Active leader Mitch Easter while hanging out with Alex Chilton (Big Star, The Box Tops) during Chilton's dish-washing period in the Big Easy. Griffin had hooked up with Alex by calling all the Chiltons in the Memphis, Tenn., phone book, locating his mother and sister, and finally calling the New Orleans hotel where Alex worked. Chilton told Griffin about Easter's Drive-In Studio (where the early R.E.M. records were made). Griffin, never shy, gave Easter a call and got invited to Winston-Salem. Soon he joined Let's Active on the road.

Griffin moved up to Winston-Salem in 1985, eager to help any way he could. During a Let's Active show at the Brewery in Raleigh, he caught the young opening band, The Right Profile--which featured future Pinetop singer-songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. Griffin was blown away.

Soon, he was shacked up in The Right Profile's Winston-Salem band house.

He was mild looking, soft-spoken, always positive (God knows what he was really thinking) and ready to be involved. It was impossible to tell who Danny really was. Rumors abounded that he'd gone into debt to buy sound equipment to offer with his services. ("I was like the kid you asked to be in your band 'cuz he has the equipment," Griffin laughs. "I could run monitors, run sound, tune guitars, so I was a pretty valuable low-paid person at the time.") His personal life was shrouded in mystery. He seemed to put all his energy into networking and building up a base of contacts, widening his circle of rock friends and acquaintances till it spilled over the ocean and landed him at a cozy dinner at former Beatle George Harrison's last year. More on that later.

"There was always something mysterious about Danny," Foster says. "Back then, it was always kind of unclear what he did, and what he really knew anything about. He just helped us. He had a 4-track and we'd do demos.

"Way before we knew him, he was this superfan--he had these big scrapbooks of pictures of himself with Springsteen and Jackson Browne ... all kinds of people, and they never looked like he just ran up and bugged them and had somebody snap a photo. They always had their arms around him. Or else, he was carrying their guitar case."

Griffin had a way of ingratiating himself with musicians--whether they were famous or soon-to-be. And one contact always to another. Foster had a girlfriend in Venus 2 (Chris Stamey's backing band), who needed someone to accompany them to Richmond, Va., and help out at a show. They'd be opening for a new woman on the scene--Suzanne Vega. Griffin went to the show, became friends with Vega and her band, and they invited him back to New York to work with them.

Around this time, Griffin also had a chance conversation with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. As he remembers it, Stipe said, "'Oh, if you're going to upstate New York, you should check out this band we've played with--10,000 Maniacs.'"

By 1987, when the band produced their breakthrough album, In My Tribe, Griffin was 10,000 Maniacs' full-time Guy Friday. "I was the driver, babysitter--I broke up fights and got booze," he recalls. "I was able to make a small fortune when they made it. They treated me very nice."

By 1989, the Maniacs were earning more and touring less, so Griffin began managing Albany bands and started a small record label. Neither Vega nor the Maniacs had a promoter in upstate New York, so Griffin also took a plunge in that direction. "At that point, I thought I'd rather stay home and promote concerts, instead of being on the road," he says. But after a few successful promotions, fate threw Griffin a curve ball--in the form of one of his heroes, Bob Dylan.

Offered a string of Dylan concert dates, Griffin figured it was his chance to move to the next level as a promoter. "I thought, 'How can you lose on Bob Dylan?'" he recalls. But the deal was a complete disaster: Nobody went to the shows. "It was the Oh, Mercy tour--which, to me, was one of his best records," Griffin says. "But [Dylan] had done so many tours [when] he was really bad that I lost my shirt."

More than $100,000 in debt, Griffin dissolved his indie label and started drinking heavily. "I found out the hard way that the stories about independent labels are true: The distributors don't pay you," he says. "I lost all my money in the bank; I was completely broke." Although he was still earning some money with the Maniacs, he hit a desperate all-time low--personally and professionally.

But then luck threw him a nice, meaty bone: A friend in upstate New York offered him a job managing and booking the Bearsville Theater. Dylan manager Albert Grossman, the Bearsville's owner, was dead by this time, but his widow Sally (the woman in the red dress on the cover of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home) was still running the theater and the studios. "It was great getting to hang around all my childhood idols," says Griffin of the experience. "I knew I was in the right place when, the first night, I had Levon Helm [The Band] in front of me and Graham Parker behind me in the check-out line at the grocery store."

And then, in the early '90s, Griffin experienced another twist of fate. "This woman called and asked if I wanted to book the Sun Rhythm Section," he says. "I said that we didn't do cover or tribute bands. She said, 'No--it's D.J. Fontana, Sonny Burgess, Stan Kessler and Paul Burlison.'" Griffin laughs. "I couldn't believe it was really those guys, those legends. Paul Burlison was in Johnny Burnette's R&R Trio, Sonny Burgess was a Sun records artist and Stan Kessler wrote a bunch of Elvis songs and produced Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs."

Griffin booked two nights, knocking himself out to get press coverage--from TV stations, radio, print. Both shows sold out. At the end of the second night, the band asked Griffin to manage them. "They were phenomenal," he recalls. "I jumped at the chance."

For those of you not conversant in the history of rock, most folks agree that a milestone occurred in Memphis in the mid '50s. There was country and western, rockabilly and such, but when Elvis and the Blue Moon Boys came along, nothing would ever be the same, what with the girls swoonin' and screamin' and the boys gettin' ornery.

Scotty Moore (guitar) and the late Bill Black (bass) were seasoned Memphis musicians who hung around Sam Phillips' Sun Studios. Elvis Presley was then a 19-year-old, loudly dressed, greasy-haired momma's boy who was pestering Phillips to cut a record for him. Phillips put Elvis in the studio with Moore and Black, a.k.a. the "Blue Moon Boys," and cut "That's Alright Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the single that came to define early rock 'n' roll.

Originally relying on the rhythmic pickin' of Scotty, and Black's percussive, slapping upright bass, the combo eventually added drummer D.J. Fontana and became rockers. Although Elvis hated to be called "The King," people did it anyway, and the Blue Moon boys soon came to be known as "The King's Men." After Elvis' army stint, they disbanded, although Moore and Fontana backed Elvis on his '69 comeback special--generally acknowledged as the last time he was cool. Meanwhile, over in the United Kingdom, spotty-faced Brit kids were digging these sounds--Scotty's pickin' style on "Mystery Train," for example--and pestering their parents for guitars. Would the Stones or Zeppelin exist without the Memphis influence? Unlikely.

After securing The Sun Rhythm Section, Griffin became obsessed with getting Scotty Moore out of retirement. "As far as I'm concerned, Scotty is what made Elvis," Griffin says. Moore still lived in Memphis--he'd been running a printing and tape-duplicating company, but had just sold it. "So I put this whole record together just hoping that Scotty would play," Griffin says. At this point, Griffin was operating on a handshake deal from RCA and pure cajones--there was no contract.

"At first, [Moore] said no," Griffin recalls. "Then he said, 'Let me think about it.' He was real eccentric, at least at the time, and he was really apprehensive about getting back in the business."

Griffin decided a rock heavy like Keith Richards--whom he knew to be a huge Scotty Moore fan--might have more luck getting him out of retirement. Taking a chance, he cold-called Richards' manager, Jane Rose, who quickly called him back. ("It's amazing," Griffin says. "Scotty has so much influence on these guys that I can get through to just about anybody by saying I'm his manager.") Griffin asked Rose if Richards might be willing to write Moore a letter or give him a call.

"So Keith calls him up--I think they'd both had a few at the time--and invited Scotty to the St. Louis stop of the [1994] Voodoo Lounge tour," Griffin says. Moore told Richards that he couldn't "really afford to do that," so the Stones flew him to St. Louis, put him up in their hotel and treated him like royalty.

"I don't think Scotty would have stuck it out if Keith hadn't flown him to St. Louis and showed him what it was like again," Griffin says. "They played guitar, and that was the first time Scotty had played in ages. When Scotty came back, he was ready to make a record."

The first session was at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, N.Y. "I've got a tape," Griffin says. "Scotty and Keith were both drunk out of their minds, and Scotty's teaching Keith how to sing. It's hilarious. It's also the best guitar playing Scotty'd done in years."

Ron Wood heard about the project and invited them to record some tracks at his home studio in Ireland. "A month later, we were flying to Dublin," Griffin says. "Ronnie and Jeff Beck wrote 'Unsung Heroes' about the Blue Moon Boys--how they were always behind Elvis but never really recognized."

Although the star guests played for free (Richards had told Griffin, "If you have to pay me, you can't afford me"), it was still an expensive project. Griffin maxed out his credit cards and called friends. Hooking up with a trust-fund kid who wanted to start a label, Griffin and Sweetfish Records finally released All the King's Men in August 1997. The album sold almost 50,000 copies stateside, garnering good press and a Grammy nomination.

Another star-studded follow-up to All the King's Men is in the works. At a show at London's Air studios last July, Gibson presented Moore with his own guitar, followed by a mega jam session that was recorded and filmed by Griffin and a crew. "I got the session on 24-tracks--it had Jack Bruce [of Cream] playing bass, Alvin Lee, Steve Howe [of Yes], Phil Manzanera [from Roxy Music], and Jimmy Page playing guitar," Griffin says. The "band" jammed on Elvis classics. Griffin plans to use six of the Elvis cover tracks, combined with six new studio tracks for the next album. "George Harrison wants to do a track," he adds.

I ask how one goes about meeting a former Beatle.

The boys were doing a BBC Radio interview and Harrison called to invite them for dinner--an unusual gesture for the reticent Harrison. Moore is known for being tongue-tied around new people, as is Harrison, so Griffin figured the dinner would be a quick, monosyllabic affair. Soon after they arrived, Griffin, Moore and Fontana saw Harrison rounding a corner of the house on a golf cart, wearing a huge kidlike grin. Griffin realized that even Harrison had his idols.

Harrison sat them down at a table and excitedly showed them an autographed copy of the first promo picture of Elvis and Scotty (a gift from his wife Olivia). Moore verified that the signatures were authentic. They chatted and drank coffee and tea all afternoon. Dinner was a down-home affair designed to make the ol' country boys feel comfortable: buffet-style chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, corn, peas, homemade rolls.

"After we finished dinner," Griffin remembers, "[Harrison] said, 'Well, would you like to go up into the studio and guitar room? He took us into this room with all of his guitars--and he still has all of his Beatles guitars, and he's got them on the wall. He said, 'Do you remember this guitar?' And it was the Rickenbacker he played on The Ed Sullivan Show."

The next night, the Sun Rhythm Section was booked to play a Birmingham club gig. Robert Plant had reserved a table down front. Griffin called Plant's manager to ask if he'd mind if Harrison and Olivia joined him. Plant responded by fax. Griffin laughs, "I have this fax framed. It says, 'Can't George afford his own bloody table?'"

Griffin also recently secured a job as a corporate liaison for Sprint during the Rolling Stones' 1998 Bridges to Babylon tour. "I got a call on a Thursday, and Sunday I was flying to Hawaii on the Stones' plane," Griffin says. It was a cushy job.

"They have this pre-show 'meet and greet' every afternoon where the Stones meet local Sprint representatives and whoever they've brought along to impress," Griffin explains. "You just have to usher the Stones into the room to say hello and take pictures, and then wait for a sign from Mick or Keith to get 'em out." (Griffin has since worked as a liaison for Elton John and Jewel.)

"The Stones said, 'Why don't you bring Scotty and D.J. out to some of the shows and we'll get 'em out there to play?' And they'd drag 'em onstage to play 'Mystery Train' or something from time to time."

Griffin's current full-time project is editing The Power Behind the Throne, a feature-length film he's assembling from 70 hours of sessions, interviews and archival footage. He's also at work on a film based on writer Carson McCullers (McCullers' fan Nancy Griffith is writing some of the music). Spring will find Griffin and the band back in Europe and the United Kingdom, where they make a living touring. "They make more money now than they did with Elvis," Griffin laughs. "They got 42 bucks for a three-hour session back then--they were punching the clock."

Griffin's life has now become intertwined with the lives of his idols. He's managed to take the pages of rock history and write himself in. From a fan, to a catalyst, to an actual part of the industry, Griffin's almost 20-year odyssey has landed him in rock's inner circle.

"I've got to hand it to him, strange as it all is," says Foster. "To dream of being a rock companion or whatever, he couldn't have gotten any bigger, and now he's really close to the beginnings of rock with Scotty and D.J. We've all kind of wondered [about Griffin] over the years," Foster adds. "But the main thing is that he dreamed it 20 years ago and now he's living it."

"Every time something really bad happened, something really good came along to make up for it," Griffin says of his long, strange ride. "I don't ever want to sound like a Sad Sack--it's been fun."

"Don't you ever wonder how you got here from Boaz?" I ask.

"Every day," he laughs. EndBlock

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