The Stoic Blues of Steve Gannon

Oakland's hardest working bluesman battles lung cancer.

Steve Gannon sits on the stage of Dotha’s Juke Joint, appearing rather stoic as he solos, as if it’s just another one of the thousands of shuffles he’s played during his nearly three decades as the steadiest working blues guitar sideman on the local scene. Yet his stinging lines are filled with passion and imagination. When Bobbie Webb, the evening’s featured vocalist and saxophonist, tears into Jr. Walker‘s “Shotgun,” Gannon smiles. His head bobs back and forth while he strokes funky rhythm patterns behind Webb’s searing sax.

The London-born guitarist has been appearing at Dotha’s, a side room of Everett and Jones Barbeque on Broadway, for the past eleven years. He remained a member of the Saturday-night house band even after its leader, harmonica player Birdlegg, relocated to Austin several months back. Gannon skips the gig only when he gets a call from someone like Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jimmy McCracklin, Craig Horton, or Lady Bianca for a higher-profile, more lucrative engagement.

“I tend to stick with people,” the 63-year-old musician said with a pronounced Cockney accent. His other long-term associations include six years in the house band at Eli’s Mile High Club and fifteen as the leader of the Monday night jam sessions at Blakes.

“I show up sober and on time,” he said when asked why he’s been so in demand. “I do me best. I get along easy with a lot of people, even people that other people don’t get along with.”

The modest musician might have added that, in addition to being a really nice guy, he’s one heck of a blues guitar picker. He didn’t take up the instrument until he was 22, but he’d been a fervent blues fan since age 14. He remembers seeing Eric Clapton in John Mayall‘s band, and DeSanto when she appeared in London on a bill with Howlin’ Wolf. Gannon worked for a period as a roadie for English progressive rocker Steve Hillage, from whom he picked up a few guitar licks. He came to Oakland on vacation in 1982, quickly fell in with bluesman Sonny Rhodes (“the Sheik of East Oakland”), and never looked back.

Of late, he has been sitting rather than standing on stage due to his struggle with lung cancer. And he’s had to cut way back on the number of gigs he accepts, as well as on his freelance daytime work as a carpenter and handyman.

“I used to walk around Lake Merritt and felt fine,” said Gannon, who was diagnosed with the disease in July. “Now, if I walk across the street or even stand up too quick and walk across the room, my heart starts pounding and I get out of breath. It’s really fucked up.”

More than three dozen of Gannon’s friends in the blues business, including McCracklin, Horton, Mark Hummel, Steve Freund, and Freddie Hughes, will perform at a benefit for him Sunday afternoon at George’s in San Rafael.


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