We lost Greg Batterton not long ago. He was an excellent auctioneer and an amazing musician. I had the honor of speaking at his funeral and sharing a memory or two about a man who was larger than life in the music world. Greg-O, as he was often referred to, did not meet a stranger and was always willing to help out wherever and whenever he could. He left behind a musical legacy that includes two sons, Bradley and Brian, both of whom are talented musicians, many, many musical partners and a number of recordings that document his tremendous playing abilities.
Peter Read, editor in chief of Nightflying, asked me to revisit this interview that I did with Greg and his wife, Marsha, a few years ago and to do a rewrite or update or something like that. After reading through the interview, I've decided that it doesn't need to be updated. The interview, in my humble opinion, captured who Greg and Marsha Batterton were and are. So, with this brief introduction and a couple of changes at the end, here is the original interview.
When I've had the opportunity to discuss musical talent with someone I always inject what I refer to as the 'Michael Jordan rule' into the exchange. The 'Michael Jordan rule' is my unscientific theorem that accounts for the unnatural abilities and instinctive talent some people seem to be born with. It's basically the idea that some people are born with a thing...a skill...a talent...an ability...inside them. It has to be nurtured and groomed in order to allow it to reach its potential but it exists naturally within its human vessel. The people who possess this thing...this skill...this talent are the ones who make it look easy, who seem to naturally move in the ebb and flow that surrounds them.
Now, I believe anyone can be trained to do a thing. I believe that anyone can practice and study and at some point, through hard work and perseverance, become reasonably successful at said thing. But it's different than the person that possesses the natural ability and aptitude. The person with the natural ability already knows instinctively where to go and what to do. They are in touch with their talent. It's a feeling...a groove...a vibe...that not all of us are born with. It's these folks, the MJ's of the world, that catch our attention and pull us in, leaving us in awe of what we witness.
There are lots of MJ's out there. Some of them play sports. Some are authors. Some are business leaders. Some are musicians. And some...well, some are known for playing harmonica. Among other things.
Hot Springs' Greg Batterton is known around Arkansas and the region as one of the premier harmonica players in the business. He is regarded as a tasteful player who knows how to lead or can sit back and fill in the gaps. Harmonica is not his first instrument however.
"Well, my t-shirt has a trombone on it," says Batterton, referring to a series of collectible shirts created by The Big Chill in Hot springs. "I started playing bass when I was thirteen or fourteen years old with my dad. I played a few gigs with him. I just picked it up and started playing. It all came easy. What little I know came easy."
"It's terrible. I hate it.", he continues, a mischievous grin breaking across his face. "What I can do came easy to me."
Step back in time with me for a paragraph or two. It's around 2004 or 2005. I'm sitting in The Crosswalk Bar & Grill in Hot Springs, known at that time as Big Daddy's, for a Wednesday night blues jam. The jam is flowing along as always. Batterton makes it in to play harmonica for the jam. At one point I look up and he is playing bass. The next time I look he's playing guitar. The next time he's on drums. Then keyboard. Batterton played every instrument on stage that night.
Changing venues to The Big Chill, during a gig one evening Batterton pulls an old accordian, used for decoration, off the wall behind the stage and proceeds to play it. He had taken an old trombone off the wall at one point and also played it. And he made both these beat up, out of tune instruments sound good.
Still, even with all his music talent, Batterton is recognized for his work on the harmonica. He picked up harmonica because there were "47 bass players around town at that time or at least it sure seemed like it back then."
"There weren't really many harp players around town. A few but not really. I was average at best and just kind of picked it up."
Batterton received his first harmonica from Dean Friend, a former state trooper who played banjo with Batterton's father.
"He could whistle in harmony out of both sides of his mouth," he says about Friend. "It was quite a trick."
Greg Batterton was born and raised in the house where he currently resides in Amity, just outside Hot Springs, along with his wonderful and incredibly tolerant bride, Marsha, and their two boys, Bradley and Brian. Batterton grew up around music. His father did not play professionally but held pickings in the living room of their home. His mother sang.
"I've been around music all my life. People would come over and play music. My mom sang. Still does. She's 82 years old and had three gigs last week."
He says this with a smile, something he is known for. Batterton's nature is easy going and comical, quick to crack a joke or heckle his audience. He's also one of the first people to step up to the plate for a benefit or to help someone in need. In fact it was at a benefit to raise money for a kidney transplant for my bride, Sherree Hughes, where we first really came across one another.
"It was a benefit so I was in. I didn't really know her (Sherree) or you (DH) at that time. It's funny how things come back around."
That coming back around reference happened when Batterton ended up on the receiving end of a benefit in 2010. He had been having health issues and was slowly going into kidney failure. As always, the musical community of Hot Springs pulled together to raise money and come to his side. The benefit was pulled together through the Unknown Legends Musicians Relief Fund, headed by Sherree Hughes. Funny how things come back around indeed.
The benefit was held at Terry Martin's Lounge and carried an all-star cast of local musicians. The turnout and the money that was raised were a testament to Batterton's influence in the music community and in the community in general.
"That was the most humbling day of my life I can remember. I was overwhelmed."
Marsha Batterton chimed in, "We were so used to helping everybody else. we weren't used to being helped."
"It was a huge help and it was very much needed and appreciated," Greg continued. "Overall, it just let's you know you have a lot of good friends. I've got a lot of people in my life that you don't realize you mean that much to them."
"Until you are in that situation, when it's you or yours, you take it for granted. For most folks it's another party. It's not. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into that."
"I've tried to be all in on the benefits before that. Everybody is gonna need a hand at some point. If everybody does a little bit then that's enough."
"You don't have to save the world or give thousands of dollars. Give what you can," Marsha stated. "$500 is huge when you haven't got anything in your pocket."
Greg continued, "It was a very humbling day. I can't give back that much. It's going on three years since the benefit. The day we did the benefit I'd have never thought I'd be here today."
Things are much better today than that fall evening back in 2010. Batterton's kidney numbers are good and he has managed to level his body out. He is on dialysis but that hasn't slowed him too much.
"I spend my energy on things that make me a living and the rest we may do or not."
"You do what you have to do and let go of what you can and then circle back if you have time," said Marsha. "When he has good days, I have great days. When he has bad days I have horrible days. It's just hard to watch him go through this. He won't feel good and I'll let him sleep. Then I'll get in his face and tell him 'You gotta get up and do something'."
"I feel better when I get up and go or have things to do," Greg said. "She's (Marsha) been a blessing all my life for sure. There ain't no way I could get through all this without her."
Marsha Miller left home when she was sixteen and moved into the Batterton's home. Greg was eighteen at the time. Little did they know at that time the paths they were following would soon come together.
"We got together when I was sixteen and he was eighteen," Marsha stated. "My boyfriend was Greg's best friend at the time and Greg had a crush on his sister."
"Her boyfriend moved off to California and I thought I'd better step in and take care of things," Greg said with a smile.
"Around December, 1980 or 81, he looked at me and said I think I could stand dating just one person if you could. That was how he asked me out," she commented.
"Well, I wasn't sure but I thought I'd be alright. I let my car do the talking," he replied.
"You've got to really love your musician," she said, laughing. "It's always helped that he's been my best friend. I'm not gonna lie and say it's always been peachy and rosy. I don't know anybody whose relationship has been peachy and rosy. But it's thirty-one years this December (2012)."
"Every foot would seem like 10 miles if she wasn't here," Greg said. "She's been through all of it. I don't know how she put it up with it. Now she has two kids who are playing."
"I'm not gonna lie," said Marsha. "I cried for a week when Bradley started playing."Both Batterton offspring are playing music in bands these days. And both appear to have the same penchant for picking up the music as their dad has. Bradley, the oldest son, has played bass over the years, spending time with local praise and worship band, Leyden. Leyden experienced quite a bit of success, touring the revivals and church camps. Marsha spent her time as the band's driver. Lately, Bradley has been touring with Sean Michel, playing drums for Michel's band.
The youngest son, Brian, currently plays bass with the Hot Springs' based band, Moonshine Mafia. He spends a lot of his spare time in front of the computer, head phones on, playing along with whatever music video happens to pop up on YouTube.
Both young men are gentlemen and respectful of others and of their talents.
"We raised them right," Marsha said. "We didn't have a lot of problems. I did a lot of sacrificing for them and gave up a lot of stuff while they were growing up. Some things, of course, I should've done better. I just didn't want my kids to be shit. I didn't. I wanted them to be pretty decent in the community. I didn't want them to be a drain on the community. We tried to explain to them why they were told to do things."
And she did all this while working a full time job and spending some time working on her Associate's Degree. Marsha has been in her present job for over 20 years working as an office manager, handling everything from the payroll to filing to troubleshooting the company's technology issues. She now has her eyes turned toward completing her Bachelor's Degree.
Greg followed in his father's footsteps not just musically, becoming an auctioneer by trade. He hung siding for over twenty years and did a few auctions on the side until the auctions began generating more work than the siding. Batterton remains a licensed and bonded auctioneer, presiding over a couple of auctions a week in addition to playing music.
Batterton's first band was Friends & Company with Gene Robertson and Dave Roberts.
"We got together just playing music and then started booking gigs for no money. We just wanted to play. We were a seven to eight piece outfit and stayed together a couple years. We'd play weddings and such. Nobody took any money. We'd put whatever we got paid in a kitty and then went to Pensacola at the end of first year. We ended up taking fifteen to twenty people. We took everyone and paid for condos and played for tips on the pier while we were down there. Really, the first band was in high school with a guy named Daren Bain and a kid called Dempsey Rhoades who used to imitate Elvis."
There was a period of about fifteen years when Batterton didn't play in public. Once he began playing out again he had several successful stints with some very talented bands including The Midnight Shuffle Kings, The Swingin' Johnsons, Blue Boogie, Blue Blazes, The Circulators and Heavy Suga & The Sweetones.
"I had to step up and play with Danny Smith and The Midnight Shuffle Kings. We played at Crosswalk (formerly Players) for about four years. Danny made me step up and play 'cause he's a player. and I got the gig 'cause I had the PA. You got the gig if you have a PA you don't even have to play that good. You have a PA and a trailer and you can play two hundred times a week."
"I sat in one night with The Swingin' Johnsons and they liked me and I kept playing. Then they realized I had a PA and a trailer," Batterton said, laughing. "We had a good run. We had condoms that they used as business cards. I got to where I could sail one of those to the back of the room."
"I've been real fortunate. Nobody's run me off the stage. People call me when they come through town to play with them. I've played mostly local, some regionally."
Batterton is modest in his assessment of himself. I've traveled to Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee and when I tell folks I'm from Hot Springs, they will inevitably ask about 'that harp player ya'll got up there'. Yeah, he's nationwide.
Batterton has had the opportunity to sit in with EG Kight, Lee Oskar, Buddy Flett, Dave Almond, Brian Martin, Super Chikan, Terry 'Big T' Williams, Virgil 'Big Juv' Brawley, 2blu & The Lucky Stiffs and the late greats Michael Burks and Pinetop Perkins. He's also played for actor Morgan Freeman who complimented "young man, you play a fine harmonica".
"It does make me feel good when people come to town and ask me to play. I've made a lot of friends and good acquaintances over the years."
"I'd better enjoy it. I've never made any money at it. Marsha has all these harps laying here. That's her retirement," Greg said, nodding his head toward a couple of containers full of old, blown out harmonicas waiting to be refurbished.
"I told you to sign them and we'd put them on ebay," Marsha shot back. Not a bad idea.
"I was playing at Lee's Catfish with Buddy Flett one night. I blew a harp and threw it down and stomped on it. A biker friend of ours named Big Rob asked me what I was gonna do with it. When I told him I was gonna throw it away he asked if he could have it and asked me to sign it. The next time we played down there he came up and said he had put the harp on ebay and got $25 or something like that for it. I've got a whole truck load. We'll get them on ebay as soon as we can afford a sharpie to sign them with."
These days, although he's slowed his pace some, Batterton plays when he wants to, picking up a gig here and there or just showing up and sitting in for a set.
"I never tried to make a living playing music. I'd starve to death if that what it was about. I just love to play. I'm just almost like a junkie. I just got to (play) a little bit. It makes it a lot easier if you can go make you a little money but there ain't no money in it. Anyone who says so is on a different rung of the ladder."
Marsha commented, "He gets cranky if he doesn't get to play. There are times when I ask him if there's a band somewhere he can go sit in with."
"The local level of music is...well, it's a tough economy unless you are solo or duo. It's hard to book a band and keep them busy. The few bands who work regularly have got a house gig. If they tried to book and work every weekend it's tough. When you get $500 to $600 for four to five guys plus travel...it's just hard. It all boils down to you just better love it. If you want to play you just gotta play and if you make some money great. If not, play 'cause you want to. At least that's the way I do it. I guess that's why I'm sooooo successful."
Hey. C'mon. You're being interviewed for Nightflying.
RIP Greg-O. You will be missed by a lot of folks, musical and otherwise. I for one will miss our visits about music, musicians and the general safety of the world. You were one of a kind and I will forever remember you smiling from behind your harmonica, waiting for the next punch line to appear. Love ya, buddy.
You can purchase a CD featuring Greg Batterton's harmonica playing and singing. The CD is Greg Batterton Live: It Happens Everywhere I Go and you can purchase it online at unknownlegendsmusiciansrelief.org. The disc was recorded and mastered by Gerry Babbitt. All proceeds from the CD sales go to Marsha Batterton and family.