Not only was Edmonton’s Frank Gay one of the best guitar players in the world, he was one of the best guitar makers. Johnny Cash played one of his guitars; three others he made are in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But, there are no Edmonton streets or squares named in his honour. There’s no statue of him to be found. In fact, if not for the work of Trevor Harrison, the late Frank Gay’s story might have been lost.
In his book, Prairie Bohemian: Frank Gay’s Life in Music, Harrison recalls the life of a man whose guitars were played by some of the world’s most famous strummers and pickers. It also spotlights a man who was such a fine classical, flamenco and jazz player that he earned accolades from some of the best.
“This is an interesting story because it tells something about Edmonton and Alberta and even Western Canada at this particular time, about the development of music and musical culture, and how it’s developing at the same time as Edmonton is growing up, also,” says Harrison, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge and a director of the Parkland Institute.
“One of the things I tried to decipher is: What do we actually mean by ‘genius?'”
Gay was a hard drinker, a binge eater and burned through two marriages. There were whispers of domestic violence. But he also wanted to share his guitar knowledge, and would offer to teach those who he felt had potential – for free.
“He was making special guitars for different artists, and I was interested in seeing some of those guitars,” says Ray Lonsdale, now the piano sales manager at Giovanni Music. “He asked me if I played the guitar; I said, ‘I do.’ So he said, ‘Play something,’ and I played a little bit of jazz. He said, ‘Would you like me to play something for you?’ and then he played a bit of flamenco guitar. I said, ‘I’d like to learn some of that.’ So, he handed me a guitar and said, ‘Let’s both do this.'”
From the 1950s through the ’70s, while Gay made instruments, he was asked to do show after show, but he never left Edmonton.
“One person I talked to said that Frank was quite happy being a big fish in a small pond. Frank was obviously very capable; he was obviously very skilled,” says Harrison. “But it always comes across in the story that there was a fair amount of insecurity there. How much did that hold him back?”
Even though Gay was massively influential, Harrison says it’s hard to trace his legacy. “We talk about some of the guitarists he worked with … how many of those people ended up teaching and influencing somebody else? And so you start to lose the train of influence. But, among the musical community itself, there’s a lot of people who know about Frank. And, through them, his influence does carry on in some ways.”