Last July Eric Gales, fresh off finishing a year in the Shelby County Correctional Center and headed to rehab following a bust weeks before for cocaine possession, went to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago.
With his pedigree as one of the top guitar slingers in the country, he should have been on stage performing. Instead, he had to settle for being a spectator, dropping in at vendors’ booths and visiting old friends who were on the bill.
“It was so refreshing to run into all of them and they were so encouraging, saying keep your head up dude and just keep doing what your doing,” Gales recalls of the encouragement he got from other artists at the festival. “I know that I’m at the level I’m supposed to be when I’m in the company of those people and they’re giving me all kinds of thumbs up.
After years of personal and legal troubles, Gales seems intent on fulfilling the promise the 36-year-old first held out 20 years ago, when as a 16-year-old prodigy he was hailed as the next Jimi Hendrix. Now based out of St. Paul, Minn., where the wintry climate and distance from bad influences in his hometown of Memphis help keep his demons at bay, Gales has been steadily rebuilding his reputation as an artist.
In November, the last time he played Memphis, he performed the National Anthem at a Grizzlies game. That was followed by a sold-out tour of Europe. On Thursday, Gales returns home for a headlining show at the 1884 lounge at Minglewood Hall.
“Things are going well right now,” says Gales from his Minnesota home. “Things are coming my way like they should have been before. I was the only one stopping it before. Now I’m doing some things different. I’ve got a clean mind, and I’m no longer robbing myself of what I can be doing, of what I have the capability of doing. Everyday is like a new adventure right now.”
Gales has been a figure on the Memphis music scene almost since he could walk. The youngest of the five Gales boys, he started playing guitar at age 4. (Brothers, Eugene and the late Manuel, aka late Little Jimmy King, also played.) Naturally right-handed, he was taught — in a tradition handed down from his grandfather, Dempsey Garret, Sr. — to play left-handed, an approach that in his teens added to growing comparisons to Hendrix brought about by a vague physical resemblance and similar style.
When he was 15, Gales signed a deal with Elektra Records. He released two records on the label, 1991’s “The Eric Gales Band” and 1993’s “Picture of a Thousand Faces.” But despite good reviews and much hype — he was voted Best New Talent in Guitar World magazine and appeared on television programs like “The Arsenio Hall Show”— his music was little heard outside of hardcore guitar-head circles.
In 1996, Gales made a record with brothers Eugene and Manuel under the name the Gales Brothers for House of Blues Records. And then in 2001, he cut :That’s What I Am” for MCA’s Nightbird label, an imprint run by estate of Hendrix.
But by then, Gales’ personal problems were beginning to overshadow his music. Gales estimates he started doing cocaine — never crack, he insists — when was 20 or 21 years old. And despite the music industry’ less than sterling reputation, he says it was when he was away from music that he got in trouble.
“It was when I wasn’t doing anything and things slowed down that I got intrigued with the street life,” Gales says of his descent. “I got to hanging out with the boys and tried blow for the first time on a dare. It was the worst decision I ever made in my life.”
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Gales began to require a reputation for erratic shows, for being high on the job. Following “That’s What I Am,” he didn’t record for five years. Despite the rumors swirling around him, when California musician and label executive Mike Varney met him, he saw past all that and jumped at the chance to work with the phenom.
“I had been a fan of his since his first record and owned every record he had made up until then, so it was fun to work with him given his genius,” says Varney, who first worked with Gales on a tribute to the ’60s band Cream that he released on his own Shrapnel label. “His playing as a blues rock player ranks with the best out there on the circuit, and the other players all know he has the goods.”
Just months after signing with Shrapnel’s Blues Bureau imprint, Gales drew the drug and gun possession charge for which he received three years probation. Gales landed a sympathetic judge who let him eave town to play, an arrangement that allowed him to go out on 2008’s Experience Hendrix tour with Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Sherpherd, and original Hendrix bandmates Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, a gig he still considers a career highlight.
But a failed 2009 drug screening violated Gales’ parole and landed him in the Correction Center. Even there his talents were recognized, however, as the warden eventually tapped Gales to lead a prison band that gigged at special events around the county.
“The warden saw the potential to get inmates involved in music,” says Gales of his prison band. “It cut down on violence in the prison because we were doing shows everyday, sometimes multiple times a day. I don’t want to do no more time, but if I had to do time that’s the way to do it.”
Throughout his legal problems, Varney and Blue Bureau stuck by Gales, though he was not able to support his records as fully as most artists. In all he has done four records for Blues Bureau — including last year’s “Relentless,” which came out just weeks after the end of his jail sentence — and on each you can hear him developing a voice, becoming a better singer and songwriter while at the same learning to tame his incendiary leads in service to the material.
“I think he gets better with each record,” says Varney, insisting that Gales’ personal problems have never impacted their work together. “He is a professional, and I think as long as he walks the straight path he will be greatly acknowledged as one of the world's best guitarists. He has to be seen to be believed. I have not lost faith in Eric at all. This is his year.”
And a growing number of people in music industry agree. From St. Paul, Gales is fielding offers that will catapult his career. Always writing songs, another Blues Bureau record is a possibility for the spring, though other labels are also courting Gales.
Meanwhile, Two Rock Amplification recently unveiled his signature model guitar amp, and local luthiers St. Blues Guitars is planning to roll out a signature instrument later this year. And just this month the U.K. magazine Guitarist named Gales the best blues player of the year.
“Next year I’m shooting for it to be just guitar player of the year,” Gales says, laughing. “But this is start, a really good start.”
The Eric Gales Band
9 p.m. Thursday at 1884 Lounge inside Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison Ave. Tickets: $10 at the door. For more information, call 312-6058 or visit minglewoodhall.com.