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Eric Gales reclaims his place as a blues guitar icon

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Eric Gales was 4 years old when he first picked up a guitar, and he picked it up kind of strangely.

ERIC GALES: I play left-handed, upside-down and backwards. Take a right-handed guitar and flip it over.

KELLY: The way he'd seen his older brothers play. Turns out, Gales had a stunning knack for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES BAND SONG, "NOTHING TO LOSE")

KELLY: By his early teens, he was being courted by national labels. At 16, he signed a record deal and put out his first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES BAND SONG, "NOTHING TO LOSE")

KELLY: Word spread. In 1992, talk show host Arsenio Hall asked the guitar legend Carlos Santana who had impressed him lately.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLOS SANTANA: Sure. There's a young blood, young brother from Memphis, Tenn. His name is Eric Gales - 16 years old, still in high school, and he's absolutely incredible. There's nothing cute about this 16-year-old young brother, you know? Eric Gales has a bright future.

GALES: I was 16 years old, and he came to one of my shows, and he was backstage. I mean, come on, man. That was huge to have him take a liking to what I was doing.

KELLY: But for a time, a bright future proved elusive for Gales. He struggled with drug addiction from an early age. His career stalled. At one point, he spent a year and a half in prison on drug and weapons charges.

Now he is five years sober and out with a new album. It's called "Crown," a not-so-subtle hint that he is ready to reclaim his place as a blues guitar icon. He is also ready to open up about the stumbles along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES SONG, "TOO CLOSE TO THE FIRE")

GALES: It's really a miracle for me to even be sitting here having a conversation about times in my life that I knew for certain that I was going to die. It cuts to the bone to think about, you know, things that I've been through, and that span lasted for around about 30 years.

KELLY: Thirty years.

GALES: It just took my career into a black hole that I lived in comfortably. I found comfort in the whole street life and put my gift that had been given to me by the big man upstairs - I walked away. I think there's a percentage of this world that may only know about me from my guitar playing and my music, but have no clue about the backstory. And I appreciate you guys for allowing me the opportunity to tell my story so people can understand where I come from and where I've been.

KELLY: Well, I appreciate you coming on and talking about it. And I want to say how glad I am that you're here and that you're better and that you're putting out music.

GALES: Thank you.

KELLY: May I ask, after all those years wrestling with this, after being in what sounds like a really dark place, what helped you turn the corner? What got you out?

GALES: I met the right person. I could - and she's sitting right here beside me. Honestly, this is who - she is who the interview should be with (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES SONG, "TAKE ME JUST AS I AM")

KELLY: This is your wife you're talking about.

GALES: My wife. I wound up with the most gorgeous woman in the world to me. And that's not her looks I'm talking about. It's the gorgeousness about her heart.

KELLY: Well, she's gorgeous in looks, too. I've seen pictures. Hi, LaDonna.

GALES: They said she's gorgeous in looks, too. She said, hi, LaDonna.

(LAUGHTER)

GALES: She helped tame the beast. We met each other, and she saw me play, and I was making eye contact with her in the show. And I stopped the show, and I said, what is your name, in front of, like, 3 or 4,000 people.

KELLY: (Laughter) I can picture it.

GALES: So we met that day, and she said, Eric, it's so nice to meet you. It seems as though that I saw everything that you have been through in your life by just watching you play. And two months later, we got married.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES SONG, "I WANT MY CROWN")

KELLY: Well, so you found love. You've been sober for five years. You've got a new album out. I feel like I should, like, reach through the radio and give you a big old high five.

(LAUGHTER)

GALES: Let's do a virtual high five.

KELLY: Let's do it. Here we go.

GALES: Let's do a virtual high five. There we go. Ah. Boom (laughter).

KELLY: I guess we should talk about the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT MY CROWN")

GALES: (Singing) Tired of hearing about Joe B. - say what? - and how he tweaks that sound. Now it's my turn, my time to eat a bowl of my crown (ph).

KELLY: Tell me about the song "I Want My Crown."

GALES: So me and Joe Bonamassa have known each other for almost 30 years.

KELLY: That's the Joe B. in the song.

GALES: That's the Joe B. That's the Joe B. in the song. Joe's career went one way, and my career went down a dark path. Me and Joe had a conversation when this record was coming up. And he said, Eric, you have no idea how long I've been watching and waiting for you. It's time for you to get your crown. It's him that said that to me.

KELLY: Well, and I will just put in a plug for the music video on this song, which ends with you and Joe in a boxing ring having a guitar solo showdown.

GALES: (Laughter) Yes.

KELLY: I will not give away the ending, but it does show you sitting on a throne wearing a crown, so...

GALES: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES SONG, "I WANT MY CROWN")

GALES: We knew that the world was going to take it and run with it as a preconceived notion that it's a competition. It's never a competition between me and my best friend. It's a conversation that we were having in that boxing ring. It just so happened to been in a boxing ring, so people will perceive that as a competition. And Joe said, what the hell? Let's run with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT MY CROWN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, I want my crown.

KELLY: One more thing to ask you about - because we've been talking about everything going on in your life that led you to this moment and this new album. But there was everything that was going on in the world as well, and I read that you were just on your way to start recording this album when you heard about George Floyd's death...

GALES: Yes.

KELLY: ...And that that worked its way into your lyrics. Would you tell me - point us to a song where we might hear some of that.

GALES: There's a song on the record called "Stand Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND UP")

GALES: (Singing) Can't you understand my dilemma?

"Stand Up" is about - it's not about me against you. It's about us against racism. That's what it's about. This whole George Floyd thing happened, and I have never in my life seen the death of someone move an entire world. And that was huge for me. That was huge for me and at the same time was infuriating.

So I came into the studio to write for the record to begin, and I could not. All I could do was just express how angry that I was, and it opened my eyes to some things. And I just want to have a conversation with the world and let them know from my perspective about things that has happened in my life. You know, if you care for my playing but don't care for me as a Black man, then we have a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND UP")

GALES: (Singing) Somebody has got to stand up, wake up, rise up, stand up to you.

KELLY: Well, Eric Gales, I will say again, I am so glad you're in a better place, and I hope the world catches up with you one of these days.

(LAUGHTER)

GALES: They're working on it slowly but surely. If I got my way about it, hey, man, I'ma reel in as many as I can (laughter).

KELLY: We've been speaking with guitarist and singer Eric Gales. His new album is called "Crown," and it is out now.

GALES: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC GALES SONG, "STAND UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.