As strange as it might sound, I apparently have something in common with a celebrated Hungarian guitarist who died almost 30 years ago. Gabor Szabo, who made a pretty big splash for a couple of decades starting in the Sixties, was inspired as a child by watching American cowboy movies starring Roy Rogers — who was also my childhood hero.
Of course, our inspirations took different paths. I was determined to become a rootin’, tootin’ cowboy and failed (although I do often toot) but Szabo picked up a guitar and taught himself to play, eventually becoming a musical star. His distinctive and original playing style, featuring jazz with a Hungarian flair, was a favorite of fans all over the world and he’s still remembered by many.
Szabo grew to adulthood in Budapest and began his professional career by playing in local clubs during the Iron Curtain era. His family managed to escape to America just before the Soviet hammer fell on Hungary’s 1956 revolt, and young Gabor soon found himself in living in California. Although he probably didn’t meet Roy Rogers, he did eventually join up with drummer Chico Hamilton’s jazz group and began to make a name for himself.
Szabo’s innovative sound intrigued jazz fans, and he soon became a favorite of many who followed him as he later moved to groups led by Gary McFarland and Charles Lloyd. By the mid to late Sixties he was leading his own group and performing solo too, on outstanding albums like Spellbinder, Jazz Raga, and Gypsy ’66. By then he was exploring a jazz/rock fusion sound and writing some unforgettable songs, such as “Gypsy Queen,” which became a huge hit for Carlos Santana.
By the Seventies he was beginning to go for a little more of a commercial sound, hitting the charts with “Breezin” and “Keep Smilin’,” and even recording pop songs like “Some Velvet Morning” and “The Look Of Love.” But he kept his musical heritage alive with occasional trips back to Hungary (carefully, I assume) where he’d often perform with locals. It was on one such trip in 1982 that he fell sick and died, just before what would have been his 46th birthday.