This is one of a series of profiles on the musicians who make up the Mission District.
One of Gary McElroy’s favorite performance spaces is outside 24th Street BART Station, where he’s been showing up for about a year. The accessible outlet lets him power an amplifier and microphone, which he holds steadfast to his harmonica after the style of one of his heroes, the blues artist Little Walter.
McElroy has a single tooth, giving him a lisp and a slightly self-conscious grin. His head glides and bobs along the harmonica’s length while his knob-knuckled hands flare to accent the choice notes. He’s been playing the “harp,” as he calls it, for about 50 years. At age 63, he said, he can play it in his sleep.
This is how McElroy, who goes by “Gary the Blues Man” on YouTube, makes his living. It’s hard work.
“It’ll test you,” he said. “It’s trying, in ways you can’t imagine.”
Getting people to stop and listen, and hopefully tip, is the hardest part. He figures he has about 30 seconds to snag a passer-by, he said, and upbeat tunes tend to work best. His hit rate goes up at grocery stores; he has a little more time to win people over as they saunter up to a single entrance, and they often carry cash. It’s also quiet in front of a store, so he’s hard to ignore.
The 24th Street BART Station is a tougher gig. The station agents don’t let him play downstairs at the turnstiles because his amp is too loud, so he has to compete with the noise and bustle on the street level. It’s a similar story at his other haunts in the neighborhood — on Valencia Street where it crosses with 16th and 22nd streets, and at the Mission Community Market.
His sets last for about an hour each. Sometimes people like his music so much that they hire him on the spot to play at parties. On a rare day he’ll take home $150, but often it’s only $20. On those days, he said, it’s easy to wonder if people shunned him because he sounded bad. “That’s when you feel like the biggest piece of crap.”
More than the money, McElroy wants to play good music that people like, he said.
He recalled one woman, who always gave him $5 or $10 when she passed by and who often chatted with him. One day, she told him that she’d been diagnosed with cancer. For a month after that, he didn’t see her.
Then, one day she resurfaced. Her cancer had gone into remission, she told him, and then she put $20 in his tip jar. “I almost started crying,” he said. “There’s something about performing. When you do something for someone else, and you find out they enjoyed it. It’s really soul-soothing.”
After McElroy finished his set on a recent Wednesday, he opened a little black box to reveal a family of about a dozen harmonicas, one for every musical key. He returned the one he’d been playing and stalked back to his bright blue, 1970 Ford truck. A pair of gorgeous, dark brown leather boots stood out against his low-brow jeans and t-shirt.
“They’re Dan Post boots, made out of calf skin,” McElroy said, and he loves them for the medium-round toe — unusual for western boots, which often come to a point. “I used to sell them at my store for $260,” he said. He’d gotten this pair — now worn down to the soles, perhaps beyond repair — for $60.
Throughout his life, a love for shoes has crafted his identity. In his childhood, he helped his mother at work in a shoe store. He later owned and managed a Barney’s Shoes in San Rafael — a time when he also lived with his wife and children, he said. It was one of his employees who finagled a meeting between McElroy and an unlikely friend of hers: Luther Tucker, a blues guitarist that McElroy had long admired. They became instant drinking buddies, and they regularly jammed together.
Tucker taught him that the key to playing great music was to add his own personal twist, rather than emulate other musicians. “You have to play it like you wanna play it,” he said, “develop your own style.”
Then, in the mid-1990s, McElroy fell into the clutches of a heroin addiction, and he lost his family and his job. He ultimately landed on the streets for a year before getting back on his feet in 2011, when he started receiving Supplemental Security Income Benefits.
Now, he beats the pavement seven days a week, playing his harp wherever he can find a spare patch of sidewalk.