TRUCKEE, Calif. - The music world lost one of the baddest men to strum a guitar. The world lost one of its most gentle souls. I, like many others, lost an old pal.
Corby Yates, the prodigy, took his life Sept. 24. He struggled with mental illness in his final years. He was 31.
It remains a tough one to digest, because he left us too soon.
Tahoe music lovers may be familiar with his work. Corby performed at the Crystal Bay Casino three times between 2005 and 2008, as well as the Village at Squaw and myriad blues venues across the state throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.
He was a rare talent and even better human being - short on stature, with a selfless, humble disposition and an uncanny mastery of his guitar.
I recall hearing about his exploits for the first time. I was a sophomore at Sierra High School, Corby a freshman. My dad's buddy Jimbo had just watched Corby perform at a Shaver Lake bar the night before.
Like countless others, he was blown away, ranting and raving about the smoking performance by this 14-year-old, 5-foot-nothing kid.
Soon enough, I witnessed his freakish ability firsthand. Jimbo did not exaggerate.
Corby absolutely slayed it, laying down Stevie Ray Vaughan covers like nobody's business - "Texas Flood," "Tin Pan Alley," "Pride and Joy" - with the support of a drum machine and his father Jim on the bass. His stubby fingers became blurs of motion, lightening quick and precise, while his face contorted wildly with every note.
Word spread quickly. One of our own, mountain-grown classmates was a world-class talent, a no-miss rock star in the making - minus the ego. Such was readily apparent at first greeting, and further confirmed with every encounter. Corby was a genuinely good dude.
Take, for example, the following comment, posted by guitarist Jim Damiano to a recent Santa Cruz Patch (santacruzpatch.com) article about Corby's death:
"I played at the Sonora Blues Festival and was privileged to meet Corby. I came to understand quickly and quietly that he was one of the kindest musicians I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I have never, and will never meet another guitarist of his magnitude that was totally without ego. I will miss you Corby. I will never forget your kind smile and gentle spirit. R.I.P."
At 17, Corby gained national recognition when he won the 18-and-under division of the Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Competition in Seattle, a feat that earned him a pearly white, custom guitar and an opportunity to jam with the remaining members of Band of Gypsys.
Yet he remained humble.
After high school, Corby expanded his fan base by playing numerous gigs in the Fresno area and beyond, impressing folks with a broad range of blues covers, from his old Stevie Ray Vaughan staples to Hendrix classics the likes of "Red House" and "Voodoo Child," and even a unique rendition of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" by Traffic. Before long, he strayed from the covers that kick-started his career and began playing his own music almost exclusively.
Corby soon moved to Santa Cruz and released his first CD, self titled, in 2001 (he also recorded a cassette tape in 1996). He later released "Back from Yesterday," in 2003, and "Fungus Blues," in 2006. The ethereal "Inside Oblivion" was released in 2012.
Well past the days of a drum machine, the Corby Yates Band became an even hotter act once landing drummer Andy Doerschuk, a hard-hitting, talented musician and the editor of Drum! Magazine.
Corby and his power trio performed with big-name blues artists such as John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower and Tommy Castro, among others. The Corby Yates Band was on the map.
Another comment from the Santa Cruz Patch article, one about Corby's sheer playing ability, was beautifully expressed and should be shared. It was posted by David Arthur West.
"At JJ'S BLUES in San Jose, I mixed sound and recorded Corby, Jim, Andy for a majority of their shows there. Corby was astonishing to watch and listen to. He created a singular giant organism with every person and all the instrumentation fused in tune with a frequency of indescribable effect to the 3rd or 4th power - like an interstellar Jet Ski - that always ended in a smooth landing.
"Watching his stout fingers frailing the strings at times would not synch with the resulting webs of layering sounds and rhythms swirling around the room. There was more sound than the sum total of all his fingers could physically produce - by commonly accepted standards. There marks the line between 'skilled' and 'genius.'..."
One of my fondest memories of those days was when my dad and I spent a weekend visiting Corby and Jim at their Santa Cruz home. We hung on the beach, toured downtown, blasted tunes, tripped around the Mystery Spot, talked music and life, and laughed. Times were good.
Corby was still in his touring prime when I moved to Tahoe in 2005. Shortly after the move, I was excited to learn that he was coming to the North Shore to perform. I rallied a group of workmates for the occasion, and even wrote a preview article for Lake Tahoe Action.
He returned on a couple of occasions to play in Tahoe, most recently in 2008. I brought another crew of friends to that show - Bunker, Renee and Andy, Matt and Eva, and my old neighbor, Doug. By that time Corby's band had transformed. Instead of his father on the bass and Doerschuk on the drums (he played with other drummers in his career as well), good high school buddies and musicians Ian Blesse and Toby Cordova filled out the trio.
That's when I first noticed something wasn't quite right about Corby. He was always on the shy side, but never to this degree. He seemed withdrawn, uneasy. We hung out for bit afterward, Ian, Toby and my crew - and Corby. Only, it wasn't the same old Corby.
His website, once commonly updated with a listing of upcoming shows and other activity, became less and less active. He and his father, who had relocated to Humboldt County, had moved again, and to an even less populated area near Brownsville.
I saw Corby one final time, the following summer when my dad helped organize a dual retirement party for a couple of family friends, and hired Corby to play. I remember Corby expressing how excited he was to perform - a private gig full of friends from his home.
But still, there was something different about him, disturbingly so. He wasn't the same happy-go-lucky Corby, no matter how much I tried to pry it out of him.
Little did I know, Corby was struggling with his mental health - schizophrenia.
And that was it. I never saw him again.
There's a cliche saying that states, "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."
That was Corby.
- Sylas Wright is the sports editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.