What Becomes a Legend Most?

Gatemouth Brown's lesson for longevity do what you do, and be the best at it

The 15 minutes it took Walker to make a miraculous recovery and storm back on-stage established Brown as the first serious challenger to the T-Bone throne. Underlining the seriousness of the challenge -- and guaranteeing Robey's attention -- was the $600 in tips that the crowd raised as a reward for Brown's quarter-hour concert.

The two great loves of Robey's life were music and money. Which came first -- much like whether Robey was a no-good crook or simply a very shrewd businessman -- depends on who you talk to. Still, there's no doubt that in the aftermath of that fateful night on Liberty Road, Robey used Brown to make a great deal of both music and money. When a trip to California to record Brown on the Aladdin label -- which had recently signed Houstonians Amos Milburn and Lightnin' Hopkins -- yielded unsatisfactory results, Robey decided to start his own record label, which he named Peacock after his flagship nightclub. The first artist signed to Peacock was, of course, Gatemouth Brown.

Robey's intuition proved astute; under the guidance of classically trained trumpet player and arranger Joe Scott, the Gatemouth Brown Orchestra put out a steady string of such regional hits as "Gate Walks to Board," "Mary's Fine" and "Gatemouth Boogie." Brown's hits encouraged Robey to sign up additional artists, gospel as well as blues, and to purchase Duke Records in Memphis. Although the biggest-selling artists for Duke/Peacock were veteran Memphis balladeers Johnny Ace and Bobby "Blue" Bland, the team of Gatemouth Brown and Joe Scott remained the creative inspiration responsible for an innovative, polished, urban sound that characterized almost every recording that came out of the growing complex of nightclub, studio and distribution center at Liberty and Erastus streets.

The initial on-stage confrontation between Brown and Walker came to symbolize their relationship in the firmament of Texas music. Walker was an evolutionary force in Texas blues music, with an electric style that could be traced to acoustic legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Henry Thomas. Brown, on the other hand, was a musical mutant, an innovator whose one-off style was more the result of an inner muse than any emulation of identifiable forerunners. The convergence of cultures in Texas' Golden Triangle during the post-World War I oil boom had exposed the young Brown to musical influences he's described as "French, country and blues." Although his own style retained strong traces of all these genres, Brown's voice was ultimately derivative of none of them.

Houston in the 1940s was where these two style-setters of the electric guitar faced off. Both were idolized by a growing number of young black men fascinated by the incredible new instrument their heroes played and what it was capable of. And, considering their celebrity status, both performers were remarkably accessible to their fans, frequently playing at such Third Ward nightspots as the Grand Oaks, the Eldorado Ballroom and the Club Ebony and joining in at after-hours jams at the 24-hour Club Matinee in the Fifth Ward. Apprentice gunslingers named Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Joe Hughes and Joe Washington attended these shows religiously, scrutinizing their role models and attempting to mimic them later at Sunday afternoon talent shows at Shady's Playhouse on Elgin.

Copeland and Hughes began gigging around Houston as the Dukes of Rhythm, their band's popularity resulting from the ongoing "shootout" between Walker devotee Copeland and Brown disciple Hughes, who, 40 years later and firmly established in his own right, still maintains, "I always liked the Gatemouth style better. To me, he'll always be the greatest raw talent in the world."

From his earliest recordings, Gatemouth Brown eschewed classification. The uniqueness of his fusion of a diverse riot of styles, and an adamant refusal to be typecast into the popular role of the moment in an industry that's perennially trend-driven, almost guaranteed Brown a career whose strength was based more on the long-term respect of fellow musicians than commercial acceptance. To this day, the fastest way to get on Brown's legendary bad side (aside from asking to see his union card, which is reputed to be a .44 caliber and available for close inspection on request) is to categorize him. Any critic who gains a pre-show audience can count on being warned, "Don't call me no old blues singer."

Throughout his career with Peacock, Brown was almost continually recording and performing. Although outsold by the more popular balladeers, his dedication to an undiluted personal message gave Brown a fanatically loyal base audience. Robey received the lion's share of the revenues from Brown's labors, of course -- Robey's personal code, maligned by many in retrospect, was based on what was acceptable at the time. Brown, for his part, declines to join the revisionists and responds to the most provocative of invitations to malign his old boss by simply repeating, until the message sinks in, "Don Robey was a real sharp businessman. Everybody who dealt with him knew what they were dealin' with before the dealin' started."

The decades with Peacock were Brown's first heyday. The undisputed genius of Joe Scott's touch allowed Brown's polymath talents with guitar, violin, viola and mandolin to reach horn- and keyboard-driven heights that have been equaled only recently, while the cockiness that allowed him to challenge Walker became an ever-stronger element of his vocals. Robey's Buffalo Booking Agency kept Brown busy touring ballrooms and roadhouses along a radius connecting the agency's twin hubs of Houston and Memphis, but he also booked Brown and band on a mid-1950's tour of Central and South America that foreshadowed the overseas popularity of Houston artists by a couple of decades.

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