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Ladies in Blue

You think you like the blues? You ain't seen nothing yet.

It is 5 p.m. on a Sunday, and both blues and barbecue are really cooking. In a southeast Houston establishment that epitomizes the organic link between this sound and this food, Rena Singleton is seated at her regular table. And in her own words, she is "as close to heaven" as she hopes to get in this world.

While stinging electric guitar notes ring out over sustained chords on organ, the diminutive elderly lady slowly stands up and lowers her head, rolling it hypnotically from side to side. Without moving from the cramped space in front of her chair, she gyrates her hips to a deep bass groove. Eyes closed, lips pursed and elbows gently swaying, she is right where she wants to be: C. Davis Bar-B-Q, longtime home of guitarist I.J. Gosey and his band.

There beneath a glittery banner announcing their common identity as "The Golden Girls," Singleton and her closest friends show up each week to savor this music. She has been doing so without fail for nearly a quarter of a century. And for her, as for most of the other black women constituting her neighborhood social organization, that enjoyment is no passive experience.

I.J. Gosey leads the C. Davis Bar-B-Q band.
James Fraher
I.J. Gosey leads the C. Davis Bar-B-Q band.

"It's like a soul-searching music, the way I.J. plays the guitar," she says. "I just love it and need to hear it," she says, adding that many people "say they like my style of dancing and enjoying the music." Indeed, observing the elegant funk of Singleton's expressive body language, and that of her friends, is an essential complement to the first-class musical performances regularly served up in this rustic eatery. It is part of the real-deal ambience that has prompted Gosey, his fellow players and fans of local blues to gather there twice a week for years.

Located outside the 610 South Loop on Reed Road, C. Davis Bar-B-Q advertises itself only via hand-painted letters on a sheet of plywood nailed above the corrugated metal roof of its front porch. Despite the ramshackle exterior of the maroon-colored building, thickly wafting smoke promises sumptuous food inside. But there is no visual clue whatsoever, other than the typically packed gravel parking lot, that every Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night this family-run restaurant hosts some of the city's top blues musicians.

Gosey has presided over those musical gatherings for almost 27 years, making it what he calls the longest-running steady gig in Houston. His guitar has been a big attraction. "He can really work that instrument," Singleton says. "And he plays it right, right from his heart, right from his soul." Beyond the fine fretwork, Gosey also brings an unpretentious passion to his singing and good humor to the occasional story between songs.

The 62-year-old musician and his band perform an eclectic mix of jazz standards (such as Gershwin's "Summertime") and instrumental versions of pop hits (such as Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely") along with lots of '50s- and '60s-era blues and R&B.

The folk who have religiously attended gatherings over the years agree. Says Singleton: "I love the music here. It's like family and good friends. When you come, you meet people, and you're never a stranger here again."

Verta Mae Evans, who has lived near and frequented C. Davis Bar-B-Q since the day it opened in 1971, concurs: "The musicians here are really something special. Sometimes I'll bring my tambourine and play right along with them. They don't mind 'cause it's all about having fun. And I do know how to shake a tambourine."

The son of a preacher, Gosey started off playing gospel piano, then bass guitar. By 1955 he had moved to Houston and joined a secular group called Arthur Boatwright and the Joy Boys, which played regionally behind headliners such as T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and numerous other blues stars of the era.

By 1957 Gosey was working regularly in the Fifth Ward studios of Duke-Peacock Records. As part of producer Joe Scott's stable of session players, Gosey helped lay down rhythm tracks for artists such as Bobby Bland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Junior Parker and others. He eventually joined Parker's traveling revue. On the road he began borrowing bandmate Texas Johnny Brown's guitar and teaching himself how to play it. Before long he was hooked on the new instrument.

By the time Duke-Peacock was sold to ABC-Dunhill in 1973, Gosey had formed a band and come into his own as both a guitarist and singer. Meanwhile, Clarence Davis, who had opened his namesake barbecue restaurant in 1971, was searching for a competent musician to take over the Sunday afternoon show first hosted there by pianist Joe Nettles. Since Gosey had already proven his chops while sitting in with Nettles, Davis offered the slot to his band.

Though they were then making good money covering pop tunes six nights a week in hotel lounges, and not earning much working at the little smokehouse, Gosey's crew still accepted the proposal. Says Gosey: "[My band] asked, 'Can we play just what we want to play there?' I told them, 'You can play any damn thing you want.' And man, look-a-here, they said, 'Go get it!' So I took this gig for my band," says Gosey. "And C. Davis Bar-B-Q became something very special to us all right away."

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