Ladies in Blue
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.
"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."
Morgan Bouldin, a generation younger than Gosey, fronts his own jazz combo around town most of the time, but once a week he's the house keyboardist at C. Davis. "It's just a big happy party every Sunday," he says. "We run our own show. I.J. is so cool, you know. We ain't under no pressure to play no certain kind of music. I mean, we've got to get down to the blues, but we can take that any direction we want. No big egos, just music."
This sense of carefree liberation is what Gosey's supporting players value most. That cast currently includes his longtime bassist Eugene Hawthorne as well as drummer Jaime Franklin on Sundays and keyboardist Pee Wee Stephens and drummer David Lartigue on Tuesday nights. Says Franklin: "I just love it here. It's a big release for me. You see, I'm an assistant principal at Sam Houston High School during the week, but here I'm just a man making music."
In addition to these guys, numerous others, including female singers such as Martha Turner and Diunna Greenleaf, perform from time to time. "I think this is the last of the old sit-in gigs in Houston," Bouldin says. "We've got all kinds of cats that come through and play with us." Saxophonists such as Wilbur McFarland, Ronnie Stallworth and Larry Dixon are regular guests. And on average another three to ten vocalists, guitarists or keyboard players contribute their talents each session. Some are veterans whose professional credentials rival Gosey's. Others are simply gifted amateurs. Regardless, if they merit a space on this small stage, you can be sure of one thing: They can play.
But what makes Gosey treasure C. Davis Bar-B-Q the most is the uncommonly devoted fan base there. "I've been a lot of places, played a lot of clubs, but I haven't played nowhere with the atmosphere and clientele that this place has," he says. "These people live for Sundays and Tuesdays." Though the weekend performance usually commences after 4 p.m., "people'll be in here at one o'clock in the daytime," says Gosey. "They come in here, get their tables and sit and wait for us."
Most prominent in the standing-room-only Sunday crowd are the ladies' clubs from the surrounding neighborhood. In addition to "The Golden Girls," there are "The Wonderful Ladies" and "The Golden Angels," all of whom have proudly hung banners staking claim to certain tables. "This is our place to hang out and socialize, especially on Sundays," says Singleton. These unofficial sororities function like grateful pep squads for Gosey's blues.
For instance, when Gosey tears into a juicy instrumental improvisation, the women simultaneously raise hands toward the ceiling and ecstatically sway in unison, dancing without even standing up. And as Gosey plays an earthy string-bender, several squeal words of encouragement. The guitarist smiles and shouts back, "Don't rush me now. Let me take my time. Ain't nothing good if you rush."
They all laugh together as he drops the tempo, then raises it back to a frenzy before nodding to Bouldin, who unleashes an organ solo that fills the room in a crescendo of pulsing riffs. Finally Gosey brings the moment to its teasingly delayed climax with his vocal exhortation to "Love me or leave me / Either way you want to do," a line that triggers an approving roar from the audience as the free-form jam segues back into a song.
At moments such as these, it's clear that C. Davis Bar-B-Q serves up something that fancy blues-themed restaurants downtown or on Richmond can never replicate: a palpable sense of community, a place where food and music and life are one.
I.J. Gosey and friends perform every Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and every Tuesday from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at C. Davis Bar-B-Q, 4833 Reed Road. Free admission. For information, call (713)734-9051.
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