What Becomes a Legend Most?
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was holding court, with a hometown advantage, in his bus outside Billy Blues last fall when guitarist Ron Harris entered with a quizzical look on his face. "Hey, Gate," he asked, "did you ever pull a baby out of a burning car?"
Brown puffed at his pipe and allowed that he'd done a great many heroic things in his 70 years, but that particular good deed didn't sound familiar. Harris explained that some lady in the club was insisting she had to have a moment's audience, so Brown gestured grandly. "Send her in," he said.
As Harris left with the summons Brown snorted, "Man, I never pulled no baby out of no car. The stories folks tell..."
A few moments later a tall, elegant, middle-aged woman entered and said, "Mr. Brown, my parents told me this story so many times I just had to ask you if it was true. Did you ever go into a burning apartment in the projects up in Orange to rescue a little baby?"
Brown's mouth dropped open with amazement. "My God. That must have been 50 years ago." She smiled and said, "Well, I'm 50 years old. I just wanted to say thanks."
A little later, Brown and his band, Gate's Express, amazed the overflow Billy Blues crowd with three frenzied hours of the blues-based Cajun jazz-rock that Brown refers to as "American music, Texas style." It was a performance that would have exhausted most performers half Brown's age; it was the kind of show Brown has put on more than 300 nights a year for most of the last half century. His has been one of the longest and productive careers in popular music, and after all these years Brown is going stronger than ever. Longtime Gatemouth Brown fan Eric Clapton has been touring with his idol across Europe following a victorious 15-show romp through London's Royal Albert Hall, and Brown has rewarded Polygram's Verve label for giving him the best record contract of his career by giving them the best recording of his career. The recently released The Man is an undeniable, impossible-to-ignore testament to Brown's mastery of an incredible array of talents.
Showcased are ballroom ballads such as Delbert McClinton's "Solid Gold Plated Fool" done funky as a goat in front of a nine-bell horn section, and three defiantly Acadian collaborations between Brown and accordionist Jo El Sonnier, including the best version of "Jambalaya" ever done in Creole or any other language. Country music fans searching for a strange new thrill need look no further than the soaring duels between Brown's fiddle and Tommy Moran's pedal steel on the traditional "Up Jumped the Devil" and Bobby Charles' "I Wonder Why," while Brown's own "Someday My Luck Will Change" and "There You Are" remind listeners (as if there was ever a doubt) that despite Brown's disdain of the "bluesman" label he does the blues with the same flawless precision and enthusiasm as any other element of "American music, Texas style." The Man is more than a career statement, it's a career celebration. And to judge from the stories folks tell, it's a career that deserves celebrating.
Unlike your run-of-the-mill living legends, the rule of thumb about Brown is that the more incredible the story seems, the more likely it is to be true. The story of his Houston debut, for example, could be taken as an allegory of the role Brown played in the development of Gulf Coast music, except that the tale has been verified and retold so many times by eyewitnesses -- including a published report by Houston Informer columnist Sid Thompson -- that there's little doubt that a story that might sound apocryphal is, in fact, remarkably faithful to the actual events.
The year was 1947. Houston businessman Don Robey had recently divested himself of the largest black-owned fleet of taxicabs in the South so he could concentrate on his growing interests in the entertainment industry. The cornerstone of what would become the Robey empire was the Bronze Peacock nightclub on Liberty Road in Houston's Fifth Ward. The Peacock was well-known as the nightclub for high rollers and high steppers, with one of the best kitchens on the Gulf Coast and standards for live music in front that were as high as the stakes in the card and dice games out back.
On March 6, 1947, the headline act at the Peacock was Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, the first performer to use electric amplification to take the guitar out of the rhythm section and into the spotlight. Walker was having an off night; he didn't feel well, and so retired to his dressing room for a few minutes' rest. The reverence and regard reserved for Walker in Texas in the post-World War II era was unprecedented. "Mr. Stormy Monday" was the original superstar guitarslinger, the awe of almost every student of the six-string. It required an unimaginable amount of gall and self-confidence for anyone to be cocky enough to walk onto Walker's stage in his absence and (heresy of heresies) actually pick up the great man's guitar and begin playing.
But in the audience that evening was a young war veteran whose innovative skills with fiddle and viola had gained him considerable notoriety during his teen years around the Beaumont-Port Arthur-Orange "Golden Triangle" area. Few people in the Bronze Peacock that night had ever heard of the baggy-suited, wide-grinned upstart, which leads one to wonder what they thought when they saw him climb into the spotlight, lift Walker's hollow-body, and begin pounding out a frenzied boogie and shouting at the crowd, "My name is Gatemouth Brown / I just came to town / If you don't like me / I won't stick around."
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.
The widespread popularity of British -- and, later, white American -- artists who learned the basics of their craft from carefully studying local-label American artists spelled the end of regional fortresses such as Duke/ Peacock. The broad record-buying audience's inability to categorize a black Texan who could shift effortlessly from country to blues to zydeco and mix into all that an unusual, signature rocking big-band sound led to long years when Brown, though far from forgotten, was also far from the popularity he'd once known.
But one loyal group that never forgot Brown -- and was determined that no one else would -- was that of his fellow musicians. No matter how limited his commercial accessibility became, Brown remained a preeminent musician's musician. When Austin's public television station began to share Texas music with the world on Austin City Limits, one of the first Texas musicians they shared was Gatemouth Brown. Never did Hee Haw stray so far from its white-bread, cornpone basics as it did with the wild, soaring breakdowns of a wise-cracking, bib-overalled black fiddler -- but it was obvious from the awe on the faces of Roy Clark and Buck Owens just why Brown wound up at their stage-set barn.
The commercial success enjoyed by Brown's most ardent fans evaded Brown himself for years. His recordings, though critically acclaimed, continued to be classified by the clueless as blues -- in an era when that classification immediately limited distribution and airplay. Brown developed a reputation, perhaps deserved, for open bitterness about the industry he had worked in for years. Ultimately, it was the European fascination with American culture that led to Brown's commercial salvation. When fellow Houstonian Johnny "Clyde" Copeland began recording for Verve in the early 1990s, his issues were enlivened by guest appearances from Brown, who was signed in turn by the French label. Writers approaching Brown for interviews, sweaty with rumor-born trepidation of a gruff master, were surprised to find instead geniality -- highly opinionated geniality, granted, but geniality weighted with a half-century's professionalism. After March of last year, when the taping of The Man was completed, that geniality began to approach glee when Brown would touch fire to his pipe and hit the play button on his tour bus' tape deck. Now there's a Verve follow-up to The Man -- featuring Eric Clapton and Grady Gaines -- presently being recorded in Louisiana, and (you read it here first) if you were waiting for Brown's next local nightclub show it might be a long wait -- but check out the stadium shows around Houston toward the end of summer.
From 78s to CDs, from the Bronze Peacock to the Royal Albert, it can be a grand life if you don't weaken. And Gatemouth Brown has shown he just keeps getting stronger.
Get the Music Newsletter