Sunday afternoon, the Houston blues community will gather at The Big Easy to remember a hero unsung to practically everyone else in the Bayou City except them: I.J. Gosey, who passed away due to natural causes last month at age 78. Performers at the five-hour tribute include Gosey’s former band the Supremes, Trudy Lynn, Jewel Brown, Diunna Greenleaf, Milton Hopkins, Gloria Edwards, The Lady D, Faye Robinson, Eugene Moody and dozens more, evidence of how many people had their lives touched by Gosey — who “loved being a sideman,” says local music historian Dr. Roger Wood.
Originally coming to Houston in the mid-1950s as a bass player, Gosey quickly worked his way into the corps of session musicians employed by Duke/Peacock Records owner Don Robey, and played on dozens of the most popular R&B and gospel recordings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He also spent years in the touring band of one of Robey’s top artists, Junior Parker, gradually teaching himself the guitar while his touring roommate, the late Texas Johnny Brown, was away from their motel.
In his later years, Gosey held down longstanding residencies at C. Davis Bar-B-Q in Sunnyside and Mr. Gino’s lounge near the South Loop, until a 2013 stroke forced him to give up performing. As a longtime clerk at the bygone downtown Houston branch of H&H Music Emporium, he saw to countless other local musicians’ instrumental needs. Gosey was an enormously gifted musician, remembers his close friend Wood, but beyond that was just an all-around good guy.
“It’s easy to be sentimental when someone you’re fond of passes away, but when it just comes to this core element of decency and generosity, I.J. was really something else,” says Wood, who got to know Gosey while researching his 2003 book Down In Houston: Bayou City Blues. “And his generosity even [extended] to the people he didn’t even know.
“In fact, at his funeral I saw Joe Halliburton, who is a great soul-blues singer,” relates Wood. “He said, ‘I’d go out to C. Davis Bar-B-Que and someone told I.J., ‘This man can sing.’ He said, ‘I’d never got up onstage and sung, and I got onstage and sang a song because I.J. invited me to.’”
Gosey was born in the tiny Newton County community of Bon Wier, a few miles from the Sabine River in deepest East Texas. Raised in the Church of God in Christ, an African-American Pentecostal denomination that places a high value on music, Gosey was playing piano and bass guitar by his early teens, Wood says. Also valedictorian of his high-school class, Gosey headed off to Prairie View A&M University to study engineering, but his future took a dramatic turn the first time he headed into Houston in his free time.
“He goes into the Fifth Ward to an old legendary venue called the Hamilton Inn, and he was with this guy who was about seven years older than him, Earl Gilliam, playing a B-3 organ,” Wood says.
Before passing away in 2011, Gilliam himself went on to become one of the Houston blues community’s hardest-working musicians, playing with the likes of Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Clyde Copeland and Joe “Guitar” Hughes. Later on, he hosted informal musical gatherings Sunday afternoons at his home near Tomball that featured an outbuilding affectionately known as “The Dog House.” In fact, Wood points to Gilliam’s 2005 album Texas Dog House Blues (released on Austin’s Dialtone Records) as an excellent example of Gosey’s guitar skills.
“If you want to hear what I.J. Gosey could do on the guitar, put that record on,” he says. “You don’t even have to wait till the solos.”
According to Wood, Gosey’s first important gig after moving to Houston was with a group called Art Boatwright and the Joy Boys, who were the house band at Jimmy Menutis’ nightclub on Telephone Road near Hobby Airport, where acts like Louis Armstrong and Howlin’ Wolf would come play. The Joy Boys served as the opening act, played during intermission, and sometimes backed headliners like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner. By 1957, Gosey had come to the attention of Joe Scott, the legendary Duke/Peacock bandleader musical director, who arranged most of the songs the label’s artists recorded. There was no shortage of work in those days, Wood says.
“Remember, they weren’t trying to make albums, they were trying to make singles,” he notes. “All you needed was two sides. If Scott came up with an arrangement of something they thought was good, they would make a demo. And IJ started being the bass player on those demos, but then they realized — I mean, I.J. was a great musician. He had perfect pitch.
“He could hear a chord on a guitar or a piano or a horn and he could tell you whether it was a G or a G sharp, a D, an E Flat,” Wood explains. “The guy was just blessed with absolute musical understanding. So Joe Scott picked up on that and IJ becomes the bass player in the band on the road now, with Little Junior Parker. The guy leading that band was our late Texas Johnny Brown.”
It was while out on the road with Parker, sharing an endless series of hotel rooms with Brown, that Gosey picked up the guitar, Wood says. Twenty years ago, while researching Down In Houston, Brown told him the story of how Gosey got to be such a good guitar player.
You know, that sucker’s a great guitar player now. You know why he’s a great guitar player now? Because after the gig I’d always go out and get a few drinks with the guys or whatever, go to the soul food cafe. I.J. would be sitting in the room, in his bed, playing my guitar. I’d come back and I’d say, ‘What have you been doing?’ He’d say, ‘I’ve been playing your guitar.’
“Actually I.J. had been playing the guitar all along, and in a joking way TJB liked to take credit,” Wood says. “Like, ‘That’s how he got so good. He was a bass player sitting in a hotel playing my axe.’”
Around 1960, Wood says Gosey met his future wife, Dorothy, and largely gave up the road to settle in Houston and raise a family. He succeeded so well that Gosey’s funeral earlier this month had to be moved from his regular church to a bigger church downtown, where his daughter happens to be a lay minister. When someone recognized Gosey's widow during the service, Wood recalls, the crowd gave her a standing ovation.
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“They were good people,” he says. “And, you know, they’d go out and have a drink and stuff, but I.J. never got into dope and never got in trouble with booze. He was faithful to his wife and proud of his family. And every one of his kids had college education, and I.J. was so proud of that. That was the thing that he felt like that he really got right: that he had a great marriage and he had beautiful kids, and they all got educated, and they’re all good citizens, the kind of people we ought to be bringing into this planet.”
The I.J. Gosey memorial is 2-7 p.m. Sunday, June 28 at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby. All proceeds will go to help defray his funeral expenses.