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.

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Jim Sherman