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PEACOCK 1500, DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

As song titles go this one couldn’t have been more accurate when looking back at the events, or non-events as it were, of the past 27 months in the life and career of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown whose goals had yet to reach fruition.

In September 1947 rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning and so too was Brown’s career as he released his first two singles in the span of just a few weeks on Aladdin Records that fall. What should’ve been a case of perfect timing turned into a missed opportunity for all involved as Brown’s records – perhaps because they competing with one another, or maybe because they hadn’t been promoted well, or possibly the fact that they were just not quite distinctive enough to stand out in the public’s mind – slipped through the cracks and rock ‘n’ roll found its footing without him.

Now more than two years later Brown returns to action. But was he looking to catch up in a field that had advanced in leaps and bounds during that time, or did he not really give a damn which fan base embraced him as he defiantly set his own course, prevailing styles be damned?

With Gatemouth Brown the answer to these questions are never entirely certain.
 

 

Two Years Isn’t So Long… Or Is It?
It might easy to forget just how tenuous and uncertain rock’s road to success had been back in 1947 when Roy Brown delivered Good Rocking Tonight, a song which married his gospel-esque vocal delivery to a decidedly secular, downright suggestive, themed song backed by a jumping musical track.

Though that song launched the genre and established many, if not most, of rock’s most lasting traits the records which followed in the same idiom that fall by a wide array of artists were conceived independently of Brown’s forays and as such they brought their own stylistic innovations to the table where they would either be accepted by the same audience and thus have those qualities brought into the fold (such as the romping saxophones of Paul Williams and Earl Bostic and the suggestive harmony vocals of The Ravens) or they’d be rejected by the emerging fan base and left behind as a failed experiment… like say Gatemouth Brown’s bluesy guitar licks fused to an old school horn section.

Though the heavily publicized image of rock is one where guitars are at the forefront of the sound and style the truth is guitars came late to the party and never – even at their peak – were as omnipresent as the constant focus on the later white variations of the music would have you believe. Aggressive horns, pounding pianos and increasingly heavy backbeats were what established rock as the sound of the post-war era and it would ride that formula for years. Even when prominent guitars were added fairly quickly – Goree Carter most dynamically, but also Tiny Grimes, Jimmy “Babyface” Lewis, Teddy Bunn, et. all – it’s important to note that their songs weren’t hits, or if they managed to just barely crack the charts as with Grimes it probably had as much to do with the tenor sax of Red Prysock as anything Tiny did.

Just around the corner the electric guitar in rock would start to break through on the charts in early 1950 but it still wasn’t with the guitarists themselves as the credited artist to draw attention to their role, but rather the ones with the greatest commercial impact were merely sidemen, as was the case with Pete Lewis behind Johnny Otis, Little Esther and an assortment of others. So the instrument, while becoming a more prominent tool in the rock playbook, still didn’t have the cachet to really establish it as vital component in the public’s mind.

Which is one very obvious reason why the likes of Gatemouth Brown historically got lumped in with the blues rather than rock ‘n’ roll, even though Brown himself categorically resisted all attempts to call him a bluesman throughout his life. But since rock’s dominant sound during his most creative stretch was centered on other instruments while at the same exact time the blues was enjoying ITS best commercial stretch which of course was highlighted by the electric guitar, well, it isn’t hard to see where this case of mistaken identity took root.

But once again on Didn’t Reach My Goal while there are blues elements to be found it’s more a case of guilt by association as the majority of the record falls much more comfortable within rock circles.
 


 

More That You Should Know
Before we get to the song in question we need to spend some time on the record company he’s recording for since this is their initial appearance on these pages. Normally that would be something just mentioned in passing, if it was brought up at all, but in this instance the company’s arrival is a lot more significant than merely another fly-by-night label seeking to cash in on a hot musical trend.

Peacock Records got its name from the Houston nightclub The Bronze Peacock owned by a hard-as-nails African-American entrepreneur named Don Robey. In the annals of independent record company lore certain names carry with them certain images and descriptive terms to convey their dominant characteristics… most of them are negative, as probably goes without saying. Those which aren’t tend to benefit from the fact the people in question (Ahmet Ertegun, Sam Phillips, etc.) were savvier about publicizing themselves to a generation of historians who came along in the 1970’s-2000’s, not because they were somehow more honorable than their shady peers.

Don Robey probably couldn’t have cared less about his image however since he’d been facing uphill climbs his entire life. One of the few record company owners specializing in black music who was actually black himself, he found the best way to deal with those attempting to “put him in his place” was to put them in THEIR place first, usually with the help of a pistol and a threat.

He wasn’t discreet about it either and while other label owners were variously described as “cheapskates” (Savoy’s Herman Lubinsky) or “loudmouths” (King’s Syd Nathan) or “thieves” (Modern Records’ Bihari brothers) , Robey’s violent reputation meant he was commonly referred to as a “gangster”.

Maybe he was, but then again he was engaged in the same cutthroat tactics of an unforgiving industry as others who had less incriminating monikers affixed to them. Peacock’s legacy – and that of Duke Records, which he took over a few years later as another brick in his empire commonly referred to now as Duke-Peacock – tends to be remembered as much for the colorful stories centered around Robey as they do their musical output which focused as much (if not more) on blues and gospel as it did on rock ‘n’ roll.

Robey has already factored into an important story, if only peripherally, in rock ‘n’ roll thus far as it was at the Bronze Peacock where Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd found Dave Bartholomew and signed him to produce his sessions as he expanded the base of his operations into New Orleans from Los Angeles.

But it was with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, whom Robey had signed to manage after having him perform at his club as a last-second impromptu replacement for an absent T-Bone Walker, that Robey began to think beyond the confines of his nightclub walls.
 


 

Horses And Poker
Finding no one in the industry willing to wager on Brown’s ability Robey started Peacock Records in late 1949 and went about getting his artist as big of a push as he was able to manage. He took out ads in Billboard, he cut his session with top-flight bands (Jack McVea’s in this case) and he issued records that could conceivably find audiences in multiple fields.

Didn’t Reach My Goal doesn’t quite have a title designed to announce his impending – or rather his hoped for – stardom, but what’s contained within it makes a pretty good case for Gatemouth Brown’s talents if nothing else.

He starts off with his guitar amped to the max and slams you back in your seat as it rips holes in the speakers on the introduction, establishing his distinctive calling card from the outset. But it’s a false alarm if what you’re thinking is that this will be an uptempo and aggressive track, for once the vocals start it eases back and Brown comes in crooning in a mellow tone.

It’s an effective transition, one which forces you to pay attention to both of the components. The guitar grabs you by the throat and then the vocals release the pressure but pull you in to hear him spin his tale of woe.

The song’s concept is pretty good as Brown recounts the downfall of his blissful relationship due to a lack of money brought about by his girlfriend’s bad financial choices which includes gambling on both horse races and cards and then her pawning everything they had to get more money which presumably went to the same vices.

Now I don’t know this girl, the record doesn’t come with a picture of her after all, but while I’ll admit that a trip to the track or a night around a poker table with a fetching young lass might be fun when you first meet, if only because it’s not your run of the mill night on the town – dinner, drinks, dancing, or just taking in a movie or a show – warning bells should’ve gone off in his head when she suggested the same activities in week two of their budding relationship. Unless she won big at the track and treated you to a fancy dinner, or bet heavily on an inside straight and drew her card to win a huge pot, then chances are you’re dealing with someone whose idea of long term financial security is a hot tip on a nag from some shady guy in an alley somewhere, or maybe a sweepstakes ticket she’s counting on to pay off.

But if you value the idea of having a roof over your head and enough funds in the bank to put food on the table then girls like Gambling Gertie here are best steered clear of.

Brown’s own shortcomings – as a songwriter, not an investor – is in him not providing enough humorous details to bolster the general theme. For any song taken this slow where the plot is made clear pretty early on we’re bound to be less patient in listening when we know well in advance what the outcome is going to be. But if he tossed in a few puns at her expense, or an exaggerated twist when describing how broke they got the more she wagered, then you’d be able to pull us back for a second and third spin a lot easier.

Without any lyrical surprises to be found the responsibility for keeping us fixated falls to his electric guitar, which considering its lack of prominence in rock ‘n’ roll to this point makes it a lot like the kind of long shot bet his sweetheart gravitates towards.
 


 
 

Wet And Cold
Because the guitar solo later became so ubiquitous in rock music, or at least a certain kind of rock music, it requires some context adjustment to try and ascertain its effectiveness in a record from 1949 when that sound was still not too prevalent.

On Didn’t Reach My Goal the introduction is almost startling in its intensity and may have scared away those who weren’t used to hearing such things. Of course it also may have indeed pulled in a few stray electric blues fans who WERE used to that sound more by this point in time. Not only T-Bone Walker, who’d already made his name and scored some huge hits with that instrument out in front, but so too have John Lee Hooker, Pee Wee Crayton and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, but the majority of those hit records didn’t feature it quite so aggressively as Brown shows here, so the question has to be at least raised… did blues REALLY influence rock in terms of its guitar technique, or was it the other way around?

I mean, Goree Carter, Pete Lewis and now Gatemouth Brown were playing in a much more hard edged style than most blues guitarists of the day and it wasn’t until the next wave of blues stars came around in the early 1950’s, Elmore James, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, whose first hit, and its B-side, from 1948 featured rather modest guitar accompaniment but would become more pronounced around the corner.

It’s just a theory mind you, and certainly the featured ROLE of the guitar in rock stemmed from the blues which had always utilized that instrument out front, but in terms of the approach being used it definitely seems as though rock was the one leading the way in this regard, as Gatemouth Brown is more than happy to demonstrate here.

His playing behind the vocals shows his skill, whereas much of the standalone spot shows his forcefulness as he plays simple chords with a fury, adding a scream to make sure that you know he’s taking out his frustration over his empty wallet on the strings. It’s a good thing his girlfriend didn’t pawn the guitar too or who knows what he’d have used to vent his anger on if not her skull.

But as startling as it sounds when it hits you the musical effect on the record is rather muted. The contrast with the more subdued vocals is good but without a melody to stick in your mind it’s just a shock effect, like a horror movie that replaces psychological dread with constant attempts to surprise you with someone popping out from behind a tree. You certainly might jump at the reveal but it won’t have any lingering effects on you after the movie ends, nor will the harsh playing of Brown here resonate once the needle lifts off the record.
 


 

Spent All My Gold
This balancing act that Gatemouth Brown will have to endure when it comes to the public’s perception of him won’t ever be fully settled. The blues factions will claim him for themselves and point to the similarities he had with other artists whose allegiance isn’t questioned. Brown himself would reject those claims but he also wouldn’t insist he was a full-fledged rocker either, though much of his work fell neatly within those boundaries.

Though a decent record which showcased Brown’s diverse talents, Didn’t Reach My Goal is one that falls neatly in NO boundary, or should I say falls across boundaries and so its inclusion here, while justified, is also not definitive in any sense. You can take from it what you want and call it a day.

Unfortunately this habit of stylistic ambiguity would ultimately hurt Brown’s chances in establishing himself to a specific audience. His versatility was a creative asset but at times a commercial liability. Had he firmly staked his claim in one field or another, giving those listeners a reason to be loyal to him, then he could’ve branched out from there and many of them would gladly go along for the ride, no matter how far out he ventured. But because he started off by confounding your expectations a lot of those who might wind up liking future destinations hopped off the bus before it pulled out of the station.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Gatemouth Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)