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ALADDIN 198, SEPTEMBER, 1947

 
 

 
From time to time around here it becomes necessary to go back and add a record or an artist we’d initially left out. In this case it was someone we’d been on the fence about including because he straddled so many genres but as more of his records are coming into view soon which we have no choice but to include because they’re pure rock ‘n’ roll it caused us to go back and add his first sides to fill out the picture.
 

 

What does it say about human beings that they obsessively want to classify everything under the sun… grouping together some while excluding others?

Is this an innocuous trend, something relatively harmless designed simply to make for easier reference, or is it a symptom of a more insidious human characteristic based on a penchant for mass segregation?

The truth is it’s both.
 

 

Count The Days I’m Gone
The inherent evils of relentless classification are easy enough to see: Those who have attained power or status in the world want to enhance their power by limiting the ability of others to achieve that same status, denying others the right to even be included in whatever categorization they hold sway over.

We know how this plays out, with everything from men holding back women in the workforce to the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. It’s really just insecurity personified: We don’t want to compete against everyone for fear of losing so we keep narrowing the field.

In music this concept is personified through the creation of Genres, each with its own narrow parameters meant to prevent one style of music from ever rubbing shoulders with another while allowing the fans of each of those styles from ever having to deal with those who listen to something else.

Yet musical styles aren’t completely rigid in spite of what many would like you to believe. All use shared building blocks of rhythm, melody, harmonics, vocal and instrumental sounds. The way each one is used may vary from style to style, but they also vary within the SAME styles, for music is a creative art and creators by definition don’t like having their art confined.

But as much we bemoan the overuse of classification the entire premise of this website is to examine the history of rock ‘n’ roll and nothing else. Not pop, not blues, not jazz, not country, not gospel and not polka, Gregorian chants or Irish lullabies either.

Most of the time this is fairly easy to accomplish because the vast majority of rock music is easy enough to discern, at least if you accept all of its evolutionary changes through the years which means the music we’ve just covered in the fall of 1947 eventually leading to such far-flung variants as heavy metal, punk, disco, hip-hop, grunge and EDM. But the outliers of the genre through the years will always be a little bit murky.

Where does the dividing line between jazz and rock sit? Or how about the blues? And when rock acts begin to do better on the pop charts than mainstream pop artists does that make them pop as well?

All of these questions have no definitive answers, but instead tend to be loosely agreed upon by the masses… the same masses who we’ve just gotten done saying have an uncontrollable urge to classify them all so that they can dismiss those they’re uncomfortable about including without the need to defend that decision.

The hope for this website is we won’t do that. Oh, there’ll be no inclusion of other genres in the lineup of reviews, so the classification of what is and isn’t rock will definitely exist and be enforced, but those decisions will be defended to the best of our ability in an attempt to justify what gets included and what gets left out using musical parameters, audience reception and historical precedent. It might not always be perfect, but hopefully it will be consistent and fair.

Which brings us to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the first artist in our chronological survey of rock history to be straddling that fence. In fact he was initially left out of the proceedings altogether until down the road it became obvious that he couldn’t be excluded without subverting the very goal we just laid out – to use tangible evidence in weighing their cases and not letting perception override fact.

So here he is taking his rightful place in rock history even though he himself would’ve never claimed he was a pure rocker at all. But then again he also wouldn’t admit to belonging to any of the other genres he was inevitably thrown into by those who demand everyone be classified as something come hell or high water.
 


 

Just Got In Your Town
Let’s start by saying that Gatemouth Brown most often resides in the blues section of your history books, record stores and general views of the populace. It’s also the classification he objected to most vociferously.

The reasons for his being lumped in the blues are pretty evident at a glance. He was a black guitar player (named “Gatemouth” no less, which fits in perfectly with a genre defined through the years by people named Blind Lemon, T-Bone, Muddy and Wolf!) who came from Texas in the 1940’s emerging in the shadow of T-Bone Walker who just happened to be the greatest blues guitarist of all-time and one of the most influential musicians who ever lived, spurring countless artists to pick up the instrument and follow his lead.

Yet many of those who did so initially didn’t follow the same path once they started. This was definitely by intent, bringing us back to the truism that artists are creative individuals who want to stake new ground not simply plow the same fields where someone else’s crop has already been planted and harvested.

That’s not to say Brown didn’t play the blues over the years, he certainly did and quite well at that, but he also played a lot of other music with no overt relation to the blues, such as rock ‘n’ roll.

I know, I know, for years you’ve heard the rock stems directly from the blues and so on and so forth until you’ve accepted it as fact, no questions asked. But the fact is, as this project makes ever more clear, rock grew out of jazz with some gospel leanings in the vocal department and the blues was only a secondary and rather distant influence at first.

But we’ll get into all of that more as time goes on, right now we’re interested in Gatemouth Brown and why he didn’t conform to the bluesman ideal that he seemed most likely to follow.

Brown emphatically stated over his career that he played anything and everything he desired, saying that if a classification WAS required then he played “American music, Texas style”, which was another way of saying “Fuck you” to those seeking to confine him and his art.

It’s true that he’d go on to make a name for himself cutting country music, Cajun, jazz and yes, the blues, but for much of his early career his musical output was clearly most suited to rock ‘n’ roll.
 


 
 

Too Far Gone
Though Brown’s guitar is quite prominent in the arrangement, and yes the rolling boogie he plays at the start DOES have very clear antecedents in blues, something he said was done because that was what was expected of him and he simply went along with the program, he’s by no means alone in the studio as Maxwell Davis rides shotgun on tenor sax and has with him a full cavalry of other horns which take this well outside the standard blues idiom of the time, either country blues or urban electric blues, and places it on the bandstand where its jazz associations become more apparent.

Yet Gatemouth Boogie clearly isn’t aligning itself with jazz any more than it is with the blues, even if both of those elements are battling with each other throughout the record, like two kids in the backseat on a family vacation.

It’s a tale of two styles, Brown plays his guitar and Davis and company answer, not clashing exactly but certainly pulling in opposition directions. Yet since neither side wins the tug-of-war the song doesn’t wind up landing in either field, but rather cuts its own path somewhere in the middle, which is where rock ‘n’ roll was putting up stakes.

The story behind the song itself – though this does seem a little too perfectly constructed a sequence of events to be totally believable – is that T-Bone Walker was a no-show, or became sick, at The Bronze Peacock Club in Houston one night and Brown was in the audience and jumped on stage, grabbed a handy guitar (don’t you love when they’re just lying around to be picked up by anyone with the inclination and skill to do so?) and started singing this colorful ode to himself and knocked the crowd off its feet.

Those kind of stories are so commonplace in music that you’d think they happened at every club every night of the week across the country, but I’m sure a few of them must’ve been true, or least partially true, otherwise who’d believe them in the first place?

If Brown DID start singing this very song on the spur of the moment his ad-libbing ability is pretty damn good because while Gatemouth Boogie is hardly very inventive, it IS fully coherent and has good structure with all of the relevant story elements firmly in place, from a character introduction and a plot being set-up in the first two stanzas to the requisite conflict and resolution in the latter half. He sings with a strong voice and plenty of confidence, but the vocal elements are mostly there to frame the real show which is the musical interludes that take up the better part of the running time.
 

It Still Won’t Be Too Late
In many ways it’s Maxwell Davis who does the heavy lifting here in that regard, even though his role on sax, and even the role of the horns in general, aren’t nearly as prominent as Brown’s guitar. But it was Davis who adapted the one-man band approach of Brown singing and playing guitar on stage and fit that into a more well-rounded arrangement with a full horn section, piano, bass and drums filling out the lineup which turns a mere performance into an actual record.

Davis, who will fast become the pre-eminent producer in rock, one of its most prolific sessionists and a top-notch writer to boot, manages to slide the brass section into this seamlessly without letting them overwhelm Brown or his guitar even as the two entities are – at least in 1947 – hardly the most compatible sounds in any field of music. He does this by simply giving each their space. The guitar works as an extension of Brown’s voice, either leading into a line or continuing the thought at the end of his vocals. Then as he winds down the horns pick up the slack and bring this back into a more refined setting.

Think of it as walking down a sidewalk in Houston in the midday August sun where your shoes are constantly at risk for sticking to the pavement, but then heading into an air conditioned nightclub on the corner. From sweltering to cool in just a few steps.

The horns still retain a bit of mannered pretension in how they’re played, particularly with their milder tone, but that’s understandable considering that rock has yet to upend the instruments’ stylistic attack. Yet they play with a rhythmic purpose, even if that could’ve certainly been emphasized even more had Davis himself just led the way with his own tenor sax. But since they’re merely supporting players in this he leaves the aggressive actions to the headliner and Brown doesn’t disappoint.

There’s two guitar solos on Gatemouth Boogie which vary in style and sound, plus another rolling boogie that follows those which I suppose could be called a solo too since he’s pretty much by himself here as well, but because it’s not improvisational probably doesn’t fully qualify under that definition. No matter, for each of them, the two solos and the return of the boogie, all use different textures to draw your attention. The first is the harsher sounding, more biting riff with a deeper edgier tone that puts you on alert. The second finds him easing off in intensity and being more selective in choosing notes, letting each one hang in the air for an extra beat, but sounding sharper and more lethal in how they’re applied.
 


 

If You Don’t Like My Style I Will Not Hang Around
The boogie of course returns us to the hypnotic basis for the song and provides a reassuring, almost soothing, sense of the familiar even if the electric guitar is hardly the most widespread instrument for establishing that groove just yet.

That development of course would go off in much different tangents itself, mostly concurrent with one another, as guitar boogies would become ever more prominent in both country and blues over the next few years, but less so in rock for awhile. The reason for this is because rock had too many OTHER things it was playing with to settle for just one repetitive, if highly addicting, gimmick. The horns for example, though taking a back seat here, would be re-worked – re-conceived really – until they became rock’s primary means for instrumental madness for much of its first decade.

As a result this further sets Gatemouth Brown adrift historically. Since rock didn’t readily expand on his early ideas shown here he largely watched from the sidelines for the next two years – though a second single on Aladdin with Davis in tow, would be released in a few weeks – and by the time he returned to the fold as 1949 turned into 1950 rock had exploded and gone in a different direction than the one he was most likely to follow. Even the guitars that had begun to appear more regularly by mid-1949 were not exactly cut from the same mold as this particular effort, giving blues fans more reason to claim him for themselves. But Brown himself chose no side, remaining the ultimate free agent, someone whose “team” at any given moment had as much to do with who he was surrounded with than anything.

On Gatemouth Boogie he winds up tentatively slotted into rock for the time being thanks to Davis’s contributions. When free of any other musical entanglements down the road he’d remain just as hard to pin down due to his own experimental and contrarian nature, two characteristics that as we’ll see are a lot more common in rock ‘n’ roll than the blues anyway, so maybe his placement here wasn’t as conflicted as we might’ve made it out to be in the first place.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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