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At a certain point in this methodical excavation into rock history we knew we were going to have get into the subject of song-stealing sooner or later.

The legal terms for this might be plagiarism, copyright infringement, artistic appropriation, cribbing or out and out theft, but it’s a common occurrence in music and one that elicits wildly divergent reactions in people which are usually based more on a person’s affinity for the artist doing the stealing than the actual brazenness of the heist itself.

The ramifications from these incidents also vary greatly through the years with some notoriously resulting in legal proceedings which transferred writing credits to the “originator”, while other incidences saw the perpetrators avoid that ignominious fate but not fully escape the damage to their reputations for ripping off others and passing someone else’s ideas off as their own.

But in each of those scenarios there was at least some form of justice served which might dissuade others from trying to abscond with the creative work of another. Unfortunately though there were far more cases through the years, such as today’s record, which passed unnoticed into the night…

Until now that is.


The Dress Was Red… And The Artist Was Caught Red-Handed
Let’s start off by saying that there’s a notable difference between creative inspiration and outright larceny.

The first of those is extremely common and nothing to be alarmed about. Somebody else’s idea sparks your imagination and inspired by this you then set off to create something which is unique to you. They may have some vague similarity in the overall feel, maybe the choice of an instrument being used or a vocal approach, but they’re only tangentially related.

Most of your stylistic subgenres began this way, whether rockabilly and punk or soul and funk, and the resulting evolutionary pattern is pretty universal… one person tries something original and someone else hears it and builds upon that basic sound. But the key to it being seen as just inspiration or influence and not something more nefarious is that the songs themselves are different, their melodies, their lyrics, their arrangements are all distinct.

By contrast when THOSE elements are recycled directly then you wind up crossing the line into something which can’t be innocently explained and passed off as some sort of harmless tribute.

Before we completely eviscerate Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown for his misdeeds here though let’s stop to consider two things which might not fully absolve him but at least may explain the situation he’s in.

The first is that in the 1940’s, as we’ve said countless times, it was standard operating procedure for all artists in all styles to “cover” someone else’s record. That means when somebody came out with a new song that appeared to have promise every other record label scrambled to get one of their artists into the studio to cut an almost identical version of that same song to rush to the presses in an effort to cut into the original’s sales and get at least a piece of the action on the song.

This was not considered immoral, improper or impolite even, and perhaps not even impudent. Everyone did it. The one who was being covered today would do the covering of someone else next month and nobody held it against them or their competitors for trying to jump on a song while it was hot. The artists themselves were okay with it, the record labels considered all hot songs to be fair game and even audiences were perfectly fine with the idea and may have even liked hearing multiple renditions and getting to choose which they liked best among them, or just enjoyed the slight variety they got when different voices tackled the same tunes.

So in that environment the idea of doing somebody else’s material was not quite the affront it would soon become.

Then there’s the other thing we need to consider. This was Brown’s second single to be issued in the very first month of Peacock Records’ existence, a new label run by a complete novice in the recording industry, Don Robey. Theoretically he may not have known that using somebody else’s song requires you to credit them with authorship and usually means you also keep the title intact.

Then again, Robey was widely considered to be one of the label owners in the independent record boom who was an actual criminal (rather than just impersonating one in their business dealings with artists as so many others specialized in) and who’d built his empire as a numbers runner before getting into the record biz, so if anyone was likely to flaunt the law it might just be him.

But whoever is responsible it’s Gatemouth Brown who will have to bear the brunt of our scorn since it’s his name that adorns Mary Is Fine, which started off life two years earlier as a different song by a different artist under a different title altogether.


The Sun Refused To Shine
Once you know the origins of the song then unraveling its path to a Gatemouth Brown B-side early in his tenure as a recording artist is pretty damn easy.

The song it’s… well, let’s say based on… is the first single from Dave Bartholomew called She’s Got Great Big Eyes, which came out on the DeLuxe label in November 1947. From there it’s just a few short steps to Gatemouth Brown’s doorstep as Bartholomew was recently – this past fall in 1949 – playing an extended stint at The Bronze Peacock in Houston run by none other than Don Robey who also doubled as Gatemouth Brown’s manager, which is how he came to start Peacock Records since he couldn’t find a record label to record his client.

Bartholomew by this point had progressed a long way from his humble beginnings as a recording artist two years earlier and was currently riding his biggest hit of his career, Country Boy which is partly the reason he was headlining The Bronze Peacock in the first place.


It was while he was there remember that Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd stopped in, saw Bartholomew and was impressed by his show, not just his own talents as a trumpeter and singer/songwriter, but also his stewardship over the band which was reputedly the best in the Gulf Coast region, and so Chudd promptly offered Bartholomew a job to not just record for him but also to run his operations when he opened a branch in New Orleans, all of which we covered exhaustively in Tommy Ridgley’s Shrewsbury Blues a month back.

Robey, having thus missed out on securing somebody capable of running his own aspiring company, wasted no time in starting Peacock Records and got Brown into the studio right away. Since he had very few artists at this point of course that meant Brown was going to make up the bulk of the label’s output initially and therefore he needed plenty of songs.

Brown was a good songwriter but even the best songwriters don’t have an unlimited supply of material on demand. So Brown, having been at The Bronze Peacock during Bartholomew’s residency there, took one of the songs that was still being played in Dave’s set each night and worked up a rendition of THAT to lay down. Maybe he didn’t tell Robey or his assistant Evelyn Johnson that it was Bartholomew’s song, or maybe he didn’t know he HAD to. Maybe he did and they figured they’d change the title and thus make the writing credit harder to trace so they could get the royalties on it should it sell.

Whatever the case though, Mary Is Fine was the rather transparent result of these actions. The thing about it however is that whereas Bartholomew’s original was sort of unfocused, Brown manages to tighten it up considerably and turn it into something that is altogether better.

Fine Otherwise
If you haven’t yet taken the opportunity presented by the links to the first edition of this song when done by Bartholomew, let me at least include a relevant piece of that review before delving into Brown’s remake of the song.

It sounds like something that would likely go over well at the end of a long night in the French Quarter when the patrons were sloshed and would gladly hand over their last dollar for a feverish performance from the bandstand that would allow them to let loose one more time before staggering out into the steamy humid air… in that setting this would undoubtedly work better (than as a record).

Considering that was the precise setting that Brown HAD heard it played in at The Bronze Peacock club then it stands to reason that he’d have a much better impression of the song than the one he’d have gotten if he’d bought the record when it came out back in the waning days of 1947.

Furthermore it’s almost certain that Bartholomew himself had retooled it on stage to have it align more with the changes in rock music as a whole in the two years since he’d cut the record itself. So maybe some of the improvements Brown brings to the table here aren’t his own either (aside from the role of the guitar, which certainly is), but whoever deserves the credit, Mary Is Fine was worth the time to re-visit.

The changes between Bartholomew and Brown’s versions are pretty predictable considering their respective instrumental focus. Though Bartholomew was a trumpet player his primary role was as a bandleader and as such he gives the intro and much of the early spotlight on She’s Got Great Big Eyes to Frank Fields’s piano playing a rolling boogie. After the initial pace is set a tenor sax comes in blowing strong before finally Bartholomew himself contributes an extended trumpet solo.

Brown on the other hand was a guitarist and that was going to carry much of the weight of his arrangement, though it too starts off highlighting other instruments, namely the stand-up bass and a more distant and sparse piano than Bartholomew featured. Horns do indeed join in here next, since rock is still horn driven at this stage, but it’s not long before Brown’s electric guitar comes in, alternately slicing off some choice riffs and playing more subtle boogie progressions.

Its presence obviously alters the mood of the record from Bartholomew’s two year old track which was more of a communal exercise as he was joined on vocals by the band members to create a more boisterous party atmosphere. Brown’s guitar sets a more sinister feel and when he finally starts to sing after nearly a minute of instrumental fireworks his tone is almost detached in a way, like he’s musing about this girl in an absent-minded manner which is exacerbated by the odd mic placement or mix that gives a fuller sound to the guitar and a more distant echo to his often shouted vocals.

Brown is slightly over-exuberant, though he modulates better as he goes, and all of this is really just a set up for the instrumental passages which kicks off with a solid tenor sax solo that’s interspersed with some slashing guitar chords making it all seem about to fly off the handle, though it never quite does.

When Brown comes back for a second sung chorus we’re a little surprised because Bartholomew only had the one brief vocal section and then the rest was just an extended instrumental showcase. Gatemouth isn’t adding any new lyrics, just repeating what he’s already sung – and mangling the words a bit in the process – but by this point you know that all you’re doing us listening to a loose-limbed jam as you’d hear at The Bronze Peacock and you’re simply glad that it’s being played with enough intensity to get you moving.


Suspended Sentence
As a record Gatemouth Brown does indeed improve upon the Bartholomew original, both because he streamlines it structurally with the added vocal refrain and the more focused instrumental support and because the guitar is better than the trumpet for getting across the type of edge of your seat danger that works best in these quasi-live performances. This version is doubtlessly more exciting, if still a little too unwieldy to really be a great “record”.

But while Mary Is Fine provides him with a good platform to strut his stuff, it’s still somebody else’s song, no matter what the credits say and that is what forms the most interesting aspect of this otherwise useful, but somewhat disposable B-side.

If we’re playing both judge and jury we might let Brown off with a slap on the wrist, particularly if the story of how it came about doesn’t implicate him as a scheming crook who was plotting this robbery hoping for a financial – or musical – windfall.

If it indeed played out the way we envision, with Brown impressed by seeing Bartholomew’s crack band live and in person and merely adapting one of their non-hits for himself as a studio throwaway that got drafted into service as a B-side, that’s a little more understandable… even admirable in a sense because it shows once again how rock ‘n’ roll in effect “bred” other rock artists via first hand exposure in a way that we can definitively prove.

So while the court decides in the favor of the plaintiff, Dave Bartholomew, who will henceforth receive the royalties from Brown’s sales (as if THAT would ever happen!) and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown must pay court costs and a small fine for his actions, he’s free to go.

But just a warning Gatemouth, if you’re back in here again for the same offense we WILL throw the book at you. Write your own damn songs from now on… especially since they’re pretty good themselves.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Dave Bartholomew (December, 1949)

Archibald (November, 1952)