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PEACOCK 1500, DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

And now for the second attempt at a B-side for the inaugural release on Peacock Records…

So right away it has to be asked: Is this a better choice? One more stylistically diverse? Is it a better example of his specific skill set? A better crafted song which has a greater chance to become a hit in its own right than the somewhat directionless instrumental it replaced?

The answer is yes to all of those questions.

But whether or not it’s a better record, full stop, is not quite as certain.
 

 

Just Remember I’m Your Friend
One of the uneasy choices that has to be made around these parts is what artists and records to include that brush against the edges of rock’s sphere.

For the most part the decisions are fairly easy because rock itself is easy to discern at a glance. The dominant styles OF rock will change over time, certainly a disco or death metal song that somehow appeared in 1949 would’ve had few people then claiming either of them had anything in common with Wynonie Harris or The Ravens, but as time went on and styles evolved those two forms of music, plus hundreds of other forms that would’ve been alien to the founders of rock, made their eventual presence in rock ‘n’ roll a forgone conclusion.

That’s what happens in creative art. Something appears out of the blue and immediately sets new rules and either those rules remain stagnant, which ensures the art form atrophies and eventually dies off, or the boundaries keep expanding because each new generation takes from the past and adds to it in order to create a more diverse future.

So for those of you still planning on being around and reading this site in a few decades you should be aware that grunge, hip-hop and EDM are going to be dominating the reviews when we get to the 90’s and beyond simply because that’s how rock ‘n’ roll evolved and while those styles might be far from where we started in 1947 the path to those points still to come will hopefully be made very clear as we go along – year by year, song by song – to show how we ended up there.

But while that process is simple and organic, a pre-ordained certainty for anyone truly interested in charting rock’s long and winding course, the same can’t always be said about the far outposts in the rock community and just where to draw the boundaries.

The stated goal of the website is to chronicle ALL of rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning and to not confuse the issue by trying to incorporate non-rock records and artists by awkwardly inserting them into the narrative along the way. Yes, we certainly try and show the surrounding musical landscape to see what rock was up against, most pointedly in our Monthly Overviews which start off with a currently popular non-rock song to use as contrast to the records we’re covering, but aside from that we tend to merely mention other styles in passing every now and then so we can instead focus on the primary topic at hand.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy when you encounter someone like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who by virtue of his background, his instrument of choice and the era he rose to prominence in will more often than not be categorized as a bluesman. Fearing that line-blurring confusion is the reason why we kept him out of the ranks of rockers to begin with and only two years later went back to add him because we realized we’d over-corrected in an attempt to sidestep this sticky wicket of genre classification.

But we can’t avoid it, nor should we want to, because the story of rock has to get around at some point to showing where the edges of the genre fall and why they’re laid out there and not somewhere else.

Gatemouth Brown makes for the perfect case study for this task precisely because he went on record countless times to state he was NOT a bluesman no matter what others tried saying, and over the course of a career that lasted almost six full decades he took perverse pleasure in fucking with all of us as much as he could by gleefully hopping back and forth across those lines just to further confound everyone who tried to keep him one neat little box.
 


 

What I’m Going To Do
Just to be sure there’s no (added) confusion about all of this, Gatemouth Brown was NOT strictly a rock artist any more than he was strictly a blues artist, but he frequently dabbled in both forms and the goal therefore is to be able to determine which records fall into which category. In this way the musical DNA matters more than the artist, which is how it should be since we’re studying a musical genre as a whole.

Brown’s rock releases will be dealt with here while his forays into other styles won’t be, the same method we’ve followed for the likes of The Ravens, Tiny Bradshaw, Earl Bostic or Big Joe Turner.

With Brown though, at least at this point, it’s a little more dicey than merely choosing an either/or designation because the things which define a 1949 blues record invariably will find their way into his 1949 rock releases and vice versa. Because HE’S blurring the lines, that means we need to be more vigilant about which threads dominate each specific song and go from there.

I’m sure a lot of people don’t care about that and if you’re a fan of Gatemouth Brown you’d prefer we were even less rigid when it came to inclusion while others who prefer we stick more to the middle of the rock terrain probably wish we never deviated from our original decision to bypass Brown altogether. But as the guitar starts to take on a more ubiquitous role in rock in the future then artists like Brown, and records like Mercy On Me become more crucial to examine so we can see where those later trends emerged from and how they differed from the pure blues guitar-based records that were coming out during this same era.

Some of this might be semantics, we won’t argue that, but Brown’s approach on this incorporates many of the things which rock had already laid claim to, starting with the prominent horn section in support. Where this one veers closer to the blues, straddling the line as it were, is in the song’s outlook, which is mostly downbeat.

Now of course there are plenty of rock songs, both those we’ve covered already and plenty still to come over the next seven decades and counting, which deal with sorrow and misery. Rock is not strictly upbeat party music even if that remains its most prominent image historically. So we can’t include or exclude anything strictly on that basis even if it does factor heavily into the decision.

Brown himself admitted years later that a lot of his early work skirted the blues more so than he would later on because that’s what was expected of him when starting out and so this trait is more prevalent at this stage.

Sure enough he starts off the song taking on the typical blues-mindset of “crying and moaning about women” as he put it in one interview, something which he’d soon cast aside to intentionally distance himself from the blues. But in fact he actually casts it aside WITHIN Mercy On Me, his outlook becoming brighter as he sings which makes this either a rare example of a pretty significant larger evolution taking place in the span two and a half minutes, or it shows his internal conflict over his direction being far more pronounced already than might be expected.
 


 
 

Where My Good Luck Charm Can Be
Notable though some of these decisions he was grappling with may be, it’s not a great song, nor a great record, as the story contains few interesting details as he tells us about the loss of his woman and his plans to move on down the line.

It IS interesting though to study his approach and try and discern the thinking behind it as his vocal is slow and drawn out, his enunciation showing more sophistication than the standard blues approach at the time. The horns behind him are there merely for shading, offering droning support as their lines never try and change the mood, nor do they step into the front of the arrangement even though they’re omnipresent throughout the record.

The instrument that does take a bow in the spotlight of course is Brown’s own guitar and it’s with his mid-song solo that the direction and attitude of Mercy On Me suddenly shifts.

Because we have so few unhinged guitar solos in rock to compare this with it’s bound to be either over-appreciated by those who prefer the electric guitar to honking tenor saxes or pounding pianos when it comes to rock soloing instruments, or it’s going to be deemed an overwrought intrusion by those who prefer those other instruments carrying the load. In truth both views have something to them.

Yes it IS overwrought, as Brown goes from playing a subtle liquid-type lead-in to the solo before he breaks free of all constraint and thrashes around as if he were holding the live end of an electrical wire and being jolted with a few thousand watts of juice. But then he eases back, restoring some order and musicality after shouting an ad-libbed cry that sounds as if he’s suggesting some kill him to put him out of his misery. As he winds his solo down the guitar and horns work well together, hardly the oil and water mixture they sometime seem.

But the more important aspect of his guitar solo is how it marks the shift in his thinking. In the story he starts off depressed, telling his ex that he’s leaving town to get away from the bad memories the place holds for him since they parted. But after working out his emotions on the guitar he seems to have a much more optimistic outlook, or at least a more conciliatory view on his former partner, telling her that she can always call on him if SHE’S down on her luck, as he comes to accept their breakup and realizes life will go on.

I suppose that’s the rock edict in a nutshell, whereas the blues perspective is that of merely accepting your misfortune and never expecting things will turn around. It might not be that pronounced a split here, he’s not announcing to the world that he can’t wait to get to his next stop to start sampling the prospects there, but he’s also not resigned to his gloom anymore and that’s a big step, whether in music or in life.
 

Leave This Town To You
If you were to suggest that this side was a last minute replacement for Atomic Energy precisely because it leaned more heavily on blues tropes which in 1949 Texas might’ve been seen as a more reliable constituency to court, I wouldn’t argue. But even if that were the case – and even if you made a credible case the song could be included if this were a blues history blog instead – the two genres never settle which one has the strongest claim to Mercy On Me and that alone makes it intriguing and historically important.
 

 
Artists of course never had to sign up exclusively with one form of music or the other and while most would in fact align themselves with a single style over the years, either for personal taste or to improve their commercial prospects, oftentimes the genre they found themselves belonging to came about because of the response they got from fans. Whichever audience took to their music would invariably pull the artist in that direction, leaving behind their early experiments that drew from multiple forms like this.

But occasionally there were iconoclasts like Tiny Grimes, Earl Bostic and yes Gatemouth Brown, who couldn’t be bothered to limit their musical vision to satisfy only one prevailing mindset and so they marched to the beat of their own drummer – or guitar in this case – and while it undoubtedly cost them a more consistent reception to their efforts at the time, it made them infinitely interesting to look back on years later as we try and respect their versatility rather than be frustrated by it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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