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PEACOCK 1504, DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

If it seems as though this website is turning into the Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown show as of late that’s because it kind of is. This is the fourth song of his we’re reviewing in December 1949 with another (the flip side) coming tomorrow.

When it rains, it pours.

But this is one of the lessons that needs to be learned about early rock ‘n’ roll when promising artists appeared on brand new record labels who were desperate to show off their talents in the hopes of establishing their companies in the marketplace and as a result they frequently overdid it at first by issuing multiple singles simultaneously which ran the risk over diluting the product and canceling each other out commercially.

While obviously that’s not a good thing most of the time this is actually one of the exceptions.
 

 

If We’re Going To Get Together, We’d Better Do It Fast
For Peacock Records owner Don Robey the first priority in the early days was promoting Gatemouth Brown’s career. It was why the company itself had been started, as Robey, who owned the successful Peacock Club in Houston, had taken over Brown’s management after an impromptu show-stealing appearance at that club two years earlier. Brown managed to sign with Aladdin Records in Los Angeles but his records didn’t sell and he became little more than a local club attraction.

Yet it was obvious that Brown had phenomenal talent as a guitarist, singer and songwriter and Robey was incredulous that nobody seemed to want to take advantage of it. So in late 1949 he took matters into his own hands and launched his own label with absolutely no knowledge of how these things operated. Robey’s innate business sense, plus that of his business partner, the invaluable Evelyn Johnson, and Robey’s cocksure attitude and iron will all but ensured that it’d become a success… eventually.

But in order to get to that point they had to stay afloat long enough so their determination and hard work could pay off which is why they put their money on Brown and doubled down on it right away. Who was to say which record of his had the most potential, they probably figured, and why wait two months or more to find out that the first one wasn’t going to attract enough attention before trying again.

So even as they were swapping out one B-side (Atomic Energy) for another (Mercy On Me) to ride the back of his Peacock debut, Didn’t Reach My Goal, they were already printing up another Brown single to push.

This one did the trick… While oftentimes the record label’s decision on which song to promote seemed to suggest a company was utterly deaf and clueless, in this case the choice to place their bets on My Time Is Expensive was entirely defensible, because this is Brown’s best effort to date.
 


 

I Have A Family Too
Though we’ve taken pains to stress the fact that blues were rather incidental to rock’s formation that doesn’t mean blues were entirely alien to it either and even amidst the tenor sax dominated sounds of rock music during this period there were a few intrepid guitarists who rose to prominence by bringing a healthy dose of bluesy shadings to their work.

Gatemouth Brown was undoubtedly the first true blues-rock artist, a style which would later reach its commercial peak with such British based acts of the 1960’s like The Yardbirds and Cream, Led Zeppelin and their ilk. With My Time Is Expensive Brown plants the flag for this hybrid sound giving the subgenre its first definitive hit on the national charts and thereby ensuring the rock ‘n’ roll family tree has another strong and sturdy limb for future artists to climb on.

The genre blurring is evident from the very first notes of its ten second long harsh guitar intro, an intentionally crude and repetitive opening meant to capture your attention and perhaps startle and frighten you in the process.

But records are more than simply their opening ten seconds or their most distinctive instrumental feature and it’s the combination of sounds, the melding of different musical elements and the attitude of the performer which shapes a song’s persona and once those guitar chords ease and their echo starts to fade the record shifts into a mellower atmosphere and one which is far more familiar to the existing rock framework of the day.
 


 
 

A Hard Working Man
Brown’s guitar is still in the lead but now is played with a subdued air. The horns bolster the ambiance with softly moaning parts leading into Brown’s vocals which are delivered in an almost dreamy croon. As such My Time Is Expensive takes on a reflective quality that further distances it from any vestige of the blues.

The story might be the type of earthy subject matter that was at home in the blues – that of two people hooking up for sex outside of their marriage – but the lyrics paint a more nuanced picture of the affair, a sort of weary resignation hinting at the emotional and moral consequences without ever addressing them directly.

A lot of that is carried off with his vocal tone, which roughens up at times and suggests he isn’t quite excited about doing the deed with someone else as much as he’s viewing it as a respite from his otherwise fruitless life. He’s toiling away in a world that doesn’t offer him much, be it in terms of money or respect, and knowing he’s never going to get ahead he’s looking elsewhere to get something even fleetingly tangible to find some sense of fulfillment.

We’ll refrain from informing this isn’t it, but he hints at the end that it actually might be money he’s after in this instance as well. His final line to her is ”You’ve lost lots of good money, baby/Please try to understand”.

What does this mean? Well, the obvious thing it suggests is she’s better off than he is, maybe because her husband has a higher position in the world and she’s swiping it from her old man, or maybe she worked for it herself (though in the 1940’s this was decidedly less likely since women were not typically integrated into the workforce to the point where they were bringing home significant paychecks). Whatever the case may be however, he apparently is asking her to pay him for his… umm… “services” as it were.

A business arrangement in other words!

Now usually in these types of scenarios it’s the bored, lonely housewife who is positioned as the one earning cash on the side for turning tricks while her husband is at work, but the plot works just as well if he’s the one putting himself out to stud to bring home some extra bacon to feed his wife and kids. I can’t say the missus would appreciate it much if she found out, but Brown himself doesn’t seem altogether happy with the arrangement either which at least allows us – naively on our part perhaps – to envision him as having more of a moral center than the situation would otherwise suggest.

That doesn’t take him off the hook mind you, but it does make for a more nuanced song as these conflicting emotions come to the surface throughout.
 


 

We Can’t Waste No Time
Musically Brown’s early display on guitar curiously remains the only such explosion on the record. You’d assume that someone involved, Brown himself, Robey or even just the other band members, would suggest that he break out another strangled guitar solo mid-way through if only to show how tortured he was over his odd plight.

Certainly if you wanted to sell the public on Brown’s skills it’d stand to reason that he’d be allowed to show them off a little more, especially when such an interlude would fit in aesthetically with what already was laid down. But not only don’t we get that, we don’t even get the other alternative in that spot, namely a tenor sax solo. Instead the instruments remain situated in the background, playing a muted supporting role after that feisty lead-in to the song.

That’s not to say that they’re completely out of sight though as Brown’s guitar answers each vocal line with a short atmospheric reply, all played contemplatively slow as if he was hashing out the ramifications of his actions in real time.

What makes it work so well, though keeps it from standing out at the same time, is how well the two components mesh. The churning horns are kept well in the background but are unrelenting in their matter-of-fact way, providing a drowsy accompaniment that symbolizes the crushing, life-sucking realities of being way down on the social ladder. Just as the riff never changes neither do most people’s circumstances when they’re in this position in life.

Yet a top that comes Brown’s one means of salvation – musically that would be his guitar, but symbolically the instrument’s almost a phallic stand-in for his sexual allure to this lady. By using both, the guitar and his other… ahhm… “instrument”, he sees a means with which he might actually be able to climb one or two rungs higher on that social ladder and be in a better position in life. He might never get far with either, but from his vantage point those are more appealing options than staying at the bottom.
 


 

I Have Other Things To Do
Oddly enough in real life Brown would never fully make it up that ladder in spite of having a long rewarding career. The hits were few and far between, his musical classification remained a constant source of contention as he refused to be pegged as a bluesman and yet was rarely credited as a rocker either. Eventually he took up the fiddle, both on stage and on record, and dabbled in country music as well as blues, jazz and rock, but with a name like “Gatemouth” there was probably no way to ever fully convince skeptics that he was something other than a blues artist from the very beginning.

Maybe if more of those who insisted on calling him such had heard My Time Is Expensive as issued simply by Clarence Brown in 1949 the case for considering him as one of the more interesting rock artists on the scene would’ve been made a whole lot easier.

But Peacock Records couldn’t have complained too much with the results of either his output or his versatility, as he was able to draw interest from potentially a wider audience than had he been merely a pure blues artist… or a pure rocker for that matter. He sold well enough to keep their fledgling label afloat until reinforcements arrived and then he continued to be their most prolific artist in terms of releases until he left them in 1960 to pursue new musical amalgamations that were just as confounding as what he left behind.

The ultimate takeaway from Gatemouth Brown’s career boils down to the simple fact that before the rules were ever fully set in the public’s mind he bent them to his will and – artistically speaking anyway – was better off for it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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