I played many times with bluesman Mel Brown. Originally from Mississippi, Mel wound up living in Kitchener, Ontario where he landed a house gig at a club called Pop The Gator. He took a liking to Canada and lived in Kitchener until his death from emphysema in March 2009. I loved playing with Mel. He liked the front edge of the beat and I'm instinctively a back edge player, so he demanded that I adjust. It was a challenge but he kept hiring me so I guess I was doing something right.
Mel, as well as being an amazing musician, was an amazing guy. What a career! He played with Bobby Blue Bland, Etta James, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Darrin. He told me that he was one of the very few black musicians allowed into recording studios in Nashville during the 60's (primarily due to Bobby Darin's clout). I loved his sound. He played a Gibson 175. He also had a complete repertoire of jazz/blues/funk that he could perform on the Hammond organ. One night at the Gator, Mel asked me if I wanted to get high. He had a thin one paper joint and we went out onto the back steps and sparked it up. I only got one or two hits from it and we immediately went on stage. Part way through the first song, I felt myself being pulled up out of my body, rising above the drums, hovering near the ceiling. I could see ribbons of energy connecting me to my body down below as some part of me kept playing the drums. Then I was sucked back down into my flesh and bones. Mel turned around and grinned at me as if he knew exactly what I had just experienced. What did we smoke Mel? ( and where can I get some more?)
Mel loved a little puff of pot now and then. He also smoked cigarettes which led to his premature death. Emphysema took a deathly hold of him, aged him ten years in a matter of months. Towards the end, Mel would take the stage seated, with an oxygen bottle at his side but as soon as he started playing that once tall, vibrant and lanky man now withered, old and gray came back to life and he would rock the joint. He told me that smoking cigarettes was the stupidest thing he ever did. God damn those cigarettes. One way or another, everybody quits eventually.
He was Etta's band leader for many years. Some of the stories he told me took me to a time and place that was hard for me to grasp. Although I have a passion for blues and soul and have made a life study of playing it, I will never know what it was like to be a black musician in a segregated America during the 50's and 60's. I can only imagine. Mel had many stories of violence and racism. (Told me that the reason he stayed in Kitchener and made Canada his home was that no one ever referred to him as a "N...er"). On more than one occasion Mel found band members in the dressing room with needles sticking out of their arms, dead from heroin overdoses. One time it was the bass player. Mel had to play bass that night. It especially pissed him off since he said that he hated playing bass. Mel told me about some of Etta's struggles with heroin. I won't repeat them. I prefer to keep Etta's dignity intact and remember her as the greatest singer I have ever been on a stage with.
I miss them both. I also miss playing blues with artists of such depth. Since my gender transition the blues world has had little room for me, and these days I rarely play blues. The first time Mel saw me after my transition was at a gig at the Trane Studio in Toronto. He was genuinely warm and friendly and told me I looked great. It meant a lot to me. When Mel died, my blues career more or less died and I was acutely aware of that. Life has its many ironies that a black man from Mississippi was the one who kept hiring me. Too often the oppressed become the oppressors and our own life experiences teach us nothing about the struggles of others. He was the one with the open mind and the open heart and he judged me on the strength of my playing, not on what I was.
Mel has not been celebrated enough in this town. He was the real deal. A genuine legend. His death is a real loss. Irreplaceable. To me, the blues scene in Toronto is shallow, incestuous and inbred. Same old bunch of tired old white guys playing the same old tired three grooves. Too much wanking and very little sincerity or soul. Know why cannibals won't eat musicians? Too bitter.
R.I.P. Etta and Mel. Love to you both. Thanks for letting me be part of your music.