Mel Brown, at stage left
This past Saturday I attended the funeral of late, great blues man, Mel Brown. Now Mr. Brown meant a lot of things to a lot of people, this much was obvious with the turnout. But what he meant to each of us was as different as the clothes on our backs. During the course of the afternoon I got to hear many great stories of a man who I owe so much too. It’s here and now that I want to tell my story.
Bare with me as I go on a bit of a tangent as I feel I can only tell the story right if I go back… way back to before I knew who Mel was. In fact, before Mel ever came to the Kitchener area and way before I ever picked up a guitar. Because, truth be told, I cannot tell this story without telling you about a kid by the name of Ian Taylor.
I first Met Ian Taylor in middle school, around grade 7 or 8. I don’t quite remember how much we chummed around back then, but in those days, in a small school, there weren’t many people that you weren’t friendly with for some period of time. I remember Ian and I were in music class together with Mr. Sharten (I think). We were both pretty enthusiastic about music and we were both considered, by the the music teacher, to be pretty talented kids. I was more a singer then anything, and Ian, at the time, was into keyboards. I remember being blown away by Ian’s passion and fearlessness when it came to playing that thing in front of the class. He didn’t care whether it sounded good, he just knew it felt right.
After middle school, Ian and I went on to different high schools, bumping into each other every once in a while. Near the end of my high school years, about 1991, I had started to teach myself guitar. By then, as I soon learned, Ian was a very talented guitar player, already performing live as a rhythm guitarist in his guitar teachers band. This wasn’t all that surprising, in fact I almost expected it.
Within my first year or two of playing I was starting to write my own songs and starting to get a few half decent chops, nothing much but I was out pacing others who had started around the same time as me. I had learned enough to have the confidence to enter the battle of the bands in 1993, my last year of high school. I also knew enough that I ought to bring in bigger guns on guitar if I stood a chance of making an impact in the contest.
That’s when I brought in Ian and his band to back me up me and the guys I had assembled. I sang an original tune backed by the scorching licks of the already shining guitar talent, Ian Taylor. We tore the place apart and brought the crowd to their feet (at least it felt that way), but due to a technicality (Ian wasn’t actually a student at the school) we were disqualified. It was a pretty magical end to my high school career.
It wasn’t long after when Ian headed out west. I can’t quite recall why, but if I know Ian it probably had to do with the music scene out there. He had a pretty rough go of it, playing guitar in the streets for enough change to buy a pack of smokes and a box of Kraft Dinner to feed him and his girlfriend for the day.
Now when I say he was playing guitar in the streets, I mean he scraped a few dollars together to buy a broken up acoustic that didn’t play. The neck had a back bow, the bridge was busted up, the tuners didn’t hold true… He had to jury-rig a bridge with the cap off a Right Gaurd deodorant stick to bring the strings up high enough that they wouldn’t buzz. When your strings are too high to touch the neck, playing slide with a busted up guitar in the streets for money, your choice of musical genre’s in your repertoire is limited… you feel blue, you look blue, you’re hurting for money… Ian Taylor was singing the blues, for real.
For a few years after high school, my guitar playing and song writing continued. That’s about the time (not knowing of Ian’s situation) that I got into blues. With my confidence growing, I decided to start a blues band with my very musically gifted step dad. It was a slow start, we jammed a lot in my parents basement (to my mothers dismay) but after a while we really felt we were getting somewhere. While I waited for my own band to mature, I started working with others as a fill-in or session guitarist of sorts. I played a school reunion up north and a handful of other gigs. I was happy to blend into the background for the time being.
That’s around the time when Ian came back to town. He was looking to get involved in the music scene around town again. For a brief time he hooked up with my step dad and I as we tried out some drummers in the area. Ian was a restless soul however, and besides that, his talent and experiences were far greater and far deeper than what we had to offer him. So Ian started his own band and started to get quit a few gigs around town.
I attended a lot of his shows and by doing so came to recognize his need for a guitar tech. I was pretty good at setting up guitars, tuning, tweaking, fixing… I just naturally started tweaking all his gear for him and started loaning him some of my own gear as back up to his; guitars, amps, etc… It was a pretty neat time as Ian was getting to open for a few better known acts that would come through town, and as his “guitar tech” I would get to party behind the scenes with these bands.
Around 1996 Mel Brown started a jam night at the Red Pepper in Waterloo. I had watched Mel on numerous occasions at Pop The Gator and Duffers so I was already familiar with his mastery of the blues guitar. I had never had the nerve to get up and play with him at his previous venues, but Ian had started talking up the idea to me of him and I going out to jam at Mel’s new spot. Ian by this point was a seasoned veteran of leading bands, while I, on the other hand was accustomed to being the wall flower. It took me a lot of nerve to get up there for the first time. It was quite a rush and that was enough to keep me coming back for more every single week. I’m not sure what Mel’s initial impressions of us were but I know that we were just in awe of this larger then life legend on the guitar.
It became a ritual for Ian and I. I would pick him up from work and we, with our guitars and my Fender Twin silver face amp, would head over to the Pepper and clutter up Mel’s little plot of floor space with our gear. Mel put up with us crowding his space with my amp, I think mostly because it kept all of us kids from tweaking the knobs on his own amp. He never said much to us for quite some time. He always gave us an acknowledging nod when we came in and a friendly wink when he approved of what we played. We were just two young kids too scared to strike up a conversation with him but we knew that he knew we loved being there.
After weeks of playing in the Red Pepper and getting to know the crowd, Ian started to get some notice from the crowd and Mel alike. He was very talented on the guitar by this point. I, on the other hand wasn’t knocking them dead but I has getting some fair applause and succeeded in making the crowd bop on a few occasions. It wasn’t until I brought out an original tune, a minor groove about me and a boyhood friend and our days of fishing on the Grand River, that I really connected with everyone there… including Mr. Brown. It was a tune that wouldn’t have been half of what it was without Ian’s touch, making the riff that much funkier and that much groovier. And it was Mel approved. Mel was grooving, head down, eyes closed, downright diggin’ it, grooving and there was no better sign of appreciation from Mel Brown then that. I really hit it home with Mel and the crowd that night and I knew it. It was the confidence booster I needed to really get things rolling for me.
It wasn’t long before Ian and I became an attraction at Mel Browns jam night. Mel used to introduce us with a little knowing smile. I think he was proud of what we had become under his watchful eye and tutelage. I still remember the night when Brown introduced Ian and I as the young, shining stars to watch out for, the kids who were going to keep blues alive. There was no finer moment for me then that. These were big words coming from the mouth of a man considered to be a legend by the likes of Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Bobby Bland and countless others.
Mel Brown’s support, and the proving grounds of the Red Pepper became the launch pad of my career as a blues musician, something I thought was going to be lifelong. I started to get my own gigs with that blues band I started so long ago. We started working a bit up north and a little around town. By this point I had a son, so between working part time job, going to college, raising a family and gigging, I was finding it tough to make it to the Red Pepper jam nights. I came from time to time to catch up with Mel, let him know about what gigs I was working.
In 1997 I got a regular gig at the Flying Dog in Waterloo on Wednesday nights. A lot of the people who had come to know me from Tuesdays at the Red Pepper were coming out to see me on Wednesdays now too. I would get Ian to jam a few with us and some of the other guitar slingers from those days at the Pepper. We were all starting to get our own gigs and we were cross promoting them for each other. It was a good time for music around town. Bars were paying and the people were coming out.
It was a small crowd that we had at the Flying Dog, we certainly didn’t have the draw that Mel had, but it was a decent working relationship and was serving both us and the Flying Dog well. There was a bit of a storm brewing in the local music scene over the next six months as bars were starting to cut back on live bands. We were all feeling the pinch, getting paid less, bars canceling jam nights and bars closing.
That’s when it happened, the Red Pepper closed down, leaving Mel Brown without a mid week gig. It only took a few weeks for the Flying Dog to fire us and Hire Mel on, something that I took pretty hard. I took it personal. I felt betrayed by Mel. I felt like I had lost a teacher, a mentor, my hero… I never attended another jam of Mels and never talked to Mel again.
I went on to get other regular gigs around town and played a couple times a year up north. I lost touch with Ian Taylor after a while. Life just got busy, I was going through a nasty separation, I was trying to get involved with a new love and new career. When Ian and I parted ways he had my Fender Twin silver face amp, that amp that we, and so many other young guitarists, cut out teeth on during those Red Pepper jam sessions. I think I sold it to him for a couple hundred bucks. I don’t know if he ever paid me. I don’t know that it mattered. My music career was taking a bit of a turn as other priorities crept up.
Years passed by, a few indie recordings, less and less work around town, gigs were hard to come by and a day job was demanding a lot of my time. I was also starting a new family with my new wife. Music was a hard fit in all of this and was more of a hobby that tended to cost more money then it made us. By 2003 I had officially left the band and retired from music all together. I never looked back.
Over the years I had kept an ear to the ground for any news on Mel. He was getting sick and playing less. My pride was healing by this point but with so much time passed I just didn’t feel it was right for me to be around Mel again. Surely he wouldn’t have remembered me, surely there were at least another dozen guitar kids come through his jams that he would have forgotten about me. Surely he didn’t need to hear from an ungrateful young prick with an over inflated view of his own self importance. I was quickly starting to come to grips with who had really betrayed who here.
Just a couple of years ago Buddy Guy came to town. My step dad and I went to see him. Near the end of the show, Buddy called up his old friend, Mel Brown. Mel was helped on stage with his oxygen tank and guitar and the audience at the packed Centre In The Square went wild and welcomed Mel with a standing ovation. Many have called it the most magical moment in the Centre’s history. My emotions and pride for this man were overwhelming. All these years I had avoided Mel because if my bruised, childish ego. It was then then I truly came to terms with the fact that it wasn’t Mel’s conscious decision to steal a gig out from under me. It was his livelihood, his business, his way of paying the bills… he was offered a gig and he took it. He never meant to hurt me, I am sure of it now.
Fast forward to March 20th, 2009 and Mel Browns passing after a 6 long years battling with emphysema. This news hit me hard, harder then I ever thought it would. I had lost a mentor, teacher and hero and had never once got the chance to show him how much he had meant to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on what he had done for me, a lot of time to reflect on where it all started, where it all went and a lot of time to look for the others who’s life Mel Brown had touched to help me make sense of it all.
The one guy I wanted to find most was Ian Taylor. I hadn’t seen Ian in over a decade now but I knew that somehow, getting in touch with Ian would bring all of this full circle for me and somehow make me feel like this is just how things are. It was Ian who helped me improve on guitar, Ian who helped me in the Battle of The Bands, Ian who made my songs sound better, Ian who brought me out to the Red Pepper and Ian who helped me connect with Mel Brown. I knew that finding Ian would somehow free me of my regrets… I didn’t find Ian.
On April 4, 2009, I attended the funeral of Mel Brown. I was emotional to say the least. The funeral consisted of a number of performances by some of Mel’s more treasured, more memorable protégés, all of whom were from the Pop the Gator to the Red Pepper days. There was Sean Kellerman, Steve Strongman and yes, Ian Taylor. The guys who stuck by Mel’s side through thick and thin, who cherished Mel at every turn, the guys who’s egos were in check at all times, they were the ones who got to play at Mel browns funeral. They all deserved to be there.
At the close of the ceremony I made my way down to the stage where many musician were gathering to talk about the man that had done so much for them all. I politely waited my turn to talk to Ian. After a decade or so he didn’t immediately recognize me (nor would I have recognized him if I hadn’t just seen him on stage) but after a brief mental search it all came back to him.
Ian and I exchanged hand shakes, hugs and and the usual awkward pleasantries after such a long absence. But Ian wasted no time, almost as though he was waiting for this moment, to show me something… at stage left, a few feet back from Mel Browns Super 400 and folding chair was my old Fender Twin silver face amp, assuming the same position it had all those years ago. It meant more to me then I could have let Ian know at the time. The emotions were too raw, the hurt too real and the pride to much to bare.
I couldn’t be on stage that day, I didn’t deserve to be on stage but somehow, my old amp being up there and the symbolism of it’s presence, let me know that it was all ok. It was closure. Somehow Ian Taylor managed to bring it all full circle for me.
From a 2002 indie recording with the Underhill Band, here is the song that got Mel Brown grooving back in ’96, Fishin’ On The Grand (©1996 Adam Merrifield).[audio:03_Fishin_On_The_Grand_1.mp3]