All Gabriels know who
they are and where
they came from; they
know Gabriel tradition and they are
proud of the Gabriel name. We are
teaching our children about who we
are and where we came from so that
they can be a part of the tradition
and can keep the ball rolling.
Aug. 5, 1944-Jan. 30, 1993
I remember one night Daddy sat pointing to his heart with a pleading look in his eyes. He was trying to make me understand something that was important to him — something that mere words could not convey.
It was about music. The kind of music that he‘d spent most of his life making, the kind of music that defined him, his father, his grandfather and much of our family.
Lou Rawls' "Dead End Street" was on the record player. We were in the basement where Daddy kept his stack of old jazz and blues records. It was music that I didn't much appreciate at the time. Neither did most people I knew. We listened to Motown and rock and roll on the radio, danced to it at parties and in our living rooms.
He was trying to explain to me something of what that song meant to him. What all music that moved him was about. He'd had a couple of drinks, and his eyes glistened as he earnestly tried to convey meaning through his gestures.
"This music has heart," he said, tapping his chest for emphasis. "A good song tells a story."
That night made an impression on me. I remember it decades later. It was a lesson I eventually learned for myself as a professional writer. Regardless of the form, a great story makes great art.
Daddy had plenty of great stories and he told them whether you wanted to listen or not. In any group, you could hear his deep, raspy voice spinning tales about his childhood in New Orleans, his life as a musician on the road, the things he'd seen and done. He would light up a cigarette, take a shot of scotch and settle down to talk your ear off. He could intoxicate you with his talk. His tales could suck in an entire roomful of people and carry them away.
He couldn't help but tell stories. One way or the other, he was always performing whether he was onstage or not. It exasperated Mama to no end. Esther Morse had been hearing Percy Gabriel's stories since she was a teenager being courted, before she was 19-years-old bride in 1942. But Daddy's childlike joy in being the center of attention was unending. He set the tone for what was going on. He was a musician, an entertainer, and it was his job to entrance an audience. Onstage he'd try out selections from all those songs he knew until he figured out what this specific audience would respond to. Then he would lock onto that energy and never waver for the night.
"Once you get them dancing, don't change the beat," he always told me. That's a pretty good piece of advice.
Daddy told stories, and because of him, I can tell his story, and the story of my grandfather and great-grandfather, my uncles and cousins, all of them part of this great musical continuum that defines our family. It's a story woven into the fabric of popular black American music.
Daddy could sing the blues. Not the rough stuff that came out of the Mississippi Delta and got electrified in Chicago. New Orleans musicians referred to that as primitive blues. I'm talking about the sophisticated city blues. The kind of stuff Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing crooned, blues reaching far beyond 12 bars and three chords. Blues that rolled off his tongue thick and sweet like honey and lemon — the homespun sweet-and-bitter remedy Mama would make when we had colds.
New Orleans blues is a thing of subtlety, a way of finding infinite variations on an inbred set of chords that echo each other's notes. The kind of stuff Buddy Bolden did to become the first great jazz improviser — riffing moodily around a tonal center. Timeless blues that serenade softly as the sunrise sifts through the curtains at the end of a long night.
The blues was Daddy's ethos. He drew his life view from the music even though he was a good Catholic family man whose kids attended church every Sunday and Catholic school all week. That's very well and good, but there are other things in life to learn about when you're grown and ready.
My earliest concept of Daddy's music was that it was a job, something he went out to do for money. His instrument was his tool, and us kids knew better than to touch it. I seldom saw or heard much of that music around the house. He had a big, brown, imposing bass fiddle that sat in the corner of the living room behind a stuffed chair. That bass would supplement the wages he earned working on the assembly line at the Ford River Rouge Plant. It meant that during layoffs or strikes we didn't have to go on welfare to keep eight kids fed. He was proud of that.
And even when working regularly, he had something to live for beyond the dirt and din of the auto factory. There was something inside that said: I am more than a slave to the machine. ... I'm a slave to the rhythm.
Daddy wasn't the only one playing music in our family. I had uncles and cousins who were musicians — lots of them. There was something about being musicians from New Orleans that gave the family a sense of pride that lifted us up. We were not just a bunch of factory rats like most of the families that had migrated north to work in Detroit's auto industry. We were musicians — part of the fabric of cultural life. Daddy knew that, even though he didn't have much formal schooling and couldn't express it in fancy talk.
Around our house, people I later learned were music legends were just people to me. The singer Al Hibbler was some blind guy Daddy brought home for dinner one day. Hibbler sang with Duke Ellington for eight years and had a Number 3 hit in 1956 with the first popular vocal version of "Unchained Melody" — a song since recorded more than 500 times.
New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin, who wrote the anthem "Bourbon Street Parade," was a friend of the family. We kids called him Uncle Paul and his wife was Aunt Oneal. They weren't blood relatives but good friends of our parents. Uncle Paul was my big brother's parain (godfather). Mom and Aunt Oneal became close while traveling together on the road with their husbands in the 1940s and maintained a lifelong friendship. In 1965 we spent a week at the Barbarin cottage in Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico as a side trip from New Orleans. That was the first time I ever felt I needed to act black in order to remain safe. There were actually signs on things designating them as white only or colored only. Being from up North, I'd heard of such things but had never seen them with my own eyes.
I didn't understand that I was among great musicians. Daddy's music was old-time. We kids grew up on the modern sound of Detroit. Our lives were lived with music by the Marvelettes, the Miracles, the Temptations and the Supremes.
Daddy scoffed at that music. In the late 1950s when Motown was coming together he had opportunities to work with the label, but they weren't paying union wages.
"They called me over to their studio but they weren't talking money," Daddy told me. "Fellas were working for $5 per side."
Daddy was a union man, and as far as he was concerned music jobs came with union contracts paying union scale.
Music jobs also came with perks that we kids appreciated. It wasn't unusual to be awakened at two or three in the morning to partake of a culinary feast of leftovers from some affair Daddy had played. We had corned beef sandwiches, duck pâté, oysters Rockefeller, and fancy pastries — stuff that came from the dreamland of Daddy's music jobs somewhere out there. If there was nothing to bring home from the job, Daddy might pick up a sack of hamburgers and wake us up at 3 a.m. for a little snack. You had to eat them while they were still warm.
For years we received a holiday package from some politician. Daddy met him on a music job, and we ended up on the politician's holiday gift list. We got packages with little jars of gourmet jellies and preserves, nuts, cheeses and pickles. Mama loved that little bit of elegance beyond our day-to-day means that arrived each year.
And there were the packages we'd get from home — which meant New Orleans even though my younger siblings and I were born in Detroit — with Gulf crabs and shrimp packed in ice, bags of powerful chicory-laced coffee and filé, a spice hard to find in Detroit, for Mama's savory gumbo.
Mama cooked things other mothers didn't — gumbo, dirty rice, bread pudding, jambalaya and pralines. Foods considered exotic these days were the basics when I was growing up.
When I was older, sometimes Daddy and I traveled together. He would drive me off to college or we'd take a trip to New Orleans. As the road unfurled beneath us he would really let loose reminiscing about his days on the road with Danny Barker or Jay McShann. It seemed like Daddy had been everywhere in these United States.
He could exaggerate at times. Mama, Esther Gabriel, used to say, "Percy, you put yeast in everything." But I have found some of the things I considered his biggest fibs turned out to be true. Places he'd been, things he'd done, people he'd played with. Daddy said that he'd played with Jimmy Witherspoon and Sidney Bechet, that my uncle played with Bessie Smith and my cousin played with Fats Domino. He bragged that our family was known around the world.
My attitude to these statements when they'd slip out matter-of-factly in conversations was, "Yeah, right."
It was all true.
One time in the mid 1970s I took my sister Joyce to see a rock and roll revival film for her birthday. Little Richard was the big attraction for her, Chuck Berry for me. Sitting in the theater's darkness we saw Fats Domino come bumping his piano across the stage. When the camera panned across the horn section, I was surprised to see my cousin Clarence Ford on saxophone, blowing classic rhythm and blues riffs from the music's roots.
When I came home bubbling with the news, Daddy's attitude was a blasé "I told you so."
It was around then that I was becoming aware of the great musical tradition we were a part of. Some time during high school I went to a John
Lee Hooker show at a coffee house. Daddy laughed and said that he'd played with Hooker and the blues man wasn't much of a musician. As it turned out a few of my relatives had performed with Hooker. Again it was that sophisticated city blues versus the primitive country blues attitude.
I went to Michigan State University and fell in with a jazz-loving crowd. During our late nights listening to music and talking, I started hearing names of musicians pop up that I'd heard from Daddy. Musicians he'd hung out and played with. My friends were in awe of these musicians. Suddenly I was in awe of my own father.
Around the same time my saxophonist cousin Charles Gabriel had a similar awakening. He was in Nice, France, while on tour with Aretha Franklin. A French music writer with an expertise in New Orleans music shocked Charlie by recognizing his playing style and even knew of some of our relatives.
"That's when I first realized our family had something special," Charlie told me.
That blind man scared me,
Trying to feel my head with them
Big old knobby fingers
Like he was a psychic feeling for bumps
To tell my fortune.
Mama just laughed and fed him
In the kitchen with everyone else.
There wasn't anything deep about it.
Daddy said that man sang the blues.
Shit, with hands like that
I'd have sung the blues too.
Uncle Paul took us
To his cottage in Mississippi,
Where I saw segregation
For the first time — the colored
Entrance at the back of the store.
I didn’t know the man played jazz.
He took us kids crabbing
On the Gulf of Mexico,
Bought us soda pop and potato chips.
That night we had a boiled crab party.
The grownups sipped beer
And chatted on the screen porch.
Aunt Oneal didn't believe
That I spotted a big snake
In the back of their yard
Until the blue racer
Raised its solemn head
Above the weeds.
I was born in the
Chinese year of the snake.
I knew what I was talking about.
This was out in the country,
A long way from Bourbon Street.
No parades went past there.