On 1956, Gabriel Perrodin, a native Bellevue, Louisiana, musician, traveled to Lake Charles to make a recording at Eddie Shuler’s Lake Charles studio.
When the session didn’t come off as planned, Perrodin stopped by J.D. Miller’s studio in Crowley to see if Miller was interested in recording the band. Miller acquiesced, and that day Perrodin recorded a catchy instrumental with a rhumba-flavored beat. Miller heard a hit, christened Perrodin as “Guitar Gable,” and “Congo Mombo” became Perrodin’s first hit for the seminal Excello label.
Fast forward to 1998. In an April issue of Rolling Stone, an advertisement (funded by RJ Reynolds Tobacco) for the Maker Relief Foundation peers out from the magazine’s pages, showing an imposing, stocky man with a guitar on his lap. The copy reads: “It’s hard to imagine, but at one time there were three artists who claimed to be the original ‘Guitar Gable’ who recorded Congo Mombo in the 50s. But who could argue with Thomas Gable? Certainly no one can play like him…”
The man in the picture is not Gabriel Perrodin. For over 20 years, Thomas Gable has been living in various parts of America, playing “Congo Mombo” at his shows, and telling people he is the “Guitar Gable” who recorded for Excello Records.
Clarence “Jockey” Etienne, who played drums on the original session for “Congo Mombo” (and other Excello sides) and now plays with the Creole Zydeco Farmers, remembers the genesis of “Congo Mombo.”
“We were in New Iberia, and I just started banging on the thing, and Gable said, keep that up. I just kept playing, and that’s what he came up with, that melody. At Miller’s, we were doing some sessions there, but Miller didn’t have any drums. As a matter of fact, I “‘as’, the first one to bring a set of drums in there. You had to hit the backbeat on some big boxes. We started playing that in the studio, so that’s how he’ came up with [“Congo Mombo”].”
Etienne was on tour in the late ’80s when he had a strange conversation with a fan that stayed with him. “Some guy said, ‘Didn’t you play with Guitar Gable” I said yes, and he said, ‘I seen him the other day.’ I asked where, and he said San Francisco. I told him I doubt that, because Gable had just had back surgery, you know? So it just slipped my mind for a while, then I said, let me call Gable. He wasn’t in San Francisco. So I told him there was some guy in San Francisco impersonating him. Here we did the work, and they’re out there collecting the money.”
Baltimore, San Francisco and North Carolina arc a few of the places that Thomas Gable has perpetuated his Guitar Gable fable. As recently as 1997, Thomas Gable told a writer for the Charlotte Observer that he wrote “Congo Mombo,” and was responsible for the signature Excello swamp-guitar sound. His claims were’ convincing enough to earn him royalty checks from AV, who controlled the Excello catalog in the mid-90s before it was purchased by MCA. Thomas Gable had been able to maintain this assumed identity partly because, in 1980, Gabriel Perrodin retired from the South Louisiana music scene.
“My instinct to play was dead,” says Perrodin. “I was working at Montgomery Ward – I’d worked for them for ten years – and I was playing music and repairing televisions. I was doing too many things at one time, and there was too much pressure. I didn’t have enough time off to relax with my family and children. I parked my guitar under the bed for 15 years, and I wouldn’t mess with it.”
Perrodin’s weariness was understandable; after his first success with “Congo Mombo,” he never slowed down. With his singing bandmate King Karl, they recorded the swamp-pop classic “Irene” (the song’s melody line is often cited as the inspiration for Jimmy Clanton’s million-seller “Just a Dream”) and the original version of the Rod Bernard hit “This Should Go On Forever.” His services were also utilized on a host of Excello sessions for Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, Classie Ballou, and Warren Storm. When the Excello hits dried up they jumped to the La Louisianne label, though Perrodin’s musical career was temporarily sidelined in the early ’60s for army duty in Europe. When he returned, Gable and Karl reformed their band the Musical Kings, later disbanding for good in 1968.
Gable continued to perform, with the popular rhythm and blues band the Outkasts in the early ’70s, as well as zydeco accordionist Lynn August, later he took over the guitar slot for LiI’ Bob and the Lollipops (of “I Got Loaded” fame) at the end of the decade. By 1980, he. had burned his candle to the nub at both ends, and stopped performing.
But contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wisdom, some lives do have second acts. Lafayette guitarist C.C. Adcock had long been taken with the inventive guitar sounds heard on the Excello Guitar Gable singles, and called Perrodin out of the blue.
“We talked for a while, and then he said he was going to come over and play some guitar with me soon,” Perrodin remembers. “I didn’t think much about it, but sure enough, he was here about a month later.”
Adcock convinced Perrodin to resurrect his guitar from its resting place under the bed, and the two men formed a musical and personal bond.
“On all his records, Gable wasn’t just making his solos up,” says Adcock. “Everything is carefully thought out. He’d take the melody line and really craft it into something cool, like the solos on all the classic Fats Domino stuff.”
With Adcock’s encouragement, Perrodin returned to the stage in 1995, reuniting with King Karl at Lafayette’s Festival lnternationale. “That big crowd scared me, but C.C. and Pandy helped me,” says Perrodin.
“I came on and played that first number and got through ‘Congo Mambo’ and was all right after that. When they cheered us so much, that made me know that I still had something that they liked, and it made me want to come back.”
The band began playing a select number of performances, including gigs at Lafayette’s Grant St., the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, and in 1996, Gable and Karl made a trek to Austin, Texas, playing famed blues mecca Antone’s. That show earned them a slot on the Austin Chronicle’s list of the Top 10 musical events of the year.
“I got a kick out of seeing our names in lights on that big old sign outside – I’d never seen that before,” says Perrodin “’It was like the Apollo Theater, and was a real thrill”.
With Perrodin rekindling the fire of his youth and eager to reestablish his rightful place in the Louisiana music-history books, Thomas Gable’s claims of being the “original” Guitar Gable have been unsettling to Perrodin. What no one expected, however, was the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s role in perpetuating Thomas Gable’s years of prevarication.
Founded by musician/folklorist Tim Duffy, the North Carolina-based organization has been a savior to dozens of unrecognized and often impoverished blues artist throughout the South Music Maker has garnered the support of such luminaries as B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal, and assists bluesmen and blueswomen by supplying them with what they need most desperately, whether that’s dental work, firewood, groceries or a new guitar.
Penny Zamagni, a North Carolina-based musician and writer; brought Thomas Gable to Duffy’s attention. After seeing the Charlotte Observer article, Zagmani and her husband visited Gable who continued to ply his story of being the Guitar Gable of Excello Records and “Congo Mombo” renown. Zamangi discovered otherwise, and wrote of Gable’s folly in the December/January 1998 issue of Real Blues.
The rub here is the fact that Thomas Gable is now a man in winter, sidelined by a stroke and heart attack. Even if he wanted to continue his assertion that he is “Guitar Gable” and tried to capitalize on it through shows and recordings, his health will not let him.
Perhaps that sentiment is what makes Music Maker’s Tim Duffy unapologetic about Thomas Gable’s inclusion in the expansive and expensive advertising campaign tying Music Maker to Winston cigarettes. (Ads for Music Maker have appeared in national media outlets such as People and Entertainment Weekly).
When Music Maker previewed their national tour (which ends this month) featuring the foundation’s artists in New Orleans last October at Tipitina’s, they held a preview show in New Orleans at Tipitina’s, and Duffy seemed nonplussed by who was the “real” Guitar Gable.
Citing the storied history of blues impersonators, including Earl King filling in for Guitar Slim for performances, Duffy defended Thomas Gable that night, and said that Gabriel Perrodin should be grateful for any revived interest in his career that the ad campaign fostered. He also told Perrodin’s attorney that he wanted to see Perrodin play live, and was interested in taking pictures of Perrodin, for possible future use. Neither of those things, has happened, and to date, Perrodin has been paid merely lip service from the Music Maker Relief Foundation, and RJ Reynolds Tobacco, who paid the artists featured in the ad campaign.]
That lack of recognition, or any acknowledgment of Gabriel Perrodin’s accomplishments, is what hurts him the most. “Why didn’t they do the research?” he asks. “If they heard some rumors, why didn’t they check out'”
That’s a question yet to be answered. Because contrary to the carefully worded legalese that accompanied the Thomas Gable Music Maker advertisement, there is no doubt as to who is the real Guitar Gable. And the proof isn’t just in the testimony of Gabriel Perrodin’s peers from the South Louisiana community. In. Perrodin’s possession is the original songwriting contract from Excello for “Congo Mombo,” dated June 1956, clearly stating that Gabriel Perrodin co-owns fifty percent of the song’s publishing (J.D. Miller, is credited with the other fifty percent.) The signed agreement was also witnessed and signed by Leslie Johnson (a.k.a. Lazy Lester).
Ultimately, it’s sad that Perrodin’s detractors feel the issue is moot, a mountain being made out of a molehill built over four decades ago. But nothing could be further from the truth. When the day is over, a man has two things that no one can take away from him: his integrity, and his name.
Gabriel “Guitar Gable” Perrodin’s integrity has never been questioned. Now he wants his name back.