With Gordon Clement, what you see isn’t exactly what you get.
Born in New Hampshire to a mother with roots going back more than 10 generations to Rhode Island and a father from Scotland, Clement’s family line seems exclusively to trace back to Europe and America.
Given that, the longtime Cherokee County resident might not fit the definition of a member of a mariachi band, but oddly enough, that fact hasn’t stopped him from singing traditional Mexican music for a solid 70 years.
Last Sunday night, Clement, better known as “the Gringo Mariachi,” did the same thing he does every Sunday night; he donned his charro suit and sombrero and belted out lead vocals for the mariachi band at La Parrilla in Alpharetta.
That night, though, was different than most Sundays. It was Clement’s 84th birthday and he also chose the evening to celebrate his entry into his seventh decade of singing mariachi music.
“It was fabulous,” said Clement, a former court translator in Fulton County. “We had a table for 16 people there. It was special.”
Like all Sunday nights, the first song Clement sang during his last mariachi show was “Cocula,” a traditional tune about Cocula, Jalisco, which is credited with being the birthplace of mariachi music.
That song is always Clement’s opener, because more than 70 years ago, it was the first traditional Mexican song he sang.
Clement first sang mariachi in the early 1940s after he and his family moved to Mexico City, where his father had bought a factory.
“The rest of the family weren’t really in love with Mexico,” he said. “(But) I really took to Mexico.”
He also fell in love instantly with the music he heard playing at the Plaza Garibaldi square in Mexico City. According to Clement, Plaza Garibaldi is the place to go to hear mariachi music in Mexico City, with dozens of players gathering in song at any moment or another.
After he first visited there, Clement said he sat down and learned the song that stuck out to him most, “Cocula.” The next time he went to the plaza, a mariachi singer named Jorge Negrete happened to be doing a rendition of the song and let young Clement join in.
“I just got a big kick out of it,” he said.
Seventy years later, Clement said he has accepted his pseudonym, “The Gringo Mariachi,” and he’s still getting a kick out of joining in with his fellow mariachis, even if he gets stares for being the only American in the bunch.
“Mexicans are shocked to see an American gringo sing with mariachi,” he said. “And Americans are shocked, because they never knew there was one. They look at me with their mouths open.”
But Clement’s wife of 34 years, Lynda Clement, said he always seems to fit right in.
“I don’t speak any Spanish,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if he knows it better than he knows English.”