Born April 18, 1924, in Vinton, LA; raised in Orange, TX; son of Clarence Brown (a railroad worker and musician) and Virginia Frank; wives included Geraldine Paris, Mary Durbin, and Yvonne Ramsey; two children. Addresses: Record company/management-- Alligator Records & Artist Management, Inc., Box 60234, Chicago, IL 60660.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown is unquestionably a master of the blues, yet he objects strenuously to being called a bluesman. "I'm a musician, " he insisted to Guitar Player interviewer Jas Obrecht, "not some dirty low-down bluesman. I play American and world music, Texas-style. I play a part of the past with the present and just a taste of the future." His refusal to limit himself may be the key to Brown's ability to produce fresh sounds even after more than a half century of touring and recording. In addition to traditional blues, his music encompasses zydeco, country and Texas blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, and swing; and it has been named a major influence on musicians as diverse as Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Guitar Slim, and Frank Zappa.
Growing up in east Texas, Brown's first and most important influence was his father, a Cajun singer who accompanied himself on accordion, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. By the age of five, "Gatemouth"--so nicknamed because of his big voice--had learned to play guitar, and within a few more years he had mastered the fiddle, piano, harmonica, and drums as well. He loved his father's lively music, along with that of swing bandleader and pianist Count Basie and proto-rhythm and bluesman Louis Jordan, but, he told Obrecht, "When I was a kid, I listened to very little blues because it made me feel sick inside. It just made me feel physically sick.... I wouldn't listen to that stuff. I didn't like it. It made me see disastrous things facing me."
By the time he was in his late teens, however, Brown had become attracted to the sophisticated electric blues of T-Bone Walker. He had been working as the "Singing Drummer" for a group called the Brown Skin Models, but he soon adopted the guitar as his primary instrument in imitation of his idol, Walker. Brown's big break came when he was 23 years old. Don Robey, owner of the most prestigious black nightclub in Texas, invited him to Houston. T-Bone Walker was playing Robey's club, the Bronze Peacock, but a serious ulcer forced him off the stage one night in the middle of a performance. Brown stepped in and "started playing every hot blues and boogie riff he knew," reported Geoffrey Himes in Down Beat. "By the end of the night, the whooping audience was stuffing money into his shirt and pants."
Robey negotiated a recording contract for Brown with Aladdin Records, a Los Angeles-based company, but before long he decided to form his own label, Peacock Records, with Gatemouth as his foundation artist. He signed the young musician to a 20-year contract. Their long association was beneficial to both Robey and Brown, but it also had its negative aspects. Between 1947 and 1960, Brown recorded more than 50 sides for Peacock; some, including "Dirty Work at the Crossroads," "Okie Dokie Stomp," and "Ain't That Dandy," became national hits and remain in the musician's repertoire today. Brown appreciated the exposure Robey won for him but chafed at his employer's lack of vision. Instead of letting his star play the jazz, country, and Cajun music he loved, Robey insisted that Brown record nothing but blues. Furthermore, Robey took credit for many of Brown's compositions, listing them under his own name or the pseudonym "D. Malone."
In 1964, Brown broke his ties with Robey and went to Europe, where he recorded for several French labels and performed at many prestigious music festivals and clubs. Returning to the United States, he was finally able to secure arrangements that would allow him to define his own music. While he has remained largely unknown to mainstream America, he commands the respect of the music world, which has honored him with several Handy Blues awards and a Grammy.
Though many young players look to him for inspiration, Brown carefully guards the secrets of his technique. He told Guitar Player' s Obrecht: "People ask, 'How do you do that?' I say, 'Magic.' When they say, 'Show me how to do that,' I say, 'I show no one nothing.' Years ago when I was playing along with my father, I said, 'Dad, how you do this?' He said, 'I'm not going to show you anything.' I said, 'How shall I learn?' He said, 'Pay attention.' It's as simple as that." He is more forthcoming, however, in urging musicians to rediscover dynamics. "Everything is so high volume," he complained to Obrecht. "Why play something so loud where it's going to tear you up inside? I've seen guys that was so loud, my stomach was hurting!"
Brown is unabashed in dispensing general advice to young musicians, counseling them to live a humble, clean, and affirmative life. He speaks out strongly against all drugs except marijuana, which, he told Obrecht, "don't really harm no one. Manmade chemicals--that's what's killing them. Alcohol is killing us. Whiskey is the most deadly drug on earth; it killed my third brother [James"Widemouth" Brown, who died in 1971].... Alcohol is one of the most devastating drugs there is. You get too many drinks and run out there and kill everybody, including yourself."
To Down Beat' s Himes, Brown lamented the ignorance of aspiring blues players who "go off stage and read about blues people who died of drugs and alcohol, so they figure they have to live that same kind of life. The blues should be a healing music. That's why people don't get into my band unless they're willing to play positive music. That means being disciplined, free of alcohol and drugs, and not too much womanizing. When you're on the bandstand working, that's all you're doing. You don't come into my band expecting to be a star. You learn to back off and give everybody a chance."
Asked by Himes about the secret to his longevity and creativity, Brown replied, "It's a big world, and I try to look at all kinds of music; I even try to look at a lot of things beyond music--at kids, millionaires, the frustrations of the world. People ask me what I did to survive so long, and I say, 'I grew like a child.' I refused to do the same thing and kept growing and changing."
by Joan Goldsworthy
Clarence Brown's Career
Learned to play guitar, 1929, violin, 1934; worked on father's ranch, Orange, TX, 1930s; drummer for Brown Skin Models, early 1940s; recorded for Aladdin Records, late 1940s, Peacock Records, 1947-1964; recorded for Cue, Cinderella, Pam, Chess, and Heritage labels, mid-late 1960s, for French labels Black and Blue, Barclay, and Blue Star, 1970s, for Rounder Records, early 1980s, and for Alligator Records, 1990s; appeared at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1973, Newport Jazz Festival, 1973, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1974, 1976-77, and Monterey Jazz Festival; toured for U.S. Department of State in Africa, 1976. Worked as deputy sheriff, Farmington (San Juan County), New Mexico, mid-1970s. Military service: Served with Army Corps of Engineers, 1946.
Clarence Brown's Awards
Several Handy Blues awards; Grammy Award, 1982, for Alright Again.
- Selective Works
- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown Sings Louis Jordan Black and Blue, 1974.
- Gate's on the Heat Barclay, 1975.
- Down South in Bayou Country Barclay, 1975.
- Bogalusa Boogie Man Barclay, 1976.
- (With Roy Clark) Makin' Music MCA, 1979.
- San Antonio Ballbuster Charly, 1979.
- Alright Again Rounder, 1982.
- No Looking Back Alligator, 1992.
- Also recorded The Nashville Session, 1965 Chess; Blackjack Music Is Medicine; One More Mile Rounder; The Original Peacock Recordings Rounder; Texas Swing Rounder; Real Life Rounder; Pressure Cooker Alligator; and Standing My Ground Alligator.
- Blues Unlimited (U.K.), June 1972.
- Down Beat, May 1990; April 1992.
- Guitar Player, March 1993.
- High Fidelity, May 1988.
- Journal of American Folklore, July/September 1989.
- Living Blues, Summer 1972.
- Pulse!, June 1992.
- Spin, August 1992.