Born on April 18, 1924, in Vinton, LA; died on September 10, 2005, in Orange, TX; married Geraldine Paris; married Mary Durbin; married Yvonne Ramsey; two children. Addresses: Record company--HighTone Records, 220 4th St., Ste. 101, Oakland, CA 94607, website: http://www.hightone.com, phone: (510) 763-8500, fax: (510) 763-8558.
For more than 50 years, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was an icon on the Texas music scene. His first recordings for Alladin in the late 1940s were pressed on 78 rpm records; his last recording for HighTone in 2004 was pressed on CDs. Brown recorded frequently, documenting most periods of his career, and toured incessantly, playing as many as 300 dates per year in the United States and abroad. Referred to as "the Count Basie of the blues," his expansive repertoire embraced bluegrass, zydeco, Cajun, and jazz, as well as the blues. "I don't want people to call me no blues player," Brown told Chris Morris in Billboard. "I'm an American musician."
Brown also gained a reputation for presenting a high-energy stage show, and for his combative personality that boasted of his own prowess as a musician. This same scrappy quality, however, gave his music the deep integrity of an artist who accepted no compromises. "A lot of people play music for the wrong reasons," Brown told Michael Corcoran in the Austin American-Statesman. "I never played to get women, though I had my share. I didn't do it for the money, though it pays the bills. I realized early on that I could create something beautiful that would build love within the people who came out to hear it."
Brown embarked on his lifelong calling in 1947. He was born on April 18, 1924, in Vinton, Louisiana, and grew up in Orange, Texas. His father, a railroad engineer, taught him to play fiddle, while his brothers taught him drums and guitar. Brown received his nickname from a music teacher who reportedly said that he had a "voice like a gate" (his brother, also a musician, would receive the nickname "wide mouth"). He cut his teeth in the music business as a drummer for both the Gay Swingsters and William Benbow's Brownskin Models. By 1947, however, Brown had hitchhiked to Houston to make his mark.
In Houston, Brown met entrepreneur Don Robey, the owner of a swanky local club called the Bronz Peacock. Brown won Robey's esteem when he filled in for an ailing T-Bone Walker one evening, a show that included an impromptu performance of "Gatemouth Boogie" (Brown later claimed that the newly penned song had earned him $600 in tips in 15 minutes). After cutting his first two 78s for the Alladin label, Brown began recording for Robey's Peacock label. Throughout the 1950s he recorded a number of classic sides for Peacock, including "Depression Blues," "Hurry Back Good News," and his signature piece, "Okie Dokie Stomp." While Robey concentrated on capturing Brown's guitar work in the beginning, he also recorded his fiddle work on "Just Before Dawn" in 1959.
Despite the artistic success of these recordings, and despite the influence Brown's work had on other guitarists, by the late 1950s he and Robey had severed relations. In Brown's version of the story, Robey answered his request for a royalty statement by pulling out a gun. London Guardian writer Tony Russell, however, suggested a less extreme scenario: "Brown did not have the drawing power of two of Robey's other acts, Junior Parker and Bobby 'Blue' Bland."
Brown believed that he had been blacklisted following his fallout with Robey, and subsequently worked and recorded infrequently during the 1960s. For part of the decade he worked as a deputy sheriff in San Juan County, New Mexico. Musically, Brown recorded a cover of "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" for Hermitage Records in 1965; in 1966 he served as the house bandleader on the innovative Dallas-based television series The!!!Beat.
During the early and mid-1970s, Brown re-ignited his career with a series of new recordings in both Europe and the United States. First he appeared at festivals and recorded in France. He returned to good critical graces with the release of Blackjack in 1976 and Makin' Music with Hee Haw alumni Roy Clark in 1979. "When Gate began to rebuild his career in the '70s, he was determined to do things his way," wrote Bill Dahl in All Music Guide. "Country, jazz, even calypso now played a prominent role in his concerts; he became as likely to launch into an old-time fiddle hoedown as a swinging guitar blues." By the early 1980s Brown had once again hit his stride, receiving a Grammy Award for Alright Again! in 1982.
While he was deeply loved by fans and bandmates, Brown's tenacious personality and tendency to brag occasionally offended others. When comparing himself to fellow blues-jazz guitarist T-Bone Walker, he noted that he was the more talented of the two. He also proudly noted his accomplishments to journalists. "I'm the one who did the big-band thing to start with, and a lot of people followed my trend," Brown told Morris. "Bob Wills, all them people, they come up with Texas swing, but it wasn't nothin' like what I was playin'."
In the 1990s, as in the early 1970s, Brown revitalized his career once again with new recordings and frequent tours. Between 1992 and 2003, Brown and his band played nearly 200 dates worldwide, and during that time he shared the stage with Carlos Santana, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, and Nile Rodgers. In 1995 Brown opened 62 shows for Eric Clapton. In 1997 Verve Records promoted Gate Swings, an album the company marketed to younger audiences currently entranced by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and other retro-swing bands. Brown continued to record into the new millennium, releasing Back to Bogalusa in 2001 and Timeless in 2004.
In the summer of 2004 Brown was diagnosed with cancer. When the doctors gave him a 15 percent chance of survival with chemotherapy, he chose to forego treatment. Despite being given only six months to live, Brown continued to maintain his performing schedule until February of 2005, a schedule that included an appearance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland at the beginning of the year. Even following his official retirement, however, he continued to make occasional appearances, including a memorable date at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 28, 2005. "He was a little slower getting out there," bandmate Joe Krown remembered in Sing Out!, "but he rose to the occasion and performed an emotionally charged, high energy set." Brown was forced to leave his home in Slidell, Louisiana, in August of 2005 after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and all of his belongings. He suffered a major heart attack on September 4, and died at his brother's house in Orange, Texas, on September 10.
On August 21, some three weeks before his death, Brown visited a club called the Maple Leaf to see an old bandmate perform. "He insisted that his caretaker bring him out to hear us play one more time," Krown recalled. "Music was everything to Gate and he refused to let go of it to the very end."
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Career
Worked with the Gay Swingsters and William Benbow's Brownskin Models, mid-1940s; recorded for Alladin, mid-to-late 1940s; recorded for Peacock, late 1940s-late 1950s; recorded "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" for Hermitage Records, 1965; served as band leader for The!!!Beat, 1966; released Blackjack, 1976, and Makin' Music with Hee Haw's Roy Clark, 1979; released Gate Swings, 1997, Back to Bogalusa, 2001, and Timeless, 2004.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's Awards
National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award, Best Traditional Blues Recording, for Alright Again!, 1982; eight-time recipient of W.C. Handy Blues Award; Rhythm & Blues Foundation, Pioneer Award, 1997; Inducted to Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Blackjack Medicine Is Medicine, 1975; Sugar Hill, 1997.
- (With Roy Clark) Makin' Music MCA, 1979; One Way, 1994.
- Alright Again! Rounder, 1982.
- Standing My Ground Alligator, 1989.
- The Original Peacock Recordings Rounder, 1990.
- Gate Swings Verve, 1997.
- Back to Bogalusa Blue Thumb, 2001.
- Timeless HighTone, 2004.
- Waters, Neil, editor, Music Hound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
- Austin American-Statesman, September 13, 2005, p. A1.
- Billboard, June 14, 1997, p. 11.
- Guardian (London, England), September 20, 2005, p. 32.
- Sing Out!, Winter 2006, p. 206.
- "Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (January 10, 2006).