GATEMOUTH - EAST TEXAS SULTAN OF SWING
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was never a "big" name, unless you wanted to get down to the real sound of Texas-Cajun blues, country, or swing. Brown was one of the few men to flawlessly blend these styles together. Brown never claimed he was a "bluesman" or a country player - all he wanted to do was play the music he loved and make a living. In fact, if he caught someone calling him a blues player, he would actually get pissed off about it.
In the end Gatemouth Brown got his wish, recording over 30 records and touring the world. In the mom & pop record stores of the previous era (before music mega stores and generic Clear Channel pop music) if you were looking for something deeper than Muddy Waters you'd probably get one of his records.
Brown was born just across the border in Vinton, Louisiana on April 18th, 1924. The family soon moved across the river to the hardscrabble community of Orange, Texas. By the time he took an interest in music the Great Depression was on. His father was a railroad worker and weekend musician, as were most of his brothers. From any early age Brown was taught by his brothers and fathers to play fiddle, guitar, and drums. The family could often be seen playing impromptu concerts on the streets of the "colored" district on the east side of Orange.
Drums would be the first instrument Brown would play professionally - in a local band called "The Gay Swingsters" (sounds kinda funny nowadays, doesn't it?), a popular Orange band in the early 40's. Before long, Clarence joined up with the Keyhole Club Orchestra in San Antonio.
In 1940 the 16 year old Brown hit the "Chitlin' Circuit" working professionally as a drummer. This continued until war was declared, when he joined the Army. After being discharged, Clarence found himself in Houston jamming at the Bronze Peacock with T-Bone Walker. During one jam session Walker fell ill and Brown took up Walker's guitar and played the "Gatemouth Boogie", an improvised boogie in E natural - the only one he later claimed he knew.
In attendance was Don Robey, owner of the Bronze Peacock, who was so impressed with Brown that he formed a record label just to record the young player. Robey went on to become Brown's manager and producer. Together they recorded "My Time Is Expensive", "Okie Dokie Stomp", and other songs that became instant regional hits.
After years of recording for Robey, tensions arose over financial compensation - when Brown asked for a royalty statement, Robey pulled a gun on Brown. In early 1962 Brown left Peacock recording and moved to Nashville to participate in the syndicated R&B show "The Beat" and later did episodes for the Hee-Haw television show. After this, there were no more bookings for Gatemouth, because he had allegedly been "blacklisted" by Robey.
In 1963 Brown retired from the music business and became the Sheriff of San Juan County, New Mexico. The remainder of the decade was spent in law enforcement. However, an explosion of interest in blues overseas brought Brown back to the limelight in '71 for tours of Europe. During much of the 1970's he toured continuously. Brown was even was named Ambassador for American Music by the State Department, and played many East African tours towards the end of the decade. The 1970's saw a flurry of recording by Brown, producing 8 albums in 9 years.
The early 80's had Brown recording a series of records for Rounder Records and Alligator, which led to the revitalization of his career in the United States - enabling him to play almost 300 dates a year and culminating in his 1982 Grammy for "Alright Again!". Brown had been nominated for a total of 6 that night.
The 90's brought Brown the coveted "W.C. Handy Award" - regarded as the Nobel Prize of blues music and winning the prestigious Grammy Heroes Award. Brown never slowed down, touring New Zealand, Central America, the former Soviet Union and others. The decade brought recognition to Brown and also established him as one of the greatest musicians of all time.
However, things turned for the worse, when in September 2004 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which combined with preexisting emphysema and heart disease gave him little chance of survival. Brown and his doctors decided to forgo treatment and he quietly retired to his home in Slidell, Louisiana. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Brown had to evacuated to his brother's home in Orange. Brown died there on September 10th, as result of the cancer and heart disease.
The course of Brown's career took him to many highs and lows - but somehow he was able to record over 35 albums, and ensure that his name and recordings would live on forever. Brown truly represented one of the most excellent of Texas great musicians.