Remembering: Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
The late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown could be an ornery man. How ornery? When I talked to Brown in 1991, he was at work on an autobiography. Fair enough. But then he wouldn’t let a conversation get going.
What’s the lowest he’d been? It’s in the book. But “bad times depends on how you look at it,” Brown admitted, after some prodding. “Heartaches and heartbreaks. You don’t know where your next dollar is coming from. Wading through water, mud and oil.” He didn’t let things get him down, though. “I live a positive way of life,” Brown said. “All you got to do is believe in yourself and it all will work out.” He kept life simple. In fact, Brown, who lived near Slidell, Louisiana, had a world all of his own. “I can fish right off the porch,” he said. “It’s like a sanctuary for me.”
What was the best part? It was supposed to be in the book. OK, then, what about that book? Brown said a lot of people “tell yarns about Gate” — and he wanted to put some of those stories to bed. Maybe call it that? “Yarns about Gate?” No, he had a couple of titles in mind. Which were? Well, he didn’t want to say. His most memorable story? It was supposed to be in the book. “I’m gonna have what they call volumes one, two, three and four,” Brown said. He did say that. “I’m gonna keep writing,” he said, “‘til it’s over.”
Brown was certainly grumpy about new music, too. He said he didn’t like the way it was played. There are reasons. “They got two volumes: Loud and off. Because the louder the music is, the less you can understand the message,” Brown told me. “They’re covering up what they can’t do. … Everybody up there shaking their fanny.” His shows were different. Brown (in a deep, wide voice) stood there and introduced each one of the songs before he sang. He let people know what those songs meant to him, with his old guitar slung around his neck or a fiddle under his chin. “I always tell my audiences: Listen to the lyrics. You won’t go home with a blank mind,” he said. “Somebody will say ‘What’d he play?’ You won’t say ‘I don’t know.'”
It had always been that way. That’s because early on, as early as one of the first times Brown ever blew the house down — on stage during a T-Bone Walker show — he knew there was something missing. Gate never bought into the Robert Johnson myth — the bluesman doomed because of wine, women or the devil. “T-Bone believed in the blues. But blues, it’s a disastrous life,” he said. “Sooner or later you’re driving yourself six-feet under. I always wanted to do something beyond the blues.”
The records certainly bear that out, vinyl sides that snap and crackle along with Brown as he chicken-picks his way through a Cuisinart-y mixture of blues, bluegrass, jazz and zydeco.
Back to T-Bone: Walker had taken ill. It was 1947 and he was playing the Golden Peacock in Houston. All of a sudden, T-Bone dropped his guitar in the middle of a number. If you could call it that, this was Gate’s big break. He jumped out of his seat in the audience, picked up Walker’s guitar and started into “Gatemouth Boogie” — one of his own tunes. Story goes, that crowd threw $600 at his feet in 15 minutes.
The guy who owned the Peacock, Don Robey, liked what he saw. He hired Brown to play again and later became his manager. Soon, Robey also had him on the road and recording. After several early hits on Peacock — “Okie Dokie Stomp,” “Boogie Rambler,” “Dirty Work at the Crossroads,” among others — Brown moved to Nashville in the 1960s and recorded country albums for a few years. Then Brown took a break, did a few odd jobs — the oddest of which was a stint in New Mexico as a deputy sheriff. But Gatemouth couldn’t stay away long.
He began touring in Europe, eventually recording nine albums there. When he decided to move back to his native Louisiana, Gate found a new, younger American audience — kids who had been buying his import albums for years. “They like to reclaim you — recycle you, they say — after you’ve gotten famous somewheres else,” said Brown, who was born in Vinton. From there, Gate didn’t slowed down any. He toured for months at a time, even into the 21st century — though the book, the one he kept talking about, never got written. “It’s no other life for me,” he said. Just that simple.
Brown was a dirt-old positive-thinker who plays almost everything — guitar, fiddle, mandolin, viola and piano — but the most important part of Brown’s music, he said, was its message. Gate wasn’t afraid to say the world needs more of that kind of music, his music. “I just don’t like negative music. Begging or talking about bad women,” he said. “I like to help others. I’m not a religious man, mind you — but when you do good things for people, down the road it comes back to you.”
And you could bet Gate was on that road, right up until his passing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow to Louisiana. “There’s always somebody,” Brown said, “who hasn’t seen me.”
Those of us who did, well, we never forgot his greatness — or his great grouchiness.