Clarence Gatemouth Brown

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, with some sharp creased trousers.

Early publicity shots from Peacock Records.

Dueting with Freddie King on the local Nashville R&B TV show The Beat.

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, born April 18, 1924 in Vinton, Louisiana, was raised in Orange, Texas and had a long and varied career. His main instruments were guitar and violin (although he started his career as a drummer in San Antonio), played and sang in blues and R&B bands, led a large swing group, cut country records (including some with Roy Clark), jazz sides which ranged from swinging Basie like charts to setting himself against the fusion of the Dixie Dregs type later in his career, even recorded some traditional Cajun styled things, playing his fiddle in the style of a west Louisiana Frenchman. The most interesting and influential part of his recorded body of work were his earliest sides done for the Houston based Peacock Records, owned by “Diamond” Don Robey, a Black-Jewish gangster who’s story shall be a subject of a later blog.
Brown was influenced by T-Bone Walker, the first recorded electric blues guitarist, and taking Walker’s fluid, jazz like, single string riffs as a template created an explosive style that would influence and become the bridge between Walker’s more urbane style and the more primitive, violent style of players like Guitar Slim (who used Brown’s Boogie Rambler as his theme song),
Johnny Guitar Watson, Albert Collins, Earl King, and dozens of others, known and unknown.
Having started out as a fiddle player, he played in an unusual style, rarely using his first finger,
instead using a capo and fingering like a violin player, which made his style nearly impossible to duplicate exactly. It was incredibly effective and his earliest Peacock sides which find him set against a swinging horn based R&B band were jukebox hits across the south and still sound great today. He recorded for Robey from 1949-1959, and although he had no national hits, he had some good local sellers and was a huge club draw throughout the south. Some of my favorites are the aforementioned Boogie Rambler, Boogie Uproar, Gatemouth Boogie, Midnight Hour, That’s Your Daddy Yaddy Yo, Dirty Work At The Crossroads, Atomic Energy, Gate Walks The Board, Okie Dokie Stomp, My Time’s Expensive, She Walks Right In, the extremely rare two sided beer commercial Pale Dry Boogie pts 1 and 2, and, the only of his Peacock sides to feature his bluesy violin playing– Just Before Dawn. The influence of these discs cannot be understated, nor can the fact that nothing about these discs sound dated, his guitar playing was never cliched or dull. He captured the jolting sound of the joy of discovering the capabilities of the electric instrument like few other guitarists ever have. His playing had convulsive bursts of energy alternating with jazzy, urbane phrases that keep the listener constantly on edge. They must have sounded great on those old 78 jukeboxes in the bars and roadhouses of the Gulf Coast.
Gatemouth Brown left Peacock in 1959 and spent some time in Nashville, leading the house band on the local TV show The Beat for famed R&B/Gopel DJ Hoss Allen (DVD’s of that incredible show are available from Bear Family and can be seen all over Youtube), appeared on Hee Haw, cut records in all the aforementioned styles for a dozen labels, and at one point in the late 60’s gave up music to become the sheriff of some town in New Mexico where he had resettled.
The way of the badge was not for Brown however and he returned to music, eventually rebuilding his career as an international blues and jazz star (his audience was mostly in Europe and Japan of course, although he maintained a steady schedule of blues festival and club appearances coast to coast), and played incredible guitar and fiddle no matter what the setting. The last few times I saw him live, the best part of the set was when he’d send the band offstage and play incredibly wild solo guitar numbers that sound like nothing he ever put on wax. I wish I could find the interview I read with him in some guitar magazine in the early 90’s where he talks about why he hates modern blues guitar players so I could get the quote right, but Brown had little use for the cliched blues bores that emerged like a bad outbreak of acne across the face of the music world from the late 60’s on. Some folks like his later recordings for Rounder, Alligator and Hi-Tone, and while I admit, he always played great, these discs are not nearly as interesting to me as his first, seminal sides for Peacock. These later discs (and re-issues of his Peacock years) are easy enough to find, and are usually inexpensive, every record store with a used blues bin will have a good selection of them. In his final three decades he toured the world continuously, and eventually, as a life long smoker who suffered from emphysema and a couple of heart attacks, he died of lung cancer in 2005. His final days were not good, he had settled in Slidell, a suburb of New Orleans (whose cheerleaders’ slutty uniforms always liven up the Mardis Gras parade), and had his home destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Evacuated back to Orange, Texas where he had started out, he died there a week and a half later (September 10, 2005) and that’s were his body is buried today. I’m not going to feel guilty about posting a few tunes, Don Robey never paid anyone a nickel in royalties, and he put his name as songwriter on most of the discs he released. I’ve got to get to work on that story, just the things Andre Williams told me about Robey could fill a book. But Clarence Gatemouth Brown, now there was a hell of a guitar player.

14 thoughts on “Clarence Gatemouth Brown”

  1. Gatemouth lives-glad I got to hear him play several times-the original black cowboy-thanks for the music- SEAN

  2. Excellent post you are always right on the money with the artists who never got the attention fame or money they should have .Gatemouth had a unique handle on the blues in fact all facets of american roots music.keep up the great work Hound .regards brujo

  3. I had no idea Robey was part Jewish. Fresh Air still has a piece of mine on one of his artists in the can because they're afraid to air it since I referred to him as a “gangsta.” Sheesh.

  4. One of my absolute favorite guitar players. The Peacock sides are the best. I have to say, I always thought it was a drag when he insisted on playing fiddle or harmonica to show how well-rounded his musicianship was — not nearly as exciting as his guitar playing. One other thing: I love your title “Daddy's Yo-Yo,'' but if it's the same song I have (link's broken on my mac) it's called Daddy Yaddo Yo. I always wondered if that was some kind of New Orleans bastardization of “derriere,'' — “I'm gonna whup your daddy yaddo yo.'' If you say it fast, it sounds like it, anyhow….

  5. You touch on a topic here (and in the recent Roy Buchanan post) that is near and dear to my heart: the incredibly narrow and boring concept of “blues” that dominates the current American scene. I live in a town full of old hippies and occasionally try to jam with these guys and it is nothing but “Crossroads” and “Sweet Home Chicago” and songs that sound just like them over and over, same tempo, same licks, etc. I'll give some of these guys practice comps with “I'm goin' Upstairs” by John Lee Hooker, “Dancin' Whippersnapper” with that killer Lonnie Brooks riff, or “Aztec” by Bo Diddley, or “Cuban Getaway” by Ike Turner and they never heard any of it. Same goes for Steve Cropper's stuff (expect for “Soul Man”). I whipped out “Left Over Love” by Mable John with Cropper the other day and a guy who had been playing blues bars for 40 years asked me “where has this stuff been my whole life”? Next week I give him everything I have by Lowman Pauling. How do you think this happened? What factors created this dull, dead-end, safe, self-regarding canon? Might make for an interesting post. . .

  6. Great post per usual, Hound… Gatemouth was a true original – no one else sounded even remotely like him. I'll never forget a gig he played in Columbus. A surly drunk was sitting in front of me, throwing ice cubes at someone across the room. Gatemouth was playing one of his blazing swing tunes, and right in the middle of the song he stopped, calmly put his guitar down, walked to the table, grabbed the guy by the scruff of his neck, dragged him through the bar and threw him out the front door. Then he calmly walked back on stage and picked up right where he left off… Amazing!

  7. Had the pleasure of spending an hour or so with Gatemouth during the fabulous (and, sadly, now-defunct) Frog Island Music Festival back in Ypsilanti, Michigan back in the early 1990s. He was acerbic, funny, charming and definitely didn't suffer fools gladly. In other words, he became my hero even before he started trash talking Michelle Shocked.Thanks, Hound!

  8. ” One other thing: I love your title “Daddy's Yo-Yo,'' but if it's the same song I have (link's broken on my mac) it's called Daddy Yaddo Yo. “Actually, it was my typo, I've been sick for two days so it never got fixed.

  9. Hound pleeze don't get sick – we po' musical cretins are counting on you for the wisdom, the power, and the insight. Didn't Don Robey convert to Judaism in order to marry into his wife's wealthy family ? If he was as bad of a character as he seems, I bet HE held a knife to the Mohel . . .

  10. Hound, I'm confused. You write that he died of lung cancer in 2004, then that he died in Orange, Texas on Sept 10, 2005. As good as Gatemouth was, could he pull that off?

  11. Hound, I'm confused. You write that he died of lung cancer in 2004, then that he died in Orange, Texas on Sept 10, 2005. As good as Gatemouth was, could he pull that off?first date was a typo, one hand is in a cast…..

  12. Gate was a great one. He played at my house in Upper Saddle River, N.J. with Vassar Clements in 1985. As arrogant as Gatemouth was he was still one of the greatest musicians I had the pleasure to see live. Got to see him in Maplewood, N.J. just before he was diagnosed with cancer.

  13. I saw him as a kid in the late '70s. He was a last minute replacement for the Houston Philharmonic at some summer fest outdoor concert. Absolutely blistering show.

Spit it out, partner...

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