Dueting with Freddie King on the local Nashville R&B TV show The Beat.
Early publicity shots from Peacock Records.
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.