Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, perhaps the most versatile of all blues-based musicians, died Saturday at age eighty-one of complications from lung cancer and heart disease. A longtime resident of Slidell, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans, the Blues Foundation Hall of Famer recently lost his home to Hurricane Katrina and had been preparing to relocate to Austin.
A multi-instrumentalist who played fiddle, mandolin, viola, drums, piano and harmonica in addition to guitar, Brown was a master of many genres: big-band blues, bop, country, Cajun, even calypso — what he called “American Music, Texas Style.” A youthful disciple of T-Bone Walker, Brown’s own ferocious, exceedingly confident style would inspire a wide cross-section of followers, from Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Frank Zappa. “I’m so unorthodox,” he once said, “a lot of people can’t handle it.”
Brown was born April 18, 1924, in Vinton, Louisiana, and raised from infancy in Orange, Texas. He learned to play fiddle and guitar through his father, a railroad man and moonlighting musician who specialized in country and Cajun music. Brown earned his nickname in high school when a teacher accused him of having a “voice like a gate”; a brother, James “Widemouth” Brown, later had a brief recording career of his own. Brown played drums in a touring band before joining the Army. After the service, he found work as a guitar player in San Antonio and was soon brought to Houston by the nightclub owner Don Robey. As blues legend has it, Brown made $600 in tips in one night in 1947 at Robey’s club, the Peacock, while filling in for an ailing Walker.
Robey took the young prodigy to Los Angeles, where they cut two unsuccessful singles for the Aladdin label. When Robey formed his own label, Peacock, Brown became a mainstay, cracking the R&B chart with the 1949 release “Mary Is Fine”/”My Time Is Expensive.” Brown’s subsequent recordings for Peacock, where he remained until the early 1960s, ranged from jump blues (“Hurry Back Good News”) and big-band rock & roll (“Depression Blues”) to hard-swinging instrumentals (“Boogie Uproar”).
Two longstanding centerpieces of Brown’s set were his unique take on Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and his own original instrumental, “Okie Dokie Stomp.” “That’s a masterpiece,” Brown said of the latter. “That’s what all guitar players go to bed dreaming about.”
During the 1960s and ’70s, Brown furthered his explorations into jazz, country and Cajun music, recording at one point in Nashville for Chess Records. He became a familiar face of the blues on television, serving in 1966 as the leader of the house band for the groundbreaking syndicated R&B program The !!!! Beat, which featured the legendary Texas DJ Bill “Hoss” Allen. A decade later he made several appearances on Hee Haw, joining Roy Clark, with whom he recorded a well-received 1978 album for MCA, Makin’ Music.
During his long career, Brown was awarded several W.C. Handy honors as an instrumentalist, and he was a recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award and NARAS’ Heroes Award. In 1982 he won a Grammy for Alright Again!, a Rounder recording that featured covers of songs by T-Bone Walker and Albert Collins. A stint with Alligator Records yielded a duet with Michelle Shocked in 1992, and Verve paired Brown with a procession of admirers, including Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder and Leon Russell, for the 1996 duets album A Long Way Home. Brown’s last album, Timeless, was released a year ago on the Hightone label.