“Okey Dokey Stomp.” “Boogie Uproar.” “That’s Your Daddy Yaddy Yo.” “Just Before Dawn.” “Dirty Work At The Crossroads.” “Didn’t Reach My Goal.” “Atomic Energy.” “Boogie Rambler.” “She Walk Right In.” “I Live My Life.” “Guitar In My Hand.” “It Can Never Be That Way.” These are just a few of the titles from the pen of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown that rank at the very peak of the jump blues canon; but as their author is quick to point out, the fact that he’s one of the genre’s most influential innovators doesn’t mean he’s at all satisfied with being called a blues man.
“Somebody tried to call me that again today,” he bristles. “And I goddamn sure refused it. Don’t call me a blues player, call me a musician and you’re on the right track. Let’s just say music, that’s what I tell ’em.” And rightly so. From the very dawn of his recording career over half a century ago, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown has been steadfastly blazing a trail as bandleader, producer, songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist that runs the gamut from big band jazz to country to Cajun to Western Swing to funk to classical, always branded with enough of his own inimitable verve that he can accurately refer to the whole myriad of genre-defying styles as “My music,” with an emphasis on the My.
Brown’s home, like those of his neighbors, sits overlooking a stretch of beautiful marshland in Slidell, Louisiana. Its modest appearance and compact size betray the gigantic deck in back, while the only clues as to who its occupant might be are a trio of vintage cars under a car port and a large rural-style mailbox simply marked “The Man,” and emblazoned with a caricature of Brown sawing on a fiddle. The spotless-yet-cozy interior seems tailor-made for the confirmed and comfortable bachelor. Paneled in knotty pine, it’s filled with a collection of intricately hand-crafted model boats, most of them constructed of wood, some of metal and at least one of bone. As he brews a pot of coffee, Brown tunes a satellite radio, a recent gift from his good friend, songwriter John D. Loudermilk.
Although his latest album Timeless includes blues, country and classical pieces, he passes over stations featuring the aforementioned genres without so much as a pause, finally smiling in approval upon discovering one that’s dedicated to Mexican Tejano music.
A recent diagnosis of lung cancer has done nothing to slow the 80-year-old Brown down; he’s refusing treatment and is intent on living his life as he always has, for his music. If the cancer has wounded his spirit, he’s not showing it. As he packs his long-stemmed pipe with his trademark custom-blended tobacco, it’s quite clear that this recent setback has done nothing to quell his acerbic, often hilarious wit.
Brown is a man of rare and delightful paradox. At once an icon and an iconoclast, purists with preconceived notions are advised to keep their distance, for he does not suffers fools gladly. His blunt honesty is a shocking relief in a music world that seems to equate criticism of the lionized as the ultimate sin against mankind.
He dismisses Eric Clapton, whom he recently toured with, by stating simply, “He doesn’t show me anything.” Asked about some of his guitar-playing contemporaries from his early years—many of whom picked up instruments after hearing his records—his responses confound those who prefer a simplistic view of musical history. He shakes his head in pity at the mention of Guitar Slim: “Ignorant. That guy died trying to be like me!” He calls Johnny “Guitar” Watson “A copycat” and says of Pee Wee Crayton, “The man tried to play like T-Bone Walker and he couldn’t go nowhere doing that. You want the truth? You see, people think that if they hit two notes, they’re great.”
But he stresses that none of these seemingly harsh words are anything personal. “I know about them poor guys like Pee Wee Crayton and Pete Mays because they were friends of mine, but what they were playing was all T-Bone Walker. They were just coppin’ off of one person. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks because I was training myself to be a guitar player but I got away from that and I developed my own style. I brushed him away. I can play stuff now that there’s no way in the world that B.B. King or any of those other guys can play it. They’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.”
BRING IT ON
“T-Bone Walker was the hot guitar player around Texas at the time,” Brown says of his formative years growing up during the ’30s and ’40s, “about the only place he was playing I suppose, because you didn’t hear about him no place else. Like I say, I listened to him and used a couple of his licks, but I found out that all of his licks were the same. So I said, ‘Uh-uh, that’s not for me.’
“If you notice the way I play, I admire horn men, not guitar players. I admire big bands like Count Basie, some of Duke Ellington—I didn’t like all of Duke’s music, I didn’t like all of Count Basie’s either—but I would pick tunes, even Lionel Hampton, and keep the identification and play them my way. I’m playing a horn line, not only horn but I play piano lines, I even play percussion on the guitar. I can play my records from way back then and see that every song was different. On my latest album I do ‘Unchained Melody’ in a classical form.”
Gate slides a CD into his player. “I’m gonna play something for you and you’re gonna laugh your ass off,” he says. A rapper begins boasting over a tough hip-hop beat as Gate shakes his head, chuckling. Then his own unmistakable voice comes out of the stereo, “Ain’t got no money…” he drawls, “I drive around with my gas light on.”
“I’m drivin’ around,” he enunciates slowly across the kitchen table where we are now seated, “with my gas light on.” He winces slightly. “Oh man, I ain’t never did that! I laugh every time I hear that.” A simple guitar riff pierces the electronic beat. “I’m playin’ two notes!” he says, still shaking his head. “And I got paid five thousand dollars to do this. Some son-of-a-bitch out of Chicago with big money behind him called the office and when [his manager] Jim Bateman called me, he was laughin’. I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ He said. ‘Gate, I’ve got something, see what you think about it.’ I said, ‘Jim, what in the hell are you talkin’ about?’
“When I heard it Jim said, ‘That’s hip-hop.’ I said hip-hop, my ass, that’s rap!” He said, ‘You know what they want to pay you to do one tune? Five grand.’ I said, ‘Bring it on!’”
THE SINGING DRUMMER
Born in Vinton, Louisiana, a small town near the Texas/ Louisiana border, in 1924, Brown’s family moved to Orange, Texas a week later, where he began developing his musical opinions at an early age. “I used to listen to the radio, that’s all they had,” he says. “I listened to country music, the Carter Family and all that stuff, I listened to all of it. But most of it was whining and crying in their beers; I didn’t like that. I used to hear that old Mississippi Delta blues; same thing but it was in a different mode. Some guy talking about his woman left him. I wasn’t interested in that.”
What Brown was interested in was the guitar. “I started guitar at five, fiddle at ten and drums, viola, mandolin and all the other stuff after that,” he says. His biggest musical inspirations were his father—who split his time between ranching, working on the Southern Pacific Railroad and playing fiddle and accordion—and his uncles, many of whom played string instruments.
“My first music was country, bluegrass and Cajun. Those were my roots, then I went from there. My uncles used to play rhythm guitar behind my dad and I used to watch them. So I’d pick up the guitar—I didn’t know what I was doing and nobody could tell me anything. My dad told me more than anybody, ‘Pay attention.’ Finally I did.”
By the time he was 16, Brown was playing drums in various bands before being drafted into the Army at the tail end of the second World War. “I didn’t stay in too long,” Gatemouth says of his military hitch. “The Army wasn’t too good for the black man no way and I saw that right off of the bat. Prejudice, man. They expected you to be very patriotic and that’s fine because I’m an American but I don’t have to prove to nobody where I’m from. I wouldn’t get out there and do what the rest of the guys were doing, those long hike marches that they had the guys doing. I told the company commander I couldn’t do that. He said, ‘Son, you don’t belong in this.’ I said, ‘I sure don’t.’ And he wrote me up some papers and gave me an honorable discharge. I got out of the Army in San Antonio and got a job there at Don Albert’s Keyhole as a singing drummer. Don Albert I understand was originally from New Orleans, back in the early ’30s he’d had a big band. I’d never heard of him, but he had this club and I joined the Orchestra there. It was an all white band and I was ‘Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the singing drummer,’ the only black guy in the whole band. We were doing swing and blues and that gave me my timing. I did that for about a year and then Don Robey came through—he was a buddy of Don Albert’s. That’s when I first met Robey.”
Don Robey owned the Bronze Peacock, the premier black club in Houston, and with Brown as his inspiration, would soon expand his operations to include a record label, a booking agency and a recording studio, eventually becoming one of the most powerful black men in the music business. But for the time being, he was just checking out the talent. He liked Brown’s voice, but didn’t yet know that he even played the guitar. Robey got the shock of his life a short time later when Brown hitchhiked to Houston and made his presence known at a T-Bone Walker show at the Bronze Peacock. Had Walker not taken sick on the bandstand that night, both men’s fates might have been very different.
“When T-Bone dropped his guitar and went to the dressing room,” Brown remembers, “Robey told me to go up there and sing to keep the show going. I went up there and picked up the guitar and invented that thing ‘Gatemouth Boogie.’ Boom! Six hundred and fifteen dollars in tips in about 15 minutes. T-Bone never did like me after that, in fact he came up there and said, ‘Don’t you ever pick up my guitar again!’ Kind of hurt my feelings. Later someone asked me was he a good guy to be around. No, he wasn’t. He was very, very jealous of my ability. But Robey took me to the music store and bought me a seven hundred and fifty dollar Gibson L5 and it went from there.”
A master of the hustle, Robey wasted no time in getting Gatemouth signed to Aladdin Records, for whom he cut his first two records in August of 1947. “Robey flew me to California; the first airplane ride I had in my life, and I did my first four sides there, with Maxwell Davis’ big band. He was a tenor player, he had a good band. That was my first big band. But Robey fell out with Eddie Mesner of Aladdin Records right quick and he formed Peacock Records around me.”
Indeed, by the end of 1949, Robey had released over a dozen sides on Gatemouth and scored his first national hit when both decks of Peacock 1504—“Mary Is Fine” and “My Time Is Expensive”—entered Billboard’s R&B Top Ten. Brown’s partnership with Robey would last until 1961 and produce some of his most intense recordings, the results not just of Brown’s creativity but also of his choice in equipment; the Bogan P.A. system that he used in lieu of a guitar amplifier gave him the volume he needed to blast out over a roaring horn section, creating a guitar sound so powerful that he became an immediate favorite of nearly every picker that heard him.
This wild set-up not only gave him a lot of control over his instrument, but was perfect for searing instrumentals such as the frantic “Atomic Energy” and the utterly unforgettable “Okey Dokey Stomp,” named after New Orleans disc jockey James “Okey Dokey” Smith.
“The second band I formed was all an all white band that I put together in Houston in the early ’50s,” Brown reveals. “All them boys were friends of mine from Houston and I think we started off with about six or seven pieces. We came to Louisiana and they wouldn’t let us play so we turned around and went back home. Then, I never will forget, we came back and we played Algiers. ‘Okey Dokey Stomp’ was released in ’53 and I set up the band there. When I did ‘Okey Dokey’ all the girls broke for the bandstand. This policeman working in there pulled his pistol and said, ‘What are you gonna do, entertain these people or excite them? You’ve got them white ladies excited.’
“Finally, he said, ‘Well, you can’t play.’ I said, ‘Well, good.’ I told the boys to rack it up. We racked it up and as we were movin’ out those girls liked to beat the shit out of that goddamn cop. Beat him to death, man. See, that’s when times started changing. The youngsters didn’t want that prejudice shit; that old redneck stuff. They wanted good music. Yeah, this was a rough state, man. Alabama was rough. Mississippi was rougher. Georgia was terrible. All right through there. I had ’em to tell me, ‘We don’t want no mixin’. So I said, ‘What do you mean no mixin’? This isn’t mixin’, this is musicians!’
“Then in the ’60s I went to France. I went over there the first two times and they had a blues band over there for me, all black. The third time I took my own band—which was all white—and that’s when all hell broke loose. They said, ‘We don’t want no white band, we want all black musicians.’ I said, ‘Don’t you call me no more. You don’t tell me who to have in my band.’”
JUST BEFORE DAWN
By the time Brown split from Peacock in ’61, Robey had parlayed his company into a massive concern and had scored major successes with the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Big Mama Thornton and countless others. He’d also developed a reputation as one of the most ruthlessly thuggish record men of a particularly ruthless and thuggish era. Over the years, many of his former artists have characterized him as a black Caesar who wasn’t above using pistol-heavy brute force to get what he wanted. But Brown stresses that this was not his experience with Robey. In the end, the two parted over artistic differences.
Brown wanted to record country music, something Robey didn’t think a black man should be doing. “That’s where we started parting friendship,” says Gatemouth, who did manage to squeeze two fiddle tunes—“Just Before Dawn” and “Gate’s Tune”—out while still under contract to Peacock. “He said I was too far ahead of my time and he was right. But the way he said it, he said it in the respect that I wasn’t supposed to be playing that kind of stuff. But I proved to him and the world that I was; that I could. And I did. I later renamed ‘Gate’s Tune’ ‘Song For Renee’ for my baby when she was crying and I couldn’t stop her. And that stuck all over the world, I get a lot of requests for it.”
Robey made no threats to Gatemouth when he called in his contract. “I walked in and said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and it shocked both him and [house booking agent] Evelyn Johnson. When people ask me, ‘What kind of a man was Robey?’ I say, ‘He was a hell of a businessman.’ And that’s the way I leave it. Sure, I got beat out of money and so did everybody else. But you know, like I told a bunch of ’em, even B.B. King; what’s the point in running the man down? He can’t get no downer than he is, he’s in a six foot deep hole in the ground. What good is it going to do you just to show how ignorant you were? What’s done is done. Sure, I lost money, but he gave me fame. To me he was a businessman; I was a thrill seeker. There you go. Wouldn’t have been for him, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
MAY THE BIRD OF PARADISE FLY UP YOUR NOSE
“After that I moved on out to Denver and I started playing in these white clubs with white bands there too. I started doing a lot of country and I left there and played all over Colorado. When I got tired of that I moved on out to New Mexico and worked in Durango for four years. That was different because there I didn’t have any black audience, period. And I conquered that town. I conquered it. That was like the Wild West, everyone wearing their pistols up and down the streets. I had mine on too. I used to commute back and forth every night from Durango to Farmington, New Mexico because I lived in Aztec between Farmington and Durango. I was there for four years in the early ’60s. I did a lot of country but I was doing my own stuff too and adding a lot of fiddle tunes like ‘Up Jumped The Devil’ and ‘When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again.’ I recorded them later on and that went well.
“I got a call the other day from Farmington, people who remembered me playing up there saying ‘Brown, will you please come play up here again?’ I said, ‘Tell ’em to get the money right and I will!’”
Throughout the early ’60s Brown continued recording for small labels like Cue, Cinderella and Hit Sound, scoring a minor country hit in 1965 with his rendition of Little Jimmy Dickens’ “May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” on Nashville’s Hermitage label, an imprint owned by his old friend WLAC disc jockey William “Hoss” Allen. In 1966, he and Allen put their heads together and came up with a TV dance show called The!!!!Beat.
“Hoss came up with the idea,” remembers Gate. “We got it together in Nashville but we filmed it in Dallas because Dallas was the first place that had color TV.” Clips of the show feature Brown playing a white Rickenbacker guitar and leading a crack house band on a set replete with hip Mod décor while go-go dancers gyrate to hard-hitting R&B acts such as Freddie King. In retrospect, The!!!!Beat has to be one of the coolest shows in television history, like what Shindig might have been like, if, instead of catering to the Rolling Stones, it had catered to the artists who made up the Rolling Stones’ record collections. Unfortunately, the show didn’t last that long.
“Hoss and I fell out as friends right quick after awhile, because we did a whole blues album and he went and sold it to Chess for a thousand dollars and I didn’t get no money out of it. He lost a good friend by doing so.”
The ’70s were a busy decade for Brown: he began playing jazz and blues festivals, making increased trips to Europe and recording albums with a vengeance, all of which he’s continued to do to this day.
He also lent his fiddle and guitar skills to Professor Longhair’s brilliant Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo album and brought one of New Orleans’ favorite bass players, James Singleton, to town. But those contributions, as well as the many concerts he plays in the city, are likely the only ones that Gatemouth will ever make to New Orleans. His biggest gripe is a somewhat accurate one: he doesn’t think that enough musicians follow their own paths. It’s what he calls “The New Orleans Mentality.”
“I played the Dew Drop Inn a lot of times,” Gatemouth concludes, referring to New Orleans’ answer to the Bronze Peacock. “It was different in a way because they had people like Joe Turner; all kinds of people from different parts of the country and that made it a little different. Until everybody got the idea to sound like everybody out of one region and that did it. New Orleans had something and they lost it. Now everybody wants to be Professor Longhair but there can’t be but one artist. Professor Longhair was unique in what he was doing but everybody fell in his tracks and that’s it, they can’t go no further. Everybody’s trying to sound like each other and they’re doing a damn good job of it. But I don’t want to be associated with it.”
Is there something he’s heard lately that he would like to be associated with?
“Well, there’s a little bluegrass band out of Birmingham called Rolling In The Hay and they’re pretty good. I may use them on an album real soon.”