Clarence 'GATEMOUTH' Brown

Creator of 'true American music'
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The Independent Online

The guitarist and fiddle player Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown effortlessly straddled the disparate sound world of American roots music. Long regarded as a master within the Texan blues tradition, his fluid playing style was an important influence on iconic figures such as Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Frank Zappa. Brown's subsequent explorations of country, jazz, R&B and Cajun forms led to the creation of a potent hybrid that he dubbed, quite simply, "true American music".

Born in Vinton, Louisiana in 1924, Clarence Brown was raised in Orange, Texas, just across the state line. His father worked as an engineer on the Southern Pacific Railroad and on Saturday nights played in a number of local string bands. "Gatemouth" - a name he acquired in tribute to his broad grin - learned to play the fiddle, harmonica and mandolin as a child, all the while absorbing the wide variety of musical influences, from country to swing, that would later inform his own mature style.

Whilst still in his teens, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown began to perform professionally, playing the drums for territory bands such as the Gay Swingsters and William M. Bimbo's Brownskin Models. Following brief war service, he joined Hoyt Hughes's orchestra in San Antonio, Texas, where he was billed as "The Singing Drummer".

By 1947, however, the guitar had become his instrument of choice and he headed for Houston in the hope of gaining work at Don Robey's famed Bronze Peacock Club. T-Bone Walker was the club's star attraction at the time, but when ill-health forced the great electric guitarist off the stage in the middle of a show, Brown saw his chance: "I got up and walked up there and picked up his guitar and invented a tune on the spot, and I called it 'Gatemouth Boogie' . . . and I made $600 in 15 minutes just from the customers."

Robey, too, was impressed and became Brown's manager, taking him to Los Angeles in August that year and arranging for him to record cut sides for Aladdin. They fared poorly, but Robey was convinced he had a potential star on his hands and formed Peacock Records as a vehicle for his protégé. Brown remained with the label for over a decade, but his records enjoyed critical, rather than commercial, success. He introduced signature numbers such as "Okie Dokie Stomp" (1954), with its characteristic horn-influenced single-string solo, and began to showcase his fiddle-playing, but his relationship with the label crumbled and in 1961 he quit.

Over the next few years he recorded only sporadically and at one point withdrew from music almost completely to work as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico. In 1971, however, he was persuaded to undertake a concert tour in France and found a new and eager audience for his music. He became a regular visitor to Europe and produced a string of fine recordings alongside veteran jazz musicians such as Milt Buckner, Jay McShann and Arnett Cobb. The best cuts from these discs were later compiled to create the Grammy- nominated album Pressure Cooker (1986).

Brown had long been interested in country music and in 1979 collaborated with the country singer and guitarist Roy Clark on a project entitled Makin' Music. He followed it, three years later, with his first album for Rounder Records, Alright Again!, a disc that went on to win him the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Other notable albums included Standing My Ground (Grammy-nominated, 1990), The Man (Grammy-nominated, 1995), Long Way Home (Grammy-nominated, 1996), on which he was joined by Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder, and Back to Bogalusa (2001). In September last year he released a final album, Timeless.

Although he once said, "I hate for people to refer to me as a blues musician", in 1999 he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He continued to tour enthusiastically until the end, noting:

I don't go back and try to sound like I did 10 years ago. I may take one of those tunes, but when it comes out to be heard again it's another piece of music. I'm still growing. I won't stay the same.

Paul Wadey