BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

Folks call me a bluesman because I’m black and play guitar, but my music is American music, Texas style”.

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s prescient words held true in 1949 when he got his start and well into the 21st Century when most music bodies, from radio programmers, streaming services and retail outlets to music writers, historians and even the Grammy Awards, use race and the simplest of signifiers rather than musical definitions to slot artists in stylistic genres.

Brown was born in 1924 in Louisiana but raised in Texas and both the birth-date and the region he came of age in factored heavily into his music, starting with the fact he grew up in a musical household and learned to play a wide variety of instruments – drums, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica and guitar – while listening to his father a professional musician who dabbled in everything BUT the blues, telling his son to play something of everything so he’d never get stuck in one bag, advice that Clarence took to heart.

For Brown’s blues education he, like almost every kid of that era in Texas, fell under the sway of T-Bone Walker, the leading blues guitarist and it was an impromptu performance at a show at Houston’s Bronze Peacock Club when Walker failed to appear on stage, reputedly due to illness, when Brown leaped up and started to to play, impressing the club’s ambitious owner Don Robey who subsequently took over management of Brown’s career.

Brown cut his first session in the fall of 1947 for Aladdin Records in Los Angeles but even though – or perhaps because – he was paired with Maxwell Davis’s band the hybrid records they issued didn’t click with audiences and Brown went two years without cutting another record.

His next opportunity came when Robey decided to get into the record business himself, initially to promote Brown’s career but also because he saw the recent commercial boom in black musical styles on independent labels with not only rock ‘n’ roll but also blues and gospel which were also enjoying their heyday on record as the 1950’s dawned.

Brown proved unwilling to devote himself to any of those styles exclusively however, even though with his unique nickname – given to him by a teacher who said his voice reminded him of the sound a gate made – and the fact he was from Texas and played electric guitar led him to be lumped in with the blues more often than not. Yet Brown was far more aligned musically with the diverse sounds of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1950’s and would later branch off into Cajun, country and jazz.

He remained with Peacock Records until the end of the 1950’s without much national success although he was a strong regional seller for much of that time. In the 1960’s he attained an added level of prominence by leading the house band on the syndicated show The!!! Beat, hosted by legendary WLAC dee-jay Hoss Allen which featured live performances by many of the top rock acts of the day.

By the 1970’s Brown’s eclectic musical output became even more pronounced and gave him a unique niche that he milked by wearing western outfits and appearing on the famed country music show Hee Haw and he would often forsake his guitar for the fiddle on stage. In spite of his far-ranging stylistic pursuits he was forced back into the blues box that is generally the only outlet available for aging black musicians and he spent the last few decades of his life recording for such blues-centric labels as Rounder and Alligator, garnering Grammy nominations in six different years late in his career.

Diagnosed with lung cancer from a lifetime of pipe smoking Brown continued to record and perform making a celebrated appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2005 but Hurricane Katrina that summer destroyed his home and sent him back across state lines to Texas, mirroring the journey he made when starting out in life. A few weeks later, in September 2005, Brown died at the age of 81.
 
 
GATEMOUTH BROWN DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

GATEMOUTH BOOGIE
(Aladdin 198; September, 1947)
An interesting hybrid record with Brown’s bluesy guitar mixed with Maxwell Davis’s jazzier horns, though they don’t clash it’d be a while before these sounds would reconcile in rock and as a result this record, and this artist, have largely been overlooked in the years since. (5)

WITHOUT ME BABY
(Aladdin 199; October, 1947)
Another record combining two disparate sounds, though on this one Brown’s guitar takes a back seat to the horns which are slightly outdated despite a good solo by Maxwell Davis; but while the song is well-written it’s not something that really stands out. (4)