No Smoke, No Show
Blue and yellow lights penetrate drifting whorls of pipe smoke suspended in silence. I can feel the audience’s anticipation. A tall man takes the microphone and announces, "Memphis - the moment you have waited for - Clarence Gatemouth Brown." The band kicks off a swing tune and Gatemouth saunters onto the stage, smoking a pipe and wearing western garb. He's in his seventies, with his custom Gibson Firebird guitar hanging over his shoulder. He begins to play swing lines as a horn player would, but on his guitar. As the set continues, Gatemouth moves from Texas swing, to a bluegrass fiddle tune on the viola. I really enjoy an eclectic set list and Brown always delivers. A voice like gravel mixed with molasses comes from the lean old music veteran. It's more powerful live than any recording can capture.
Throughout his career, Clarence Brown cleared hurdles and broke the rules of the music business as a matter of course. Brown loved the blues and played them well. However, he did not like the classification of "blues musician", or even "bluesman". He preferred no label at all, stating that he plays, “American and world music, Texas style.” He was born in Louisiana and his family moved to Texas when he was young. Although T-Bone Walker influenced Gatemouth, his music was not limited to blues. It was eclectic mix of Cajun, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and jazz genres. He approached classical style as well as roots and contemporary music. Perhaps he would be better known if he had chosen a less diverse repertoire. However, his influence on music is evident, and his criticism on musicians is harsh. He spoke his mind. For instance, when critiquing blues musicians Gatemouth said, "They were just coppin’ off of [T-bone Walker]. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks…I got away from that and I developed my own style…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…they’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.” He commented on the music scene of New Orleans in the1970's stating, "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.”
The Gatemouth brown Philosophy:
Gatemouth played numerous instruments, including the guitar, viola, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. He began playing drums in his teens, and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin by age ten. The swing music he played in his youth influenced the way he approached other instruments. This is around the time he received the moniker "Gatemouth". I have heard a few accounts that differ on who gave him the nickname. However, the reason for his nickname is the same in all accounts. Here is the story in Gatemouth's own words: When asked who gave him the nickname he said, "The kids, actually… we used to have to go in Chapel and sing these spiritual songs before we would go to class. The PA system went out and when it did, I kept singing over the chorus. I was the lead singer. And when we finished the teacher said, "Brown, you don't need no microphone, you've got a voice like a gate." And the kids started saying "Gatemouth" and, man, I got mad a while, but the hotter I got the more they would call me that. So I got stuck with it and just worked with it to my advantage."
In addition to his nickname and signature western clothing, Gatemouth was known to be a pipe smoker. Several of his album covers have pictures of him smoking a pipe. When I lived in Dallas, I had many talks with Sam Myers (blues singer and harmonica player). In one conversation, we discussed Brown's versatile style and the fact that he enjoyed to smoke a pipe. Sam recalled a story from the 1940’s wherein Gatemouth stole a T-bone Walker show. Walter was feeling ill and dropped his guitar by accident. Gatemouth took the opportunity to grab the guitar and play. Sam said, “The crowd loved it. They started throwing money at Gatemouth. T-bone was not happy about it at all!” Gatemouth would, as a rule, sit at shows smoking his pipe with his custom blended pipe tobacco. Sam also told me that if he could not smoke - he would not do the performance. Adam recalled one particular interview he had seen with Gatemouth. When asked about smoke-free venues, Gatemouth told them sternly if he could not enjoy his pipe, he would play elsewhere - no smoke, no show.
Throughout his career, Gatemouth continued to redefine himself. For instance, while in Nashville in the early 1960's he made several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw, and recorded a series of country singles. He also hosted an R&B television show in Nashville called The Beat. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded "Makin' Music," an album of blues and country songs that includes a cover of the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A-Train." In the late 1960's Mr. Brown was a Sheriff in New Mexico. Talk about breaking barriers!