Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

City Social Magazine, 2005

By Susan D. Mustafa

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was born in 1924 in Vinton, just a few years before the stock market crashed and the country was plunged into a horrible depression. Few jobs were available for those who desperately needed to feed their families, but young Clarence, who began playing guitar at the age of five, was unaffected. He spent most of his time watching his father, known to the locals as Fiddlin’ Tom, playing country, bluegrass and Cajun music. The young boy absorbed the sounds and techniques his father used and learned harmonies and chords. Fiddlin’ Tom taught his son the joy of music, a lesson Gatemouth Brown would spend a lifetime sharing with others.

As a teenager, the now nicknamed “Gatemouth,” mastered numerous instruments—mandolin, violin, fiddle, harmonica, guitar, drums. Although he grew up in Orange, Texas, it was the music of Louisiana that fueled his passion, and he incorporated many genres into each album he produced, each a fusion of jazz, country, Cajun, blues and classical.

“I hate for people to label my music as blues. It’s music. American music,” Gatemouth said in an interview with Susan Mustafa just before he passed away. “It’s American music because I play with dynamics.”

Those dynamics were what attracted a loyal audience of followers when Gatemouth turned professional in 1945. Bouncy tunes like Gatemouth Boogie and others, such as Mary is Fine and My Time is Expensive, set the stage for what would become a lifetime of musical successes for the talented instrumentalist, songwriter and singer.

During the 1950s, Gatemouth, just doing his own thing, unwittingly became a pioneer in the music industry through instrumentals like Okie Dokie Stomp and Boogie Uproar. Throughout the 1960s, his influence became apparent on up and coming musicians, such as Frank Zappa, Albert Collins and Eric Clapton, who Gatemouth once referred to as “an all right guitar player, but a copier of others.”

The 1960s revealed more of Gatemouth’s country music leanings when he moved to Nashville and became friends with country music legend Roy Clark. He made several appearances on Hee Haw back when black musicians were not featured in country music, quite an achievement at that time.

The 1970s proved to be the decade of music-making for this man who clung obsessively to his roots and his musical ideologies. Gatemouth recorded 10 albums of original music over this decade, three of which he recorded in 1973, an almost impossible feat for most musicians. Some of the songs he recorded were reminiscent of the time he had spent in the South, including Down South in Bayou Country and Bogalusa Boogie Man. His fans could expect something different on each album, from country to blues to the jazzy sounds of New Orleans, and his music struck a chord with audiences not only in the United State, but in Europe, as well. He was invited to tour Europe 12 times during this decade and became a musical ambassador for the United States.

In 1982, Gatemouth scored his biggest musical success to date, a Grammy award for his album, Alright Again! He was nominated for five more Grammies and would earn over his career eight W.C. Handy awards. For the next years, the wiry musician who loved to wear a cowboy hat and western-style apparel continued touring and recording, racking up a total of 21 albums of original music, in addition to numerous compilation albums in which his music was featured. He also earned the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Heroes Award.

With such an extensive résumé, it could be assumed that Gatemouth had achieved all of his dreams, but that was not the case. “I’m gonna keep on playing until I can’t play no more,” he said at 80 years old. “Every day I do something new. I have stuff to accomplish still.”

The release of his last album, Timeless, in 2004 was an example of some of the things Gatemouth still wanted to accomplish. Aptly named for the man whose longevity in a fickle industry proved inspiring, Timeless reminded the listener that there should be no boundaries in music.  From the southern blues sounds of The Drifter, on which he showcased his fiddle and guitar, to the traditional waltz, Dark End of the Hallway, to his instrumental version of Unchained Melody, Timeless represented more than 50 years of honing and sharpening a skill to a precise edge.

“My albums are always a mixture of what I feel like doing,” said Gatemouth, at the time smiling and tapping his foot in time to a song playing in the background. “I work for the audience, what they would like is what’s important. I always feed off of my audience. I miss nothing.”

For the last years of his life, Gatemouth lived in a quaint cottage overlooking a canal on Highway 11 in Slidell. As Hurricane Katrina approached in late-August 2005, the musician gathered a few of his possessions and evacuated to a family member’s home in Orange, Texas. In one devastating moment, the tidal surge of Katrina swept away the home that was filled with a lifetime of musical accomplishments. Gatemouth passed away in Texas 12 days later on September 10. He was 81 years old and had lived an incredible life making music the only way he knew how—his way.

“I’ve played all over this world,” he proudly stated the year before he died. “Where there are people, those are the memories I have. I do my thing, and the people love it. You got to change with the times, but never lose sight of what you do. Traveling the world was my destiny. Music is my life.”

When asked what if felt like to have his face engraved in the ceiling of the House of Blues in New Orleans, along with musical greats like Louie Armstrong, Gatemouth just grinned and said in true Gatemouth fashion, “It don’t bother me none.”

Many have guessed at the origin of his nickname, the most accepted version being that a high school teacher once said his voice was like a gate, but according to Gatemouth, no one really knew the true version of how he got the name. He said would reveal that truth in a book he was planning to write one day. Sadly, he never got the chance to fulfill that dream.

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