Guitarist Clarence Gatemouth Brown Dies at 81
Legendary blues guitarist Clarence Gatemouth Brown died Saturday, aged 81.
Clarence Gatemouth Brown, an eminent guitarist and singer who spent his career fighting purism by synthesizing old blues, country, jazz, Cajun and R & B styles, died on Saturday. He was 81. His death was confirmed by Rick Cady, his booking agent, who said Mr. Brown had suffered from lung cancer and heart disease.
Mr. Brown died at his grand-niece’s apartment in Orange, Tex., his hometown. He had left his own home in Slidell, La., on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, to escape Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Cady said that his house was destroyed by the storm, and Colin Walters, his biographer, said there had been a plan to resettle him in Austin, Tex.
“American music, Texas-style” was how Mr. Brown characterized his music, even making that phrase the name of one of his albums; he refused to call it blues and was scornful of musicians who let themselves be too easily understood by settling into a single sound. He disdained deep delta blues, calling it “negative.” He wore a western shirt and a cowboy hat onstage, covered jazz numbers like Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo,” and sometimes played the fiddle, mandolin and harmonica in performance as well as the guitar.
Born in Vinton, La., Mr. Brown moved with his family to Orange when he was just a few weeks old. His father, a railroad worker, played fiddle; the first music he learned, he said, was Cajun and bluegrass. He started performing as a drummer during a year of Army service, then began taking his guitar playing more seriously after filling in one night for T-Bone Walker in 1947. Walker, one of the few guitarists he admitted liking, was ill with an ulcer and left the stage in mid set at the Bronze Peacock club in Houston. Mr. Brown walked onstage, picked up Walker’s guitar and made up a song on the spot he called “Gatemouth Boogie.” He earned $600 in tips in 15 minutes, he claimed.
Interviewed in a recent issue of Guitar Player magazine about his early blues-based records, Mr. Brown gave a practical answer. “I had to sound like that because I was just starting out,” he explained. “Seeing as how I was a newcomer, I obliged. But after a while, I thought, ‘Why do I have to be one of these old cryin’ and moanin’ guitar players always talking bad about women?’ So I just stopped. That’s when I started having horns and piano in my band, and started playing arrangements more like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, rather than some old hardcore Mississippi Delta stuff.”
Rest in peace.