Born: April 18, 1924 in Vinton LA
Died: September 10, 2005 in Orange TX
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown didn't like being called a "bluesman," instead preferring to be considered a "guitar slinger." His music certainly reflected his unique vision, mixing electric blues with swing jazz and country twang, with a little Cajun flavor mixed in to spice things up.
Fellow Texas blues guitarist T-Bone Walker was a big influence on Brown, but the younger blues musician also drew inspiration from the big bands of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton that he saw perform during the 1930s and '40s. Brown's multi-purpose guitar style would subsequently influence a generation of Texas bluesmen, talents like Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
When Opportunity Knocks...
Clarence Brown Jr. was born in Vinton, Louisiana in 1924, but his family moved across the Sabine River to Orange, Texas when he was just a few weeks old. Both of Brown's parents, and many of his siblings, played musical instruments, so it was only natural that Brown would learn to play himself, and his arsenal included guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, and drums. Brown left Orange behind as a teen, joining the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, and he served in the Army during WWII.
Brown launched his musical career after being discharged from the military. In 1947, as legend has it, an impromptu fill-in for a sick T-Bone Walker at the Bronze Peacock club in Houston brought the guitarist to the attention of the club's owner, Don Robey. Brown signed with Robey as his manager, and after cutting a number of poorly-promoted sides for Aladdin Records, Robey launched the Peacock label specifically to record Brown. Throughout the 1950s, Brown recorded better than 50 singles for Peacock, and although enjoying mixed commercial success, they proved to be extremely influential.
Sheriff Brown Sings The Blues
During the 1960s, Brown jumped from label to label, none capable of capturing the guitarist's electrifying live performances on a 7" slice of vinyl. During the mid-60s, Brown moved to Nashville, recording country music songs and leading the house band for the syndicated R&B television program The!!!!Beat. While in the Music City, Brown struck up a friendship with country guitarist Roy Clark, which led to several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw. Near the end of the decade, however, Brown had grown tired of the music business, and he moved to New Mexico and became a deputy sheriff.
With the dawn of the 1970s, however, the tastes of European audiences had turned towards roots music, and Brown found a growing following there for his blend of authentic blues, country, swing jazz, and Cajun sounds. The guitarist first toured the continent in 1971, and would tour Europe a dozen times during his career. Brown also toured the Soviet Union and Africa, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Brown recorded for several European record labels throughout the '70s, including an album with the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair.
Back To Louisiana
Brown returned to Louisiana during the late-1970s, moving to New Orleans. The following two decades would prove to be the guitarist's most successful, both as a performer and a recording artist. Albums that Brown recorded for Rounder and Alligator Records sold moderately and earned widespread acclaim. Brown won a Grammy award for his 1983 album Alright Again!, and would be nominated for five more. Brown won eight W.C. Handy Awards and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. Throughout this period, Brown and his band regularly performed 250 or more shows annually across the globe.
The origins of Brown's "Gatemouth" nickname are veiled in mystery...Brown often said that he earned the name from a high school teacher who said that his voice sounded "like a gate opening." His brother Bobby, in an interview with the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper, said that he took on the stage name when he began performing in Houston during the late-1940s. Brown always said that the true story would come out in his biography, which has yet to be published.
Tragically, Brown's Slidell, Louisiana home, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, the guitarist losing everything, including his beloved 1977 Cadillac. Brown was evacuated to his childhood home in Orange, where he succumbed to cancer in September 2005. Sadly, two weeks after his funeral, the temporary marker on Brown's grave was blown away by Hurricane Rita.
Recommended Albums: The Original Peacock Recordings collects a dozen of Brown's raucous early tracks, showcasing the bluesman's six-string skills. 2003's Timeless was Brown's last studio effort, a fine collection of what made the legend tick: electric blues, Texas twang, old-school swing, and New Orleans soul.