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Over the fifty years he's been performing in public, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, 73, has earned seven Grammy nominations and numerous W.C. Handy awards, played alongside pupils such as Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and Ry Cooder, and developed a multi-genre sound that he refers to as "American music, Texas style." But as he relaxes in his Louisiana home, within easy reach of his trademark pipe and cowboy hat, he's less interested in talking about his myriad accomplishments than he is in describing the view.
"My front yard is land and my back yard is water," he says, his patient mahogany voice barely hiding his glee. "I'm lookin' at fish jumpin' right now. If you ever come out this way, you oughta come see it. I can fish off my back porch." When it's time to put food on his table, though, he sticks to a more reliable method: "I use a silver hook--I use money to go buy 'em at the fish market." After a hearty burst of laughter, he boasts, "I get everybody on that one."
Keeping folks guessing has been one of Brown's primary goals for generations. Although most long-in-the-tooth artists hold on to their audiences by relying on their original formula, he refuses to become mired in predictability. A recent in-store appearance in New Orleans is an apt example. "I did not sing one song," he reveals. "I did an hour of nothing but instrumentals. And I didn't do no blues. I did jazz, I did ballads like 'Danny Boy'--and the crowd just went nuts. I even did my version of 'Unchained Melody' with my piano player.
"You know, most guys in the music world, they sound just like they did when they started," he points out. "They can't get away from it. But not me. I got away from all that. It's like I always say: 'I go as I grow.'" When he's asked if this approach is risky, Brown replies with a whopping bit of understatement: "Well, I've found that not to be the case."
The Sabine River area of East Texas, a few miles from the Louisiana border, is the place where Brown began his singular journey. "I started off playin' Cajun, country and bluegrass," he recalls. "That's what my daddy played around the house. He was a railroad man with Southern Pacific, and he was my greatest influence. I learned to play from him." Brown's first instrument was the guitar, which he picked up at age five in order to accompany his father, a fiddler. A few years later Brown took up the Cajun violin himself. "I didn't sound too good at first," he allows, "but I kept on and finally developed a sound on it."
As a teenager in the early Forties, Brown earned his keep behind a trap kit, serving as a drummer in various Texas-based road shows such as Howard Spencer and His Gay Swingsters and W.M. Bimbo and His Brownskin Models. His stint as a Model taught Brown a few hard lessons even as it gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his upright character.
"When Pearl Harbor got bombed, I was in Norfolk, Virginia, playing music. They called me the 'Singing Drummer.' But the old man [Bimbo], he just took off with all the equipment and the money and left us stranded. I was the only one who knew how to survive and get a gig, so I got a gig at a black club called the Eldorado. I stayed there until I could send all the kids with me back home. One by one, I paid their way home."
When Brown was 21, his career took off as the result of a star-making turn as striking as anything in the annals of Hollywood. During a performance in Houston, T-Bone Walker, the reigning champion of Texas blues guitar, fell ill, and Brown, a virtual unknown, slipped out of the audience to fill in for him. "I just took his guitar and went at it," Brown says, "and the band fell right in with me. It was in the key of E natural, because I didn't know any other keys back then."
This act of bravado earned Brown a few hundred bucks in tips, some instant credibility and a contract with the Peacock imprint, where he recorded for over a decade. Billed as "The San Antonio Ballbuster," Brown cut dozens of platters for Peacock, including his biggest hit, "Okie Dokie Stomp." A stinging, immensely catchy instrumental, it cracked the pop charts and became a set-list staple of blues guitarists around the world.
By the Sixties, Brown had drifted from the limelight and lacked both a record deal and a loyal fan base. But he never stopped performing--not even during the period between 1968 and 1972, when he lived here in Denver. "I worked strip clubs, playin' music downtown on Broadway," he remembers. "There was a club called Four Hundred, but I couldn't take that for too long. So I went out to the Playgirl, out on Colorado Boulevard, and then I went and played at the Negro Voters Club on Welton, in Five Points."