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."
But even when he was reduced to providing accompaniment for bumpers, grinders and peelers, Brown never stopped tinkering with his music. As he tells it, he and his quintet developed an amalgam of "rock and roll, blues, country, Cajun and bluegrass." He notes, "I was working regular gigs, too, and making money. My brand of music was working real well there. I had a pretty good setup in Denver." But despite his popularity in this city, as well as in Wyoming and various ski towns along the Front Range, he ultimately tired of Colorado. "I don't like a cold climate," he says. "So I moved on."
The Brown family (including daughter Celeste, who was born in Denver) eventually landed in Aztec, a small hamlet in the northwest part of New Mexico. He stayed there for the next four years, performing regularly in Durango, Colorado, despite the fact that he was "the only black person in that area then, and there was racial tension all over the country." According to him, "You had to go and prove yourself--and when I did, they could not deny me. Period. I made it in places where the average black person couldn't make it. But I did. I conquered Durango, Colorado. I guarantee that."
In Aztec, Brown surprised local bigots by joining the sheriff's department. But if they objected to him being in such a position of authority, few had the nerve to tell him about it--for a couple of very good reasons. "Since I was a deputy sheriff, I would wear my pistols and hang out with the police in New Mexico and Durango. So you know I was okay with the people down there." He's enjoyed the same type of acceptance in Louisiana, where he returned after his days in Aztec came to an end. "I'm a deputy sheriff here, too, and a goodwill ambassador for the sheriff's department," he says. "I help keep up the good name of law enforcement around the world, because you know what a bad rap they're gettin'." Brown admits that he still packs heat: "Oh, yeah--I carry my pistol and my badge everywhere I go."
Of course, Brown is better known for sonic firepower, and there's plenty of it on Gate Swings, his current CD for Verve Records. The disc finds the guitarist driving a full-sized swing band through a smooth, punchy mix of Brown originals and standards by the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan that he makes his own. "When I do other people's material, I put myself in it, rather than tryin' to sound like them," he says. "See, most people, when they do other people's stuff, they want to make it identical to the one by the person who wrote it. But when you do that, you fall off. You don't make it."
On Swings, which was recorded in New Orleans, Brown's rich vocals and tasteful guitar tone serve as the hinges that hold the album in place. But Brown gives his bandmates ample room to testify. He claims to dislike cutting heads: "That's something I don't believe in. Some of those son-of-a-guns out there, they're the leaders and nobody can be heard except them. I get sick of that. If you've got other members, work them, too. That's what you got 'em for. If you're not gonna work 'em, why throw your money away hirin' 'em? Money wasn't made for you to hoard to yourself, and music wasn't made for you to hoard, either."
Brown gets just as worked up when people try to tag him as a bluesman, a handle he's worked hard to move beyond. "I don't even play that kind of music," he says with contempt. "I refuse to play them ol' negative Mississippi blues. I just won't do it. I don't care for this cryin' stuff, beggin' for help from other people, beggin' for mercy. You know what I mean?" He tosses out a sample lyric--"'My woman done left me, what must I do?'"--before dismissively announcing, "Nobody cares about your woman."
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Clearly, Brown isn't a man given to complaining--and he regards this attribute as one of the explanations for his longevity. "My secret--and I don't know that it will work for everybody else--is being very positive, and growing instead of being stagnant." Taking care of yourself is also important, he acknowledges. "I've been drunk twice in my life--once from fright and once from sadness--and I saw right then that it didn't solve anything. So I swore I'd never do that again. And I won't. I've seen a lot of 'em go, abusin' themselves on heavy drugs and alcohol. And it makes me sad to to see people that go away because of that stuff. I understand we all gotta go one day, but there's no point in rushin' yourself."
No one can accuse Brown of falling into this trap. Even though he headlines more than 200 shows per annum, he always gives his all--even after the lights come up. "When I get done with my set, I don't do like those other artists who run and hide with all that security," he says. "What I do is, I go right through the crowd and sit down at my [merchandise] table and autograph stuff the people buy of mine"--stuff like CDs, T-shirts, pipes, custom-blended tobacco and postcards of his tour bus. "And if I do a double show, then I'm there twice. You see, you have to think about how you got up there in the first place. It wasn't by hiding."
By the same token, Brown has learned to enjoy his downtime. "The houses here, they call 'em 'camps,' but I've enlarged mine. If you ever saw it, you'd see it's no fishin' cottage--it's a home. I'm a bachelor, see, and this is real nice." But he hastens to add that he's not even close to ready to hang up his guitar for good. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I don't care what age you are--you get out there for a month or so and you get tired. You want to go and rest, and that's what I do. But retirement, no. That's for people who are burned out. Me, I've got all kinds of things that I do. I've got so much going on."
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. 8 p.m. Thursday, October 23, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $17, 830-