Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

by Dave Leucinger
July 2000

Clarence Gatemouth Brown on the cover of Maximum Ink July 2000

Clarence Gatemouth Brown on the cover of Maximum Ink July 2000

On stage, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown isn’t much of a talker - he makes most of his statements with his guitar and fiddle. With more than 50 years in the business, Brown’s kettle-stewed blend of influences harvested from his Texas/Louisiana home base have cooked down to a self-defined “American Music” - blending jazz, country, blues, Cajun, folk, R&B, and big band. Off-stage, he’s also usually parsimonious with his comments. But he does have his trigger points.

Like being labeled a “blues musician.”

So why is it that his biggest draws continue to be at blues festivals while earning most of his accolades for “blues” performances? “Because the media is so God damn dumb,” he fired back. “It’s not the people - it’s the writers that keep that thought in peoples’ heads. The people are brainwashed into it. That damn society keeps saying I’m a blues player. That’s a falsehood.”

Indeed, a retrospective of his career is all it takes to realize the breadth of his performances - from jump R&B for Aladdin and Peacock, to moody jazz, to country picking with Nashville cats that led to a performance on the old “Hee-Haw” show, and an album with co-host Roy Clark. “I was in an office in Tulsa when he came in - and the first thing he said was, ‘let’s do an album,”’ Brown recalled. “I asked him, ‘what do you have in mind?’ He answered, ‘it’s up to you.’ I knew what he wanted - a chance to be more mainstream. But it didn’t work, though.”

At the 50-year mark in his career, Brown returned to his earliest recording genre - swinging big band jazz. Beginning with the 1997 Gate Swings album and continuing with 1999’s American Music, Texas Style, Brown is working with the largest band since his Peacock recordings of the 1950s. What triggered the return to his roots? “It’s just something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” he said. But make no mistake - these recordings are no off-the-cuff jam sessions. Brown collaborated with New Orleans’ Wardell Quezergue on tight arrangements. “I heard some of his work around New Orleans, and that’s how we got together. He directs the horns, while I direct the rhythm section.” Yet through a half-century of changes in recording technology, Brown’s approach to recordings is unaltered. “I still take the band in to the studio and record things as they sound,” he said. “I don’t care for all the technology. There are people who spend six months to record one album. Anytime it takes you six months to do anything, you won’t be able to reproduce the final product.” He recalled the work of another artist, who recorded an album performing each instrument. “When he got out on the road, he still had to hire others to play those parts. I could make quadruple the money I make if I did everything myself. But you can’t redo it live. Music was meant to be shared.”

One might think Brown would have a bit of smugness from witnessing the renewed interest in swing music. But he didn’t express great enthusiasm for the current crop of neo-swing revivalists. “They’ve got a lot to learn,” he reflected. “They need to have more structure. They have a lot of horns, but they don’t know what to do with them.” That need goes beyond arrangements. “They need a leader - someone with structure and discipline.” Solo performers need to be able to move into and out of their breaks without walking all over the other musicians in their bands, Brown said. “They need to learn you can’t hog the spot.”

Brown also openly expresses his disdain for rap music - relating it to another societal change of the past two decades. “It don’t take no musician to do rap - it takes a comedian. I don’t get into it at all. I don’t think you should tell people to kill nobody - that rap shit has got kids brainwashed. It’s all part of the news media and record companies wanting to make a fast buck. It’s like fast food. They send it out there and tell you ‘it’s the best stuff.’ But it’s all about the quick buck - then it’s over with. That’s why so many kids today are overweight. And look at B.B. (King) and Bobby Bland - how big they’ve gotten. Food is for nourishment. I don’t eat that fast food stuff - it’s no good. And nobody will tell you anything about it in the news.”

Away from music, Brown continues to wear two other hats with pride. One is as father - of three grown daughters. “The last one just got out of college. That was real expensive,” he said. Have any of them expressed an interest in pursuing a musical career? “The last one sang until she was 13 - but hasn’t since then. She might return to music someday, but I hope she don’t. Music is no business for a female to be in.” The other hat Brown wears has a badge - that of Deputy Sheriff. ” I’m still Deputy Sheriff here in St. Tammany Parish (Louisiana),” he said. “It’s an honorary thing. Every time a new sheriff takes office, he comes to me and says, ‘please don’t leave.’ So I stick around. It’s good for business - it puts these small towns on the map, and I’m well-loved by the community.”

While Brown’s big band is making limited performances (including several dates in Europe in early July), he will tour the Midwest with a core group of veterans. “My bass player, Harold Floyd, has been with me 16 years. On keys, there’s Joe Krown - he’s from New York, but now lives in New Orleans. Eric Demmer is my alto and tenor (sax) player; he’s been with me five or six years. And my drummer, Eric Peters, who’s from Baton Rouge, went with me to Africa in ‘76 with Gate’s Express. When he got back, the band tried to go out on their own, but didn’t get anywhere. So Eric came back with me, and has been with me ever since.”

Although the spry 76-year-old Brown is still in better health than many of his contemporaries, the question of retirement is one that’s natural to ask. Just don’t expect an answer. “Well, I guess that covers all the questions you needed to know,” he elusively responded. Brown was equally mum on future musical plans past the current tour. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

The Gatemouth Brown of few words had re-emerged.

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