Sunday, September 11, 2005

BLUESOBIT: Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown

While living in a temporary home after fleeing Hurricane Katrina, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown has died.

Born into a musical family in 1924, Brown was taught fiddle and guitar by his father; skills which allowed him to join a travelling show and - after a spell in the army - to find a role as a jobbing musician inSan Antonio. From there, he moved to Don Robey's San Antonio club, the Peacock, where his big break came when asked to fill in for an ailing T-Bone Walker. Robey was so pleased with his success as a fill-in - he'd pulled in $600 in tips - he suggested Gatemouth (the nickname came from his deep voice) try his luck in Los Angeles.

First on the Aladdin label, and then on Robey's own label, also called Peacock, Brown pulled together a formidable body of work, but felt the need to stretch himself artistically. In 1961, he quit Peacock and tried a range of styles, recording for Chess, Black and Blue, Barclay and others and leaping between jazz, country, cajun and various shades of blues over the next two decades. He even managed a novelty hit, May The Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.

In the 1980s, Rounder Records paired him with a brassy band to great effect - 1982's Alright Again won him a Grammy; that opened a period of being almost battered by prizes: eight WC Handy Blues awards, induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, the R&B Foundation's Pioneer Award; and a Heroes recogntion from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Even as he started to slide into ill-health, Brown managed to do a couple of live gigs every week, something he saw as slacking:

“I started off at 300 (dates a year) and then I backed off to 250. Now I do maybe 100 a year.”

His final album was for HighTone Records, Timeless; it was released a year ago this week.

Brown had been struggling against lung cancer and heart disease for some time, but his agent, Rick Cady, believes that his home in Slidell, LA, was destroyed had left him "heartbroken, literally and figuratively":

"He evacuated successfully before the hurricane hit, but I'm sure it weighed heavily on his soul."

The 81 year-old had been living with his brother's family in Orange, Texas since quitting Louisiana. The town had been his childhood home. A fund had been established to try and replace some of his lost instruments.


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