Monday, July 7, 2008

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown




AFter reading this, if you would, please continue reading the second posting from my great friend Denny. He is a super writer and has often played 'Master' to my 'Grasshopper' when it comes to musical knowledge and savvy.

Many times shooting concerts, I wasn't necessarily a fan of.. or even knowledgeable about the artist on stage. "Gatemouth" Brown is a perfect example of that. The first time I photographed him was in a small dark club in Southeast Texas, not far from his home. Before the show, I thought he was 'just another' of the local cajun musicians that all seemed, to my ear, to be similar and, fun as they were, a dime a dozen. When he hit the stage and started to play, I knew I was seeing someone special. Before Nirvana, before the Pixies, he perfected the 'soft-loud' dynamic that seemed so prevalent in the 1990's rock scene. But he didn't play Rock, he played an amazing amalgam of styles, synthesizing Blues, Cajun, Country, Jazz and R&B into his own unique sound.

He once told the NY Times that he played "American Music, Texas style", refusing to call it Blues, and was scornful of musicians who let themselves be "too easily understood by settling into a single sound". He thought "Delta Blues" too negative and hearing him play live was a truly uplifting experience. He dressed for performances in a Western Shirt and Cowboy hat, playing electric guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica and even drums. His first public notice came when he filled in for Texas Electric Blues great T-Bone Walker in post-war Houston. T-Bone, one of the few guitarist Gatemouth admitted liking had developed an ulcer. Brown walked on stage, picked up Walker's guitar and supposedly earned 600 bucks in 15 minutes and a record contract with Peacock Records.

Many of his early records were as close to Rock and Roll as anything being played at the time. But the influence of jazz and swing artist like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Jordan kept him from being pigeon-holed, maybe, it seems, costing him the wider-spread commercial success he might have had in a single genre of music. His own influence is spread far and wide including Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Johnny "guitar" Watson and even Frank Zappa who said Brown was his favorite guitarist of all time.

When I saw him, he played fiddle as much as guitar and the barely audible delicate notes that would creep out of his bow and fiddle would have you leaning forward to hear only to have you blasted back into your seat by the power behind the next notes. I would not have wanted to be a sound engineer on his recordings.

Some years later in Little Rock I had a chance to photograph him in another club. I found out where he was staying that day and called him in his room. I had a shot I liked of him playing fiddle, head back and fiddle held high.The shot was in black and white (see above) and probably shot on Tri-X at 400 ISO and shot with a Nikon F2 60th of a second at 2.8 on a 180mm nikor 2.8 lens. I mounted two large prints, one for him and one for me and dropped by his motel room. The motel was cheap and dingy. It was a sunny bright noontime when I arrived but in his room it was darker than the clubs he played. He was sitting on the edge of an unmade bed in a T-shirt and boxers, rolling a fat joint while a little girl slept in the second double bed. I sat in the only chair and showed him the prints. He signed one for me and liked the one I brought him. I very rarely asked for autographs. But when I did, it was only if I could have them sign one of my prints for me and I always left one for them, what I hoped was a fair exchange.

That night in the club he was joyous as always from stage, playing for the audience and probably as much for himself, for the joy it seemed to bring him. He died of cancer at 81 in 2005, not long after losing his Slidell, Louisiana home to Hurricane Katrina. If you never had a chance to hear him live, it's a true shame. Buy some of his music like 1979's album "Makin' Music" with Roy Clark, his 1982 Grammy Winner "Alright Again!" or his last release while alive, "Timeless" from 2004 and you can still experience a true 'American original'.

And Now Denny's Post

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was one of the stars of the first Houston Juneteenth Festival in 1977. He impressed the audience there because he played blues on the guitar then picked up a fiddle and played country as pure as could be. Just like it was kind of weird to see white boys playing the blues (Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray) even in 1977 it was equally strange to see a black guy playing stone country. Nevertheless, Gatemouth was a big blues star in Houston - he recorded for the Peacock label in the 1950s and put out some great blues sides. We saw Gatemouth at the Palace in Beaumont, a big ol' two-story wooden structure that you knew was going to burn down someday as part of an insurance settlement. Gatemouth always wore a big cowboy hat and western shirt and was proud to recall growing up in Orange, Texas, and learning to play fiddle from his father.
Gatemouth cut an album with Roy Clark of "Hee Haw" in 1979, he won a Grammy Award in 1982, and he played almost until the day he died. He died in Orange, the same town he grew up in, after evacuating his home for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One of the last things he recorded was a song on the Los Super Seven tribute to border radio Heard It On The X. Gatemouth cut the blues standard "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and he went out the same way he walked the earth every day - with a lot of class.

Check out Denny's great blog in the links at upper right or at 30daysout.wordpress.com

2 comments:

TITATOMA said...

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