Though some may want to pigeonhole him as a blues musician, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown has developed his own musical style during his 50-plus years onstage.
An American Original
Some years ago, before a show at a long-defunct Broad Street venue, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown amiably held forth backstage for a small clutch of delighted fans. Smoking his ever-present pipe, clad in his black Western clothes and cowboy hat, he patiently answered the same questions he'd been asked for decades in the quiet and personable style of a man who knows what he's about. But he really came to life when he talked about his young daughter back home, who was 7 or 8 at the time. Unsolicited, Brown pulled out her picture for all to see and the group of fans saw another side of this world-traveling artist.
Now, 13 years later, things have not changed much for this multistyled musical ambassador. By phone from his home outside of New Orleans, Brown talks, with humor and patience, of travel, his disinterest in Delta blues, the part-time deputy sheriff's job he still holds, his troubles with women and his musical past. But when asked about his girl you can hear the smile in his voice. His youngest daughter just turned 21 and pop is proud.
"That's my pet," the 76-year-old Brown says. "She's daddy's baby."
But if Brown is proud of his daughter, he's also proud of the 50-year-plus musical legacy he brings with him to Groovin' in the Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden June 8. He doesn't get today's "jumbled-up" modern music and wants it clear that he's stuck to his own genre-blending roots, despite those in the '60s who tried to pigeonhole this multi-instrumentalist as a blues guitar player. Brown heard many types of music growing up in East Texas, including big band, Cajun and bluegrass and he likes to play it all. He describes his guitar, mandolin and fiddle styles as horn-inspired although he never wanted to play brass himself.
"I just like a lot of horns, man," Brown explains. "I play them (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) like horns, ya know. You just have to listen."
Gate has taken his blend of blues, country and big band around the world since 1947 when he first jumped on a Houston stage for an ailing T-Bone Walker and wowed black record executives and an audience with his stinging guitar style. He cut records, had some hits and traveled constantly during the '50s, sometimes playing with a 23-piece orchestra. He became more reclusive in the '60s moving to New Mexico. But there was no way he was out of the music business. He was always playing gigs, but he was doing them his way.
"I went woodshedding," Brown says. "I backed off that R&B stuff."
The '70s and '80s brought him back into the limelight with new record labels, multiple Grammy nominations, W.C. Handy awards and more travel, including a trip to Russia in 1979 and to eastern Africa for the U.S. State Department.
Through the '90s and into 2000, Brown hasn't slowed down. He started a new recording last week, and this summer will travel to California, Hawaii and Europe. Gate's eclectic style is understood wherever he goes and he's grateful for it.
"It's a mix of good music," he says with confidence. "I'm cranking pretty good."
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