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Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (Courtesy photo)
Louisiana-born, Texas-raised legend does more than sing the blues

Houston, Texas, 1947. Texas-born pioneer of the electrified blues guitar T-Bone Walker is the star attraction at entrepreneur Don Robey's garishly named Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, frequent home to such touring acts as Ruth Brown and Louis Jordan. But T-Bone takes ill, putting Robey in a spot. The details of what happened next have become a little hazy with time, but according to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's version: Walker set his instrument down and left the stage, then Brown, fresh from the Army and never having played guitar in public before (he had been working as a drummer, having started gigging in San Antonio at 21), simply walked onstage, picked it up, and took over.

Brown did so well that night that Robey decided to use him as the launching pad for a new career. After managing Brown with no success, Robey started his own label to feature the man. The newly christened Peacock Records went on to become legendary: home to successful gospel acts, proud issuer of Big Mama Thornton's take on "Hound Dog" (she belted it before the King did), and eventual sister label to Duke, the imprint where Bobby "Blue" Bland rose to fame. Blame it all on T-Bone getting too weak to carry on the show.

Don Robey was well known for the control he kept over his artists (there were even rumors of physical abuse), and Gatemouth eventually split with the label - but not before the impresario set him up with a 23-piece R&B orchestra, where he was able to explore his affinity for big band jazzmen Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

From the start, there was more to Brown's music than the blues. He was raised in Orange, Texas, by a musician whose repertoire ranged from Cajun and country to polka and bluegrass. Brown learned to fiddle and play guitar from his dad, and since leaving Peacock, has often incorporated the fiddle into his music. He picked up mandolin and harmonica along the way, and plays as many styles as instruments. Since the '60s, Gate has won Grammys and W.C. Handy Awards in the blues category; he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, but his records have never been that easy to categorize. They are to blues what Lyle Lovett's discs are to country: They reach back and forward at once, embracing too many influences to count.

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How is this for diverse? In 1979, Brown made a record with country picker Roy Clark, and wound up appearing on Hee Haw. He toured through Africa at the behest of the U.S. State Department, visiting Sudan, Botswana, and Madagascar as a musical ambassador. He ventured, like Robert Mitchum before him, into calypso. He was a regular guest at the Montreux Jazz Festival. And for a while, when his various musical careers weren't challenging enough, he moved to New Mexico and became a deputy sheriff.

Through the '80s and '90s, Brown bounced around record labels, cutting successful albums on Alligator, Verve, and Rounder, companies that are generally associated with different genres. His most recent release, 2001's Back to Bogalusa (Blue Thumb), emphasizes Gatemouth's Louisiana roots.

Bogalusa is a slicker production than one might want, with mild-voiced backup singers, slick horn arrangements, and sound that is crisp and defined where it ought to be a little swampy. In that way, it is reminiscent of many of Dr. John's Louisiana roots releases; you wish the label told them they had three months to record and then showed up at week four and said, "Guys, we're going to record the whole thing live right now."

Still, the disc bodes well for seeing Gate in a live setting. You can't get this sound in person - not without a lot of work and sound equipment, anyway - but the chops behind it will still be there. Check out the playfully expressive guitar solo on "Slap It," which bends notes around and bounces back and forth before settling into a groove. Listen to the simple, earthy fiddle licks that back up the veteran's muddy-mouthed vocal on "Breaux Bridge Rag." Or snap your fingers to the cool R&B vamp of "Dangerous Critter" and remind yourself that Casbeers isn't likely to lay effects on the backup vocals like that. (And, given the economics of touring, the backup is likely to be delivered by an instrumentalist instead of a studio-honed chanteuse.)

Whatever you do, just don't strut into the club expecting some crotchety old man playing the same ol' 12-bar blues. Gatemouth may have started out filling T-Bone's shoes, but he has covered a lot of ground since 1947. •

More by John DeFore



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