© Paul Harris
© Paul Harris
'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says farewell to guitarist, fiddler and singer, the blues musician who encompassed Texas swing, country, Cajun, Zydeco and jazz, the wonderful Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown who died on 8th September 2005 aged 81.
Clarence had been suffering from lung cancer and heart problems and was evacuated from his home in Slidell, near New Orleans, shortly before hurricane Katrina hit the city. The musician had settled in his Slidell home, built above a waterway containing its own resident alligator, during the early nineties. “I’m built right up over the water and I can fish off the back of my deck,” he explained during an interview conducted a few years back. “The gator don’t bother me. If I leave him alone, he leaves me alone”. The loss of the home he loved would be difficult enough for the ailing 81 year old to handle. Katrina though, took most of his instruments and irreplaceable memorabilia; understandably he was heartbroken.
Yours truly was indeed privileged to catch this eclectic musician in action a number of times, mostly on his native New Orleans soil at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as clubs around the city. His trips to the UK were a little thin on the ground although 'Tales From The Woods' veteran rockin’ scribe Shaky Lee Wilkinson and myself caught him at his unpredictable best one steamy hot summer’s evening which must be in the region of a decade and a half ago. A near capacity audience had turned out to pay homage to the virtuoso on a rare London visit. Lee and I even managed to gatecrash his dressing room (on what pretext is lost in the mists of time) where the air was thick with cannabis smoke. We found Clarence friendly enough, chatting away whilst puffing on a spliff.
Born on 18th April 1924, though a Louisianan by birth, he grew up across the state line in Orange, Texas. His father, a railroad engineer and weekend musician, taught him to play the fiddle. During the course of his very early life, he learnt the art of guitar and drums from his brothers. It was as a drummer that he launched his career playing with a local band, The Gay Swingsters, and later with a travelling revue, William Benbow’s Brown Skin Models. He eventually secured a permanent job drumming and singing with the orchestra at the Keyhole Club in San Antonio.
The year of 1947 would find a 23-year-old Clarence hitchhiking to Houston and presenting himself to entrepreneur Don Robey who owned the Bronze Peacock Club and would create a matching record label (Peacock Records). Robey became Brown’s manager and was soon hitting the R&B charts with sides like ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’.
Throughout the latter half of the fifties, Brown proved to be one of the most bankable artists in the blues field. The turn of the following decade would see a massive falling out between Robey and himself. Clarence would later claim in numerous interviews that his former manager’s connections effectively blacklisted him for the remainder of the 1960s. He even swapped his guitar for a deputy sheriff’s badge in San Juan County, New Mexico although he did get a job in Nashville leading the houseband for the black music TV show, The Beat.
As it has so often been, it was Europe that put him back on his feet. After tours, festival appearances and recordings in France during the early 1970s, his personal makeover documented in albums like ‘Blackjack’ and ‘Makin’ Music’, a 1979 duet with country music musician Roy Clark. Come the 1980s, with the support of his manager Jim Bateman, he was confident enough in the breadth of his resources to fall back into the role of a bluesman as on his Grammy Award winning album ’Alright Again’ 1982 and with successors such as ‘One More Mile’ 1983 and ‘Standing My Ground’ 1989. Even on these blues based albums he would wander off to take in a Cajun fiddle tune or a jazz standard like ‘Take The A Train’.
“I refuse to be labelled as a blues, jazz or country player” has been so famously quoted so many times over the years, preferring no doubt to be recorded as a musician of Americana which would accurately describe the albums he made throughout the remainder of his life, such as the self explanatory ‘American Music, Texas Style’ 1999, ‘Back To Bocalusa’ 2001, and most certainly his last ‘Timeless’ 2004, mixing blues and country songs and the swing styles of ‘Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman all thrown into the melting pot. Indeed, a true original.
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