Excerpted from Chapter 1: Gatemouth Brown’s Last Ride, from Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans by Keith Spera, published August 2011 Copyright © 2011 by Keith Spera and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Gatemouth Brown’s Last Ride
In the fall of 1997, photographer Jennifer Zdon and I visited the notoriously cantankerous Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at his ramshackle bayou-side bachelor’s pad outside Slidell, Louisiana. He immediately antagonized Zdon. He’d rather marry a gorilla and keep it in his lemon tree, the thrice-divorced Brown informed her, than marry another woman. Not amused, she struggled to maintain her professional composure even as Brown refused pleas to pose with his trademark cowboy hat.
Eight years later, as Brown wasted away from cancer, heart disease and emphysema, Zdon asked to document his struggle for The Times-Picayune. He agreed, with one provision: That he be allowed to preview the photographs before publication. In the end, the dying musician objected to only one image of himself, shirtless and skeletal, being helped into bed. It was too intimate, too revealing, too raw.
As evidenced by his frequently impolitic assertions and boasts, Gatemouth Brown didn’t worry all that much about other folks’ opinions of him. But to expose his own weakness so nakedly was more than he could stomach. Even Gatemouth, at some point, was vulnerable.
Zdon honored his request. The photo never ran.
Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans
(St. Martin’s Press; US: Aug 2011)
The black-and-red backpack never strayed from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s side. Inside were the tools of the guitarist’s trade as a living legend of Gulf Coast music: copies of his latest CD; promotional photos; a Sharpie for signing autographs.
The backpack also contained personal items: a reserve sheriff’s deputy badge from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana; assorted pipes and tobacco; an ashtray for use in establishments that didn’t ordinarily accommodate smokers.
Most critically, it concealed the realities of his precarious day-to-day existence in the spring of 2005: two portable oxygen tanks; an inhaler; an electronic blood pressure gauge; a supply of pills.
The previous September, Brown, then eighty, announced that he had lung cancer. After consulting with doctors at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he opted to forgo treatment. He would ride it out, one day at a time, puffing calmly on the pipe that was his constant companion and a likely culprit.
Cancer was not his only ailment. He also suffered from emphysema and partial blockage in his arteries. Doctors wouldn’t risk an operation because of his diminished lung capacity.
Clearly, Brown was nearing the end of his remarkable run. During a fifty-year career, commercial success on par with that of fellow blues traveler B. B. King had eluded him. But to fans and admirers, including Eric Clapton, the broad scope of his musicianship was unparalleled. Fluent on guitar, fiddle, mandola, harmonica, drums, viola and piano, he released his seminal single, the horn-heavy instrumental “Okie Dokie Stomp,” in 1954. Like many of his roots-music peers, he faded into obscurity until European blues enthusiasts “rediscovered” him.
Brown stormed back, a font of jump blues, big band swing, country, jazz and Cajun music. Long, elegant fingers teased out precise licks; he demanded similar perfection from his musicians. “He’s a very opinionated, hardheaded person sometimes,” said Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the young blues-rock guitarist from north Louisiana who recruited Brown for his Grammy-nominated 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads project. “I mean that in an endearing way. If he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t be Gatemouth.”
A string of acclaimed albums in the 1990s—American Music, Texas Style, Long Way Home, Gate Swings—found him at the peak of his powers. Clapton enlisted Brown and his band, Gate’s Express, as the opening act on arena tours of Europe and North America. Brown was riding high once again. Not surprisingly, as illness encroached on his world, he refused to relinquish it quietly.
A weekday afternoon in October 1997 found Gatemouth Brown at his home near Slidell, a sleepy bedroom community east of New Orleans on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. His abode alongside Highway 11 teetered above a canal on wood pilings; the back porch overlooked an expanse of marshland stretching to the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Parked among the banana, plum, pecan and lemon trees out front was his barge-like black 1976 Cadillac DeVille. A side window bore a caricature of him as a lean cowboy guitar-slinger.
The arrival of visitors roused him from a siesta necessitated by a late night in Baton Rouge. “Gimme a few minutes to wake up,” he mumbled, embarking on a quest for coffee and his trusty pipe. The restless Brown was rarely that idle. That July, at age seventy-three, he performed in both China and South Africa. Tours of the West Coast, France, Slovenia, Austria and Belgium followed.
Slowly coming alive at his kitchen table, he reflected on his epic life. He was born in 1924 in the southwest Louisiana town of Vinton, months before his family moved across the Sabine River to Orange, Texas. Accounts of the origin of his nickname varied. Some say the source was an exasperated schoolteacher who said young Brown’s mouth swung open and shut like a gate; others claim it was Don Robey, Brown’s first manager, who concocted “Gatemouth” as a stage name. Brown generally declined to elaborate—he planned to save the story for his autobiography.
Music abounded at home. His father, a railroad engineer, was also a bluegrass and Cajun fiddler; Brown’s brothers played guitar and drums. In his late teens, he cut his teeth with various Texas bands, then served a stretch in the Army. Back in Texas, he worked as a journeyman guitarist. One evening at Houston’s Bronze Peacock nightclub, he picked up an ailing T-Bone Walker’s guitar and improvised a song. Impressed, Robey, the club’s owner, resolved to get Brown a record deal.
Starting in 1947, Brown cut singles first for Los Angeles–based Aladdin Records, then Robey’s own Peacock label. Those early sides contributed to the development of Texas blues; the Lone Star State would continue to claim him even after he settled in Slidell in 1983.
After the blues market dried up in the mid-1960s, Brown rambled around Colorado and New Mexico. In 1966 in Nashville, he fronted the house band for an R&B-based TV variety show called The!!!! Beat; he and The Beat Boys performed alongside African-American go-go dancers in white boots and fringed miniskirts. After the show’s one-year run, he dropped out of sight.