Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans

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.

Book: Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans

Author: Keith Spera

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 2011-08

Format: Hardcover

Length: 272 pages

Price: $26.99

Affiliate: (St. Martin’s Press)

Image: 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.

It’s Not Just Twang, Twang, Twang

But roots music rewards longevity. Like many blues-based artists, Brown endured a long, fallow period as a has-been only to reemerge, like a butterfly from a cocoon, as an elder statesman. By the mid-1970s, he was appearing on Hee Haw. His 1982 release Alright Again! won a Grammy as Best Traditional Blues Album.

The 1990s proved to be the most lucrative period of his career. He could afford to record and occasionally perform with big bands, indulging his fondness for the arrangements of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. “Guys get on their knees bowing to me,” he said, not altogether unpleased. “I get very embarrassed sometimes, but that’s what they do.”

Eric Clapton became an unabashed Brown booster on November 22, 1994, the second of Clapton’s three consecutive nights at the New Orleans House of Blues. During his encore, Clapton invited Brown to sit in. After warming up, Brown stepped to the microphone and announced, “For my next song…” He essentially hijacked the show as a grinning Clapton shrugged and slipped into his newly assigned role as sideman.

Most guitar players in the white society figure the Delta blues is it. They don’t know that there’s a helluva lot more music than Delta blues. That’s the kind of music I avoid, because it’s depressing. It’s negative, and I won’t play it.

“How many people would get up onstage with Clapton and do that, and not even hesitate?” said Shepherd. “Only guys from that generation can do something like that and get away with it.”

Weeks later, Clapton invited Brown to join him at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He then asked Brown to open dozens of concerts across Europe and North America, exposing the old master to thousands of fresh ears. “I was doing damn good before Clapton,” Brown noted. “That just helped a little.”

When not on the road, he made the rounds in New Orleans or holed up at his Slidell hideaway. Following his third divorce, he lived alone amid a confirmed bachelor’s clutter. Dozens of elaborate model ships gave the den/living room/kitchen of his glorified fishing camp a nautical cast. He was especially proud of one vessel with a hull consisting of lacquered bones.

In one corner stood a copy of his plaster bas-relief portrait that is set in the ceiling of the New Orleans House of Blues; the club permanently reserved a booth in his honor. A photo of his Grammy award substituted for the actual trophy that resides in a Baton Rouge museum. Five W. C. Handy statuettes—the Grammy of the blues world—sat atop a dormant organ. A Rhythm & Blues Foundation plaque naming him 1997’s “Pioneer Artist” was a particular favorite—it came with a substantial check.

Brown relished the role of curmudgeon, but a sly smile often followed his most outrageous pronouncements. He hated posing for pictures and loved to let photographers know. He loathed rap and “head-banging” hard rock. His definition of love? “A misunderstanding between two damn fools.”

Initially, he declined an offer to contribute to a Rolling Stones tribute album. “I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t like Mick Jagger’s writing. It don’t make no sense.” He finally relented and recorded “Ventilator Blues.”

Years later, when asked his opinion of Me and Mr. Johnson, Clapton’s 2004 homage to blues pioneer Robert Johnson, Brown said, “I didn’t like those songs the first time, so why in the hell you think I’m gonna like ’em now?”

He complimented Clapton only grudgingly. “He’s all right,” Brown allowed, before correcting himself. “No, no—he’s a good guitar player. But what I notice is most guitar players in the white society figure the Delta blues is it. They don’t know that there’s a helluva lot more music than Delta blues. That’s the kind of music I avoid, because it’s depressing. It’s negative, and I won’t play it.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I play the blues, but it’s positive. It’s not about ‘my woman done left me’—a woman done left everyone who ever walked upright. That’s what’s wrong—every son of a bitch out there is trying to tell the world his woman deserted him, but that’s nothing to teach our kids.

“Blues players can’t give no information—they don’t know what to say. A certain individual, I won’t give his name, was on TV and they asked, ‘What is the blues to you?’ You know what his answer was? ‘A feeling.’ I cracked up, boy.”

Given such perceived absurdities, he intended his then-current album, Gate Swings, as a musical primer. “I could see son-of-a-guns out there trying to play big-band music and couldn’t even voice their instruments, didn’t know what they were doing. I showed them how it’s supposed to be voiced, what kind of dynamics it’s supposed to have. I play big-band lines—it’s not just twang, twang, twang. You’ve got to be making a statement.”

On Gate Swings, the big band interacts with, but does not overwhelm, his guitar. As he listened to the CD at his kitchen table, arched eyebrows, slight grimaces, quick smiles and a fist that clenched and pumped for emphasis all reflected his nuanced guitar work. “See how smooth that is?” he said, reveling in the moment. “That’s how music is supposed to be.”

He knew the arrangements intimately. Unlike some other blues legends who may only trot out token licks, he was clearly the conductor of Gate’s Express. After fifty years, he still strove for excellence.

“One time I was telling Clapton and my band, ‘You see that staircase? I started years ago at this bottom step.’ Then I didn’t point to the top step—I said, ‘I’m right here [in the middle], still climbing.’ And I don’t look back. What was is gone. What will be, who knows? But what is, counts.”

He refused to speculate about the future, about what his next album might be or whether he would continue to tour incessantly. “Who knows? I have no idea from one day to another. People ask, ‘What are you going to do next?’ I don’t know.”

After the sun had sunk into Lake Pontchartrain, a fully engaged Brown saddled up for the evening’s adventures. He pulled on black boots, positioned a matching cowboy hat atop his head, slipped his reserve sheriff’s deputy badge into a back pocket and tucked a holstered .38 into his waistband.

His immediate itinerary was uncertain. He might drive into New Orleans for a late supper at the House of Blues. Maybe he’d cruise around Slidell “hollerin’ at people I know.” Outside, he fired up an old pickup with a new set of brakes, and Gate’s express pulled out of the station.

Photo by Chris Granger

Keith Spera was born and raised in New Orleans, where he resides with his wife and two young children. In addition to his work at The Times-Picayune, he has contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender, and LA Weekly. He’s hosting several events in New Orleans this August.

© Keith Spera