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Texas Bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown Dies

Bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown died Saturday in his hometown of Orange, Texas at age 81. The musician, who hated to be pigeonholed into genres, had been battling lung cancer and heart disease and was in ill health for the past year, according to his booking agent Rick Cady. The singer and guitarist had been residing in New Orleans but returned to his hometown of Orange to stay with his brother and family to escape Hurricane Katrina. Brown’s home in Slidell, La., a bedroom community of New Orleans, was destroyed by the hurricane. Cady said Brown was completely devastated and heartbroken upon hearing of the destruction of his home.

Brown was born on April 18, 1924 in Vinton, La., but moved to Orange when he was only a few weeks old. He was immersed in music from the very start, as his father was a locally known country, Cajun and bluegrass musician. Brown began playing the fiddle when he was five, and by the age of 10, he had taught himself an odd way of guitar picking, a style that would later define him and his music. As he entered his teens, Brown began touring with swing bands as a drummer and was nicknamed “Gatemouth” for his deep voice. After a brief stint in the Army, Brown returned to Texas in 1945, where he became inspired by the work of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.

It was Walker who inadvertantly gave Brown his big break. It was 1947 and Walker was performing in a Houston nightclub. He fell ill, however, and had to leave the stage in the middle of a set, The club manager, looking to fill the void somehow, invited Brown onstage to sing. But Brown had a different idea and grabbed Walker’s guitar and started playing “Gatemouth Boogie,” thoroughly impressing the crowd with a song he claims to have made up on the spot.

Brown began recording in the the 1940s and 50s, releasing memorable songs inluding “Okie Dokie Stomp,” “Boogie Rambler,” “Dirty Work at the Crossroads” and “Ain’t That Dandy.” But he became frustrated with the limitations the blues imposed and was soon experimenting with styles, including jazz and country. He soon became a multi-instrumentalist across genres, playing everything from bass to harmonica in styles ranging from straight-up blues to zydeco and Cajun. By the end of his career, he had more than 30 recordings and the 1982 Grammy for best traditional blues album.

While he recorded with other artists, notably Roy Clark, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt, Brown was dismissive of most musicians, including many of his contemporaries. He once called B.B. King “one-dimensional” and accused his Texas blues contemporaries Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland as clones of T-Bone Walker.

Survivors include three daughters, Ursula Brown of Houston, Celeste Biles of Vista, Calif and Renee Brown of New Orleans; son Dwayne Brown of Oklahoma City; brother Bobby Brown of Orange; and six grandchildren.

Originally Published