Standing at the Gate

Aug 21, 2002 at 12:00 am

Whatever you do, don’t ever call Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown a blues musician.

“I play American music and world music,” said Brown when I got the chance to talk with him via phone for a few minutes between tour dates. “I’ve been stressing that everywhere I go.”

I figured then that the natural question to ask the 78-year-old Brown was: Why, as one of the best practitioners of American and world music on the scene today, has he so persistently been labeled as a blues musician?

Even a deaf man could have heard the irritation rubbing on his voice like sandpaper on tree bark. “They think all black men play jazz and blues. That’s bullshit. I play music.”

That’s good enough for me. Just for the record, I’ve also heard that Brown doesn’t take it very kindly when anyone offers him a drink. Doesn’t take it kindly at all. Kinda pisses him off, actually. A lot. Brown doesn’t drink.

Since I kinda neglected to ask about this when I was talking to him, I decided to check the story out with Michelle Cothern of Real Records who serves as Brown’s booking agent.

“Are you putting that in the story — that he doesn’t like people who drink?” she asked.

I explained that my intention wasn’t to scare folks off from Brown, who actually comes off as a straightforward, decent guy over the phone. Rather, I figured it was my duty to give the patrons of George and Harry’s a heads-up so that no one makes that mistake tonight when he performs his first Detroit-area gig in nearly 20 years.

Ms. Cothern laughed.

“Oh, yeah, it’s true,” she said. “He just doesn’t care for drinking any more. He even got on me for it once at a New Year’s Eve party. I just had a drink in my hand. I mean, it wasn’t like I was drunk or anything.”

According to Ms. Cothern, Mr. Brown’s toleration of those who drink alcohol is actually OK — so long as folks don’t get out of hand. But if any friendly drunks start stumbling up to him blabbering about how wunnerful he is and all that? Let’s just say that such behavior would be upsetting to him, and I get the idea that upsetting “Gatemouth” Brown would not be a good thing. So, when you check out this remarkable performer, please keep those things in mind.

Brown, has been performing professionally for more than a half-century. He was born in Vinton, La., and raised not far from the Gulf Coast in Orange, Texas. He learned guitar and fiddle from his father, who played and sang a wide variety of tunes, everything from French traditional songs to German polkas. So now you know why he gets a little irritated when folks try to place barriers around him. Do not fence this man in.

Brown’s performing life began during World War II. According to lore, he made his debut as a guitarist in 1947 by simply walking on stage at Don Robey’s famed Peacock Club in Houston and picking up an electric Gibson guitar that an ailing T-Bone Walker had put down midshow. Gate so wowed the audience, playing his own “Gatemouth Boogie,” that within a few minutes he had been showered with $600 in tips, a large haul in those cash-strapped days.

Robey was apparently so impressed by what he had just witnessed that he hired the man and used him to front a 23-piece orchestra on a tour across the South and Southwest. Following that, the manager soon formed Peacock Records — a black-owned label — and utilized the new label to spread Gatemouth’s gospel to the multitudes. It was for this label that Brown recorded such hits as “Okie Dokie Stomp,” “Boogie Rambler,” and “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.”

Brown eventually split with Robey and moved to Nashville, where he began to add country music to his already broad repertoire of styles and songs. He recorded with country guitar phenomenon Roy Clark and appeared on “Hee Haw.” Following these exploits, Brown found himself touring as a musical ambassador for the U.S. State Department as far away as East Africa, Europe and the Soviet Union.

Ultimately it was the combination of these extraordinary experiences and influences that created the sound that earned Brown eight W.C. Handy Awards and a Grammy. He has also been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and has received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.

The last time he played Detroit was at the now-defunct Soup Kitchen Saloon.

“That place still there?” he asked.

Things change, Mr. Brown. Yes indeed, they surely do.

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown will perform Wednesday, Aug. 21 at George and Harry’s Blues Café, 22048 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; call 313-359-2799.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]