Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BROWN, Clarence 'Gatemouth'

(b 18 April 1924, Vinton LA; d 9 September 2005, Orange TX) Singer, guitarist, fiddler. A Stetson-wearing bandleader who switched from blues to bluegrass, both live and on record. He learned guitar at five, fiddle and mandolin at ten; also played drums, bass and harmonica. Raised in Orange, son of a musician/rancher, he joined the Brown Skin Models on drums in the 1940s and toured the Midwest, then served in the US Army Engineer Corps. After the war He played drums with a  San Antonio-based big band in 1946. He went to work for T-Bone Walker, then made his solo debut in 1947 when Walker was ill during a gig at Don Robey’s peacock Club in Houston: asked to sing, instead he tore up the place playing guitar. He was signed by manager Robey, went on the road with a 23-piece band, flew to L.A. in 1947 to record for Aladdin with little success; then Robey formed Peacock, thought to be the first black-owned label, recording Brown with the Jack McVea band: 'Mary Is Fine' and many other Peacock releases were jukebox and/or regional hits, but Brown didn’t see a lot of money. He claimed that his songs were credited to Robey under Robey's own name or the pseudonym D. Malone; he offered to buy back his contract for $20,000 but was refused. During the 1950s he led both a black big band and a small white group playing all kinds of venues, continuing to record for Peacock, then for several labels.

During the 1960s he lived in Nashville, hosted an R&B show on TV and made country singles. He was acerbic about bluesmen, saying that they all wanted to sound like T-Bone Walker; after the Peacock years he refused to be typed, saying that he played Texas music. An eclectic big-band LP for MCA around 1978 featured the Brazilian percussionist Airto, Jim Keltner on drums, the Memphis Horns, the Mondane Willis Singers, country singer Roy Clark, and Garland Craft, then keyboardist with the Oak Ridge Boys. One of the great all-round entertainers, Brown worked both jazz and country festivals, made commercials for Lone Star beer, and was once a volunteer deputy sheriff of San Juan County NM. At age 81 he was suffering from lung cancer and heart disease and had to leave his home on Lake Ponchartrain to escape Hurricane Katrina; his home and 50 years of memorabilia were destroyed. As if that wasn't insult enough, in September 2008 Hurricane Ike sucked his bronze casket out of its hole in the ground in Orange, Texas.

His CDs include Alright Again!, Real Life, One More Mile, The Original Peacock Recordings and Texas Swing all on Rounder (the first won a Grammy in 1982); No Looking Back, Standing My Ground and Pressure Cooker (tracks made in France '73, with Milt Buckner, Jay McShann, Arnett Cobb etc) on Alligator; Just Got Lucky on Evidence and San Antonio Ballbuster on Drive; Gate's On The Heat, A Long Way Home (with Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Bobby Charles, Ry Cooder etc) and The Man (with Joel Sonnier and many others) on Verve.