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What was it about Frank Zappa and Third Ward guitarists? In addition to having been a huge fan of and repeat collaborator with the late Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Zappa was also on the record as saying that Gatemouth Brown -- who passed away in Orange earlier this month -- was his favorite guitarist of all time.
It was always easy to see why. Brown's late-'40s and early-'50s recordings for Peacock -- collected on both San Antonio Ballbuster and The Original Peacock Recordings -- stand the test of time better than almost anything else from that era, period. To me, Gate was the first true blues and rock and roll electric guitar hero. On brash and brassy sides like "Okie Dokie Stomp," "Ain't That Dandy," "That's Your Daddy Yaddy Yo" and "Depression Blues," there's a palpable excitement still -- you can hear that Gate's hornlike guitar solos were raising the game for everybody. And then there was his funky fiddle ramble "Just Before Dawn" -- one of the happiest little instrumentals you'll ever hear, not to mention a recorded precursor to the amazing versatility that Brown would show over the next 50 years of making "American music, Texas-style."
"Whoever wrote that he did it his way, they definitely said the truth," says Evelyn Johnson, Don Robey's right-hand woman at Duke-Peacock. Johnson -- a pioneering black businesswoman and a vital, underrated figure in the development of soul, blues, jazz and rock -- operated Duke-Peacock's Buffalo Booking Agency, which handled show dates for all of the artists in the label's stables and also B.B. King for a time. "Everything Gate did, he did his own way. He was his own biggest enemy. He should be one of the biggest stars today, but he held himself back."
Johnson disputes the oft-told legend of Gate's emergence as a star. "The story that he tells was that he was in the Peacock and T-Bone Walker became ill and he walked up and took his guitar and started playing. Then he tells me, 'You remember that, dontcha?' And I would say, 'No I don't, and you don't either.' [Laughs] That's not the way it was. Because what happened was, I had never heard of Brown, but we had the Bronze Peacock dinner club, and T-Bone Walker would play there frequently. He was the best-known blues guitarist around At any rate, he became ill, and the doctor said he couldn't work. He came to work anyway that night and I fined him $100. So then T-Bone -- and T-Bone talked real proper, you know -- he said, 'There's a little guy down in San Antonio that can really play guitar.' So, we sent for [Brown]. We did -- Don Robey did. We got him to play for T-Bone in his place until he could get well. As fate would have it, he played the engagement out, and the next three days he was the best-dressed guy around because Don took him to a tailor shop and had about five or six top hats and tails -- red, green, black and all."
Eventually Brown and Duke-Peacock parted ways, and Brown started playing country music in the mid-'60s, was rediscovered in Europe in the '70s, and released a string of great albums for Rounder and other labels beginning in the '80s, all of which combined elements of Cajun, zydeco, country, rock, jazz and blues -- a bayou-bred mélange Gate called Texas swing.
One of the reasons that Brown hated being called a bluesman -- and he had many valid ones -- was that to him, the term connoted a low-down drunk womanizer. Brown was far from either. He eschewed groupies for the most part and often railed about the dangers of alcohol and all the talented musicians -- his brother Widemouth was one -- who fell victim to whiskey. Pot was another matter; at times he sounded like a NORML officer. "Marijuana is the only substance on earth that's grown by what we know as God, nature or whatever, that don't really harm no one," he told journalist Jas Obrecht in 1992.
Houston Press contributor Greg Ellis remembers one time when the weed almost got the better of Brown. It was a show at Tipitina's in New Orleans about 20 years ago. Gate came upon some of Ellis's friends smoking a joint during the set break and asked for a hit or two. "So they smoked him out, and finished up that joint and Gate said, 'C'mon, let's have some more!' " Ellis remembers. "And Warren said, 'Gate, that's kinda creeper weed, you might want to wait a little while.' And Gate said, 'C'mon man, gimme some more! I gotta go play!' So they burned another one, and because they knew what was coming they let Gate smoke most of it. And then they all went back inside and Gate's Express started up on stage and they went through a couple of numbers and then they started up the vamp -- you know -- daaah-na-na-duh-duh. And then the bass player comes up and he's like, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to the stage Gatemouth Brown!' daaah-na-na-duh-duh 'Texas legend, Gatemouth Brown!' daaah-na-na-duh-duh 'Uuhhh, Grammy-winner Gatemouth Brown!' daaah-na-na-duh-duh
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