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
"By this time everybody's kinda lookin' around. Warren looks over at the bar and there's Gate in the corner of the bar in the fetal position. The bass player sees him at approximately the same time and drops his bass while the rest of the band continues the daaah-na-na-duh-duh, gets off the stage, goes down to the bar and basically pulls Gate to the stage, puts his guitar on him, and then everything was fine."
Johnson says that a year or so ago, after Gate had sought treatment at M.D. Anderson for lung cancer and emphysema, the doctors told him that his beloved pipe was naturally the first thing that would have to go. And he would have to submit to chemotherapy. The proud, stubborn Gate would have none of that. Johnson, who is having health problems of her own, had been in touch with Brown, and says that he had promised to call her when he was in town for treatment. He never called. "I called him in Slidell and said, 'Gate, you promised you would call, but you never did. What happened to you?' And he just cussed like 48 sailors 'I wasn't gonna take that stuff and la-di-da-di-da.' And I said, 'Gate, you can't win that battle, baby.' You have a hell of a time with it with the best of intentions. I know what I'm talking about. He would not even stay in the hospital. They wanted to put him on chemo instantly and the whole nine yards, 'cause he was really long gone. He hadn't smoked cigarettes for years, but he had marijuana in that pipe 24/7. And there were those who said marijuana was good for lung cancer and so forth, but it's six of one a half-dozen of the other. That has not been proven either way."
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But if you were gonna give Gate the option of submitting to outside forces or carrying on his own way, you knew which he would choose. He would load up another bowl and head back to Slidell and carry on the best he could. He made a memorable appearance at this year's French Quarter Festival in New Orleans. It was at the Maple Leaf Bar, and the show was supposed to be for New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown. Upstate New York jazz DJ Dave Moskal was there. Suddenly Gate shuffled in the door -- dressed in his usual Creole cowboy garb and trundling his oxygen tank alongside him as the room exploded in applause. "They disconnect his oxygen and he lays out a couple of tunes with Joe's band -- slumped over his guitar -- and the crowd is just silent as he's playing," Moskal told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Brown's last recording, an eerie solo rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" that appeared earlier this year on Los Super Seven's Heard It on the X, in some ways seemed like an odd choice. At least until you listened to it. Gate had often railed against crude bluesmen like Jefferson -- both their lives and their music. But when you hear it, it's plain that Gate stamped the song with his own sophisticated Texas swing style -- there would be none of Jefferson's odd, some say faulty, rhythm here. And then there's the fact that it's pretty much the ultimate control freak's song. It says, in essence, "I may be dead, but you will remember me and work for me for the rest of your days."
On the song, Gate is playing a National steel guitar, and he once recalled that they were the very first guitars he played in his boyhood in Orange. Which brings up another point: There was something almost mystical in his Katrina-forced evacuation. Gate -- knowing full well the end was near -- chose not to come to Houston, where one of the world's mightiest medical centers awaited. Instead, he chose to return to Orange, the hardscrabble border town where he became a man. As he once sang, "I was born in Louisiana and raised up on the Texas side." The fusion of those two unique states' cultures defined him as both a man and a musician.
Quite simply, Gatemouth Brown embodied the western Gulf Coast, and just as things will never be the same here after Katrina (and Rita too), neither will the music. As Doug Sahm was to the I-10 corridor from Houston to San Antonio, so Gatemouth Brown was to that which heads east as far as New Orleans. We may see their like again, but somehow I doubt it.