Gate Swings Wide

Sometimes I feel myself slipping, but I guarantee you I'll never fall. I'll hold my breath up high and wade through water, mud and all. -- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown

The story of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's discovery is a blues legend. Without a dime in his pocket, Brown had hitchhiked to Houston's Peacock Club to see T-Bone Walker, the father of electric Texas blues. The joint was jumpin' as the crowd exploded in a rhythmic cacophony of hootin' and hollerin'. But the muggy heat given off by the writhing throng eventually became too much for Walker, and he set down his guitar to walk off the stage with a stomach ailment.

The shining Gibson resting idly on the empty stage was more than Brown could resist, and the next thing he knew he was up there with the instrument in his hands. A drummer by trade, he started a tune in E, the only key he knew. The "Gatemouth Boogie" was invented on the spot.

"My name is Gatemouth Brown. I just got into town. If you don't like my style, I won't hang around," Brown bellowed from the stage.

The house started bouncing. Women flocked to the stage, throwing money with abandon. Their men soon followed suit. Within 15 minutes, Brown had made $600. Not a bad haul for the '40s. But Walker had had enough of the young upstart. He reclaimed the stage, grabbed his instrument and said, "Look, as long as you live and breathe, don't you ever pick on my guitar again."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Bone," Brown respectfully replied. "I don't know what made me do it."

Don Robey, the owner of the club, didn't know what had made Brown do it either, but he didn't care. He signed Brown the next morning, bought him a guitar and some fancy duds, and shipped him off to California to make his first record. It went gold.

Sadly, the next chapter of Brown's story follows that of many a music legend before and after him. He saw little of his royalties and eventually migrated to Europe to play for its newly developing blues audience. He returned to the States in the late '70s, unwilling to let his bad experiences sour his lyrical content. "Now, every blues I make, you can listen to my record, I'm telling you to do something with your life rather than giving up life," he once told an interviewer.

Brown has incorporated a wide variety of genres into his music over the years, including blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, swing, French traditional songs and even a little German polka. In his words, his compositions are best described as "American music, Texas-style." This weekend brings the chance to see the man in person at the African American Arts & Music Festival at Project Row Houses.

The spry octogenarian still bounces around the stage, picking up a different instrument in his delicately elongated hands for practically every song. With such dexterity at his disposal, the crowd never knows what to expect, except excellence. As he once said, "I'm still growing. I won't stay in my place."

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Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek