A Man Is a Man
I love hateful, embittered old musicians who have nothing good to say about anyone
or anything. I particularly love CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN because, at 75, he's had plenty of time to get all twisted up inside and mean as a pit viper. I also love Gatemouth Brown because he has absolutely ruled the world of American music for about 50 years, to very little reward or popular acclaim. You, too, would be all twisted and bitter in Brown's position. I'm all twisted and bitter for him.
Brown's past two albums, American Music Texas Style and Gate Swings, are two absolutely perfect collections of Texas swing and jump blues from one of the creators of the form. Yet you don't see the zoot suit brigade flocking to Brown's shows; his albums don't sell platinum. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy sells platinum. Gate don't like it; I don't either. It's a sin and a shame.
As legend has it (a legend Gate confirms), Brown's career began when T-Bone Walker took ill and left the stage one night in Houston in 1947. Brown picked up the stricken musician's guitar, brought the house down, and hasn't looked back since.
The classic blues/R&B label Peacock Records was founded in the '50s specifically to record Brown. He led the house band on the '60s black music showcase program The Beat!!! He's won a Grammy among seven nominations and earned a closetful of W.C. Handy Awards. Guitarists ranging from Albert Collins, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and even Frank Zappa have cited him as a prime influence.
Yet Brown is more than a guitarist and more than a mere bluesman. He rips on fiddle, mandolin and harp as well as guitar, and his genre-bending music has included heavy doses of jazz, hillbilly and Cajun. You get the distinct feeling he has returned to his swing roots recently just to put the white boys in their place. Brown is among the featured performers at this week's Long Beach Blues Festival (he appears Saturday). He recently spoke to me about all that which sucks
ON FAKE SWING MUSICIANS: "They don't know how to blow those instruments. I don't care for it; they're not doing nothing. They're too busy trying to copy from what they heard. And they are all pushing in to see me, see what's going on. They're beginning to wake up to what I'm doing, which is what they should have been listening to all along. All these people they push to be superstars don't be doing a damn thing. They don't give me the same displays they give these other people. And yet, the audiences love my music all over the world, wherever I go. It's sickening to me. But I don't let it stop me." ON FAKE TEXAS BLUES MUSICIANS: "I tried to create something that nobody else has never did. A lot of these guys from Texas talk about Texas music, but I mean, that's just a label. They get with that Delta blues and Chicago blues. They get that old funky-type beat, and that's what they push, and they think that's Texas music? Naw. To me, it's the beat I use. The drummer playing one . . . two . . . one-two on that bass drum, and the bass is walking on it. It's just a unique sound, that's all. I heard some white band in Florida the other night trying to copy my rhythm-pattern line, and they didn't know how to do it." ON BEING LABELED A "BLUESMAN:" "Oh, man, that's America. They try to keep a black man in blues or jazz. They don't acknowledge a man is a man, and he can do anything he wants to do if he wants to do it. My first music was Cajun, country and bluegrass—wasn't no goddamn blues. I didn't know nothing about no blues. It pisses you off when that's the only category they wanna put you in: blues and jazz. Just like Alligator Records—that's why I had to leave them. They talking about hardcore blues players. They wanna swing me in there, and I don't wanna be there. Blues, jazz, country, Cajun, bluegrass . . . everything is in there. That's what I do—that's right." ON THE BEAT!!!: "I gave a lot of people their start on that show. That was the first all-black TV show ever to hit anywhere in America. And I understand the Klansmen closed it down because, well, I don't know, for whatever fucked-up reason it was. It pisses me off to see America so goddamn stupid. They think all a black man can do is three things: play blues and jazz and be an athlete. That shit is still going on today." ON AMERICA'S LOVE OF SPORTS: "I can't stand sports. Basketball: they get just the worst-looking, fucked-up people they can and put 'em up there to look like . . . I don't know what they look like. Football players: I just can't stand that shit. I can't stand sports. You never see them showing a black in one of them race cars, but they got 'em out there. You never see 'em showing a black person in rodeo. They got 'em out there. That pisses me off about America when they do that shit." ON TEXAS BLUES GUITAR GOD T-BONE WALKER: "He dropped his guitar, I picked it up, and I invented this tune in E natural called 'Gatemouth Boogie.' I made $15 in 15 minutes. That was big money then—1947, the Bronze Teacup in Houston. He come back and took his guitar away from me and never let me touch it again. He was very hostile toward me, but it didn't matter. We never got close. Blues —that's all he played. He played a bounce blues and slow blues. Very negative—he hated all women; a woman never did treat him right and all that. I couldn't get into that man, and today, I still can't get into that." ON JAZZ TRUMPETER NICHOLAS PAYTON: "He was on a show with me the other day, and it was a goddamn shame the way he [showboated]. I even told the producer, 'It's a goddamn shame the way you let these people dominate the shows.' They call it having themselves a jam session. Payton was in my dressing room afterward, and I said, 'I'll tell you what, a jam session become a traffic jam.' It really pissed me off. That's why I don't like to jam with nobody. I don't give a damn who they are. Years ago, people would know how to jam. Nowadays, these young people are just up there trying to cut throats. But they only cutting they own throat 'cause they ain't doing a damn thing but making noise. It was terrible! People call me up for a jam or a finale or whatever they want to call it; I get sick to my stomach. People ask me, 'Gate, will you sit in with me?' Hell, no! I don't know what you doing, you don't know what I'm doing, now you just sit up there and do your show and carry your own weight, and that's the way it is. You don't crash my show, and I won't crash yours. Don't ask me to come rescue your ass." ON THE BLUES HARP: "When I quit enjoying playing an instrument, I don't play it no more. That's why I quit playing the harmonica. Every son of a bitch I know goes out and buys one, not only making music stores rich, but they also come irritating me and everybody in the audience with their harp blowing in people's ears. Assholes! I got so pissed-off I called my office and told them I want a stipulation in my contract that all harmonicas be checked at the door, and if they get caught playing one, they be 86ed. And I quit playing it myself. You believe that stopped it." ON THE FINE ART OF BEING ORNERY: "Ornery? Well, I've been known to be called that. I'm just honest." ON WHAT MAKES HIM HAPPY: "My music makes me happy. That and my tobacco." Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown performs on Saturday at the 20th annual Long Beach Blues Festival, Cal State Long Beach Athletic Field, Long Beach, (562) 985-1686. Sat.-Mon. Gates open 9 a.m. each day; music starts at 11 a.m. Call for ticket prices, information on special package deals and a complete lineup.
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