Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, an American music treasure, died Saturday (Sept. 10) in Orange, Texas, where he was staying with family members after leaving his home in Slidell, La., to escape Hurricane Katrina.
The 81-year-old musician was diagnosed with lung cancer last year but declined to undergo treatment. Brown was evacuated from Louisiana before the hurricane hit on Aug. 29. The storm reportedly flattened his house and flooded his car.
Although primarily known as a rhythm & blues artist, Brown’s music truly defied any simple description. Influenced by big bands and horn players, his work on the guitar and fiddle exhibited the country, Cajun and Texas swing music he grew up hearing along the Gulf Coast.
Born April 18, 1924, in Vinton, La., Brown was raised in Orange, Texas. He began his career as a drummer, but began creating his reputation as a guitarist in 1947 at the Peacock Club in Houston when he sat in for headliner T-Bone Walker. The club’s owner, Don Robey, soon signed Brown to his Peacock Records label. The Peacock recordings are considered classics, with Brown’s guitar and vocal work set against a driving beat and sharp horn sections.
In the ’60s, Brown began displaying more of his Texas and Louisiana influences, tossing in polkas and waltzes into his repertoire of blues and jazz. In the mid ’60s, Brown was a frequent performer on the nationally syndicated R&B television program, The Beat. Taped in Texas, the program was hosted by Hoss Allen, a legendary DJ at radio station WLAC in Nashville. It was also during the ’60s that Brown scored a minor hit with his cover version of “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” a No. 1 country hit for Little Jimmy Dickens in 1965.
Brown lived in Nashville during the ’70s and forged a strong friendship with country singer and musician Roy Clark. Brown continued to play blues on the road but made guest appearances on Hee Haw. He and Clark collaborated on the 1979 album, Makin’ Music, featuring songs they’d written and cover tunes ranging from Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ’A’ Train” to Harlan Howard’s “Busted.” His national media exposure also increased during five appearances on Austin City Limits.
During his career, Brown scored six Grammy nominations, winning the best traditional blues recording prize for his 1982 album, Alright Again. He won eight W.C. Handy Blues Awards and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. He’s also a recipient of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s prestigious Pioneer Award.
In September 2004, Brown announced he had been diagnosed with cancer. After consulting oncologists at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he decided against undergoing treatment. He also suffered from emphysema and heart disease. By the end of the year, Brown’s condition had worsened considerably, forcing him to travel with an oxygen tank. On Jan. 8, he surprised many of his friends and associates by joining Gregg Allman and Susan Tedeschi at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse for not one, but two, shows.
In April, a defiant Brown announced that he would perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Despite continued doubts that he had the stamina to even attend the outdoor festival, Brown managed to get through a brief musical set. Some close to Brown were convinced that he would have been happy to die as he lived — performing on stage.