As a young boy growing up in Orange, Tex., Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown learned all he needed to know about music from his father, a railroad man for the Southern Pacific.
"Yeah, he could just about play and sing anything," confirms Brown, who performs Sunday night at Kilimanjaro. "Guitar, banjo, mandolin, country, bluegrass, Cajun. he sang Cajun in French. I can't do that. He did't really teach me. He'd just tell me to pay attention, and that's what I did."
More than anytying else, what Brown gleaned from his father's playing was an appreciaton for all kinds of music. s nearly 40 years of recordings attest, Brown has since become a master blues musician, one of the frew pioneers of the electric guitar still touring today. Yet throughout his career, his versatility has been equally evident. In fact, having spent most of his life playing music that resists conventional labels, Brown came up with one of his own: "American music, Texas style."
Ironically, the blues music Brown eventually mastered played a small role in his upbringing. Born in Louisiana in 1924, he was raised in Texas amid the sound of polkas, country ballads, traditional French songs and fiddle tunes. Early on, he discovered a distinctive way of playing the guitar, fastening the capo way up the neck. And, taking a cue from his father, he picked up a number of other instruments as well, including fiddle, harmonica, mandolin and drums. In fact, he made his professional debut as a drummer in San Antonio in 1945.
"I never wanted to be a drummer for long," recalls Brown. "I justt didn't want to be isolated like that -- too confirming. I'd already played in other bands in the '30's, neighborhood bands, and I knew I could do a lot more than just play one thing or one instrument."
It wasn't long before Brown became established as a popular guitarist in Texas -- so popular, in fact, that he replaced T-Bone Walker, then the reigning master of electric blues guitar, at the Bronze Peacock Club. It was only natural that Walker's big band blues style attracted Brown; after all, Brown had been playing with similar groups all along. But Walker's music also was too narrowling defined for Brown's taste.
"I admired him as a guitarist," says Brown, recalling Walker's influence. "But I wanted to take the music farther. I wanted to prove to the world that I was not just some blues player or country player or jazz player. T-Bone was a good blues guitarist, but he couldn't play anything else. I wanted my music to be different."
Because Brown's music was different, and because he could adapt to virtually any setting, he often performed for white audiences in the segregated South. His fiddle and country tunes, in particular, were in demand at white parties and gatherings. Playing for white audiences, however, wasn't without its risks.
"I had a lot of white friends and they booked me in these places," Brown recalls, "Of course, we were roped off from the whites and they'd have this cage or something off to the right or left where the Negroes could come in and listen. But they couldn't dance . . .
"In '54, 'Okie Dokie Stomp' was a big hit for me and I was booked into this white club and had my big band with me. They brought me out and when I started playing the girls broke through the rope. Well, the police jumped in between us and the girls and asked me if i was going to enterrain these girls or get them all excited. Well, I saw this as trouble coming, so I loaded up and got outta there."
"Okie Dokie Stomp" was but one of numerous hits Brown recorded for Don Robey's Peacock Records, the first postwar, black-owned record label. Those recordings have been recently reissued on Rounder Records.
In the '60s, while other musicians were reaping the ;benefits of a blues revival in the United States, Brown fell out of sight for a time. "I secluded myself in these clubs," he says, "where I began to work on crossing over -- over to bluegrass, Cajun, country, jazz. Everything. I had already proved I could do it, now I was preparing to prove it to the world."
With that in mind, Brown traveled abroad, where both European and Asian audiences discovered the rich variety of his music. He began recording in France (a fine collection of those tunes has just been reissued by Alligator), and soon discovered renewed interest in his music back in the States. A recent Grammy Award winner, he now spends about 10 months each year away from his home in Louisiana touring or recording