They drank a lot, sometimes enough to ruin their careers and occasionally enough to kill them. The musicians idolized by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown played styles as varied as swing and country, blues and jazz, but with a few exceptions, they shared the same vice. They loved the bottle.
There were piano player Cecil Gant ("he drank a lot," says Gatemouth), Western-swing pioneer Bob Wills ("liquor carried him out") and blues balladeer Percy Mayfield ("he was just drunk and out of his head"). Let's not forget country legend Hank Williams.
"Whiskey and drugs got him," Brown recalls, sitting backstage at the Birchmere. "What killed him killed the rest of them."
Brown doesn't drink. He smokes a pipe almost constantly, inhaling hard and often with the help of a lighter that looks like a tiny blowtorch. But liquor -- he doesn't touch the stuff, and when he ruminates about his five-decade career and the heroes who shaped it, you get the sense that he regards abstinence as one of many clues to his longevity. A draw for decades in the black nightclubs that comprised the so-called Chitlin' Circuit, Brown began his professional career in 1947, playing a style of whispery, finger-plucked guitar that has been praised and cited as an influence by artists as varied as Roy Buchanan and Frank Zappa.
At 78, he has eased off the grueling tour schedule he kept until a few years ago, when he was on the road more than 180 nights a year. But he still plays club dates for weeks at a time, and he's released roughly an album a year for about a decade. In 1981, he won the best blues album Grammy for "Alright Again!" In short, if Gatemouth is a relic, he's a relic that won't sit still.
"There's almost no one else left, aside from Gatemouth and B.B. King," said his road manager and bass player, Harold Floyd. "Albert Collins is dead, Albert King is dead, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker are dead. He's what's left of what I call the second generation of musicians, the ones who started recording in the '40s."
When he isn't touring, he lives in Slidell, La., in a house that abuts Lake Pontchartrain, a swampland studded with alligators. He is single now, thrice divorced and a father of four. During a recent swing through Washington, he agreed to sit and listen to 10 of his favorite songs, and reminisce about what the music meant to him and his life.
Or at least it seemed like he agreed. What's certain is that a week before he came to D.C., he handed over a list of beloved tunes through his manager. At the moment, though, he's sitting in a dressing room at the Birchmere and looking pretty unhappy.
Actually, he seems miffed.
He wears a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and a suit of denim and leather that hugs his blade-thin frame. He settles into a sofa, fires up his pipe and looks impatient. He'd like to get this over with as soon as possible. He's a little shy and a little ornery.
Until he hears the songs. Suddenly there's the impish smile that is Gatemouth's defining feature and, ever so slightly, he relaxes. Not that he becomes chatty; his musical appraisals are often as succinct as haiku, and a lot of his memories are vague. He knows, for instance, that he met Hank Williams. Don't ask him where or when.
"I met him, yeah," Gatemouth says. Then there's silence. It's time to move to another topic.
As it happens, Gatemouth is far more talkative onstage. Later that night, he'll lead his four-piece band through a 90-minute set of big-band staples as well as country and jazz standards. The show is like a sepia-toned photograph that springs to vivid, colorful life. Throughout it all, Gatemouth flirts with the ladies in the audience, and they flirt right back. He seems forever on the verge of saying something inappropriate, though he never does, unless you count his way of bidding adieu to the crowd.
"Let's make like a shepherd," he says, grinning, "and get the flock out of here."
Anyone who interviews Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown gets a couple of helpful hints from his manager before the talking starts. Do not, under any circumstances, ask Mr. Brown how he got his nickname. (Lore has it that a music instructor said he had "a voice like a gate.") And whatever you do, don't call him a "bluesman." It's a tag, he believes, that doesn't capture the full horizon of his music, which takes a bag full of hyphens to explain. There are zydeco, jazz, big band, swing -- and yes, the blues -- in there. What's missing is any trace of the dominant force in popular music for the last four decades: rock-and-roll.
"I don't care for rock and I don't care for rap," Gate grumbles. "A lot of noise and no good music."
The closest Gatemouth gets to rock on his list is Bill Doggett, a swing pianist who had a No. 2 hit with "Honky Tonk" in 1956. The basic contours of rock were being drafted at the time, and artists like Doggett poured some of the concrete. "Honky Tonk" is simplicity itself, not much more than a slow, loping bass joined by sax, then guitar, then sax again.
"It was a shuffle, a boogie deal," Gate says, before he starts singing along. "Dum du dum du dum du dum du dum. That was when rock-and-roll started. That's when it was rock-and-roll, not rock and noise."
In Gate's view, rock became noise almost the instant it could stand on both legs. He's especially irked by Elvis, whom he views as a scoundrel and thief. "I'm not going to lie to you, he stole everything he did and made money on it. He took that 'Hound Dog' from Willie Mae Thornton and made millions and she died a pauper in California. I didn't appreciate him from that minute on. That's stealing somebody's life."
Presley's early career got a boost from a Gatemouth favorite: Herman "Junior" Parker. It was Parker who wrote "Mystery Train," which Presley turned into a rockabilly number for Sun Records during the first recording sessions of the King's career. Parker recorded for Sun Records, too, a few years before Elvis was in the building.
Gatemouth wants to hear "Next Time I See You," a tune Parker recorded in 1956. It's a retribution song, an ex-boyfriend inveighing against an ex-girlfriend ("Well, you lied, cheated, oh oh for so long") though there's a buoyant gentility to Parker's singing that undercuts the lyrics' bitterness. You can hear rock taking shape in the background, particularly in the guitar riffs.
"He was a real good entertainer, a smooth singer," Gatemouth says. "He had misfortune, career-wise. Money was snatched from him." Parker died at 39 of a brain tumor.
There aren't a lot of happy endings in the lives of Gatemouth's Top 10 artists. Percy Mayfield, for instance, was a bluesman and songwriter whose credits include masterful tear-jerkers, such as "Please Send Me Someone to Love," a Billboard No. 1 R&B hit in 1950. Mayfield also wrote songs for Ray Charles, including "Hit the Road, Jack." Gatemouth is partial to "Strange Things Happen," a blues ballad with big-band horns, which he covered on his own "American Music, Texas Style," album three years ago.
"He was a very sincere, sad writer," Gatemouth says. "Everything he wrote had life to it."
But a brutal car accident in 1952 left Mayfield disfigured and, according to Gatemouth, he was never quite the same. "He went off the deep end. Oh, man. He went into drinking and killed himself. Last time I saw him, it was in California, he cursed me out with everything he could think of. I said 'Why you acting like this?' We had been friends. He said, 'You messed up my tunes.' I said, 'Percy, there's one thing you have to admit. I keep your music alive.' "
Gatemouth was pumping life into jazz, blues and Cajun years before anyone thought of it as roots music. He started in Orange, Tex., a town close to the Louisiana border, apprenticing with his father, a popular local musician who specialized in what Gate calls "Cajun country bluegrass," and who mastered half a dozen instruments over the course of his life. The elder Brown threw the best bashes in town.
"Well, he played house parties, that's what they did on the weekends," Gate recalls. "They'd kick the furniture to the side and they went at it. Everybody had a big house, at least we did. On Saturday night, boy, it'd be great. Neighborhood band. And I was there strumming on the guitar with him. That's the way I learned."
When he wasn't trying to keep up with his dad, Gatemouth listened to local jukeboxes or peeked from the street into nightclubs he was too young to enter. That's how he discovered artists like saxophonist and bandleader Louis Jordan. "He used to come to town and play clubs," Gate says as his favorite Jordan number, "Caldonia," plays on the boombox. It's a boogie-woogie love song punctuated with horn riffs and Jordan's signature shriek, which he uses to shout the name of the girlfriend who gives the song its title. Jordan was among the first black artists to sell well to whites; his duet partners would include Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
"I was 12 when I first saw him," Gate recalls. "I'd just stand outside of clubs and hear him play. I think he's one of the great gimmick singers of all time."
"Yeah, a novelty singer. He'd make words, novelty words. He was great at it." You get a sense of Jordan's humorous touch just from titles of hits like "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (My Baby)."
Count Basie came to Orange, too, and Gatemouth managed an impromptu face-to-face meeting. "He was sitting on a stool and I told him, 'Someday I hope to have a big band.' And I did." Gatemouth's Basie choice is "One O'Clock Jump," one of three top 10 pop hits that Basie scored in 1947.
Jukeboxes in Orange also featured a young singer and piano-player named Cecil Gant, who soared to prominence through a 1944 ballad called "I Wonder." Gant first won acclaim as a private in the military, performing at a war-bond rally for the Treasury Department, and he released a batch of singles before dying at 37 in 1951. He's been called rock's first casualty.
"I liked his piano playing," says Gate, as "I Wonder" fills the room. It's a delicate, somber tune about a soldier missing his gal and wondering if she misses him back. "It wasn't that old Delta blues stuff. It was blues, but it was sophisticated blues, just like Nat King Cole."
By his teenage years, Gatemouth could handle the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica and drums and bass. After a stint in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, his career began for real the night in 1945 that he filled in at a Houston club for T-Bone Walker, who was sidelined by an illness. Brown was soon signed to a 20-year contract that he learned to despise, and began recording dozens of sides for Aladdin Records, with his manager, Don Robey, taking half of the songwriting credits. He charted only once, with "Mary Is Fine" in 1949, and split his time leading a black orchestra of 23 musicians and a small ensemble of whites, allowing him to keep a foot in each part of the then-segregated nightclub world.
It was during those touring years that Gate ran into the others on his list of favorites. That includes Hank Williams, whose hit classic "Jambalaya" he thought was more complicated, and more interesting, than the run-of-the-mill Cajun music he knew growing up. " 'Jambalaya' has changes in it," he says. " 'Jole Blon' [a classic Cajun tune] doesn't have any changes." He met Bob Wills, too, the great pioneer of Western swing music, a hard-living fiddle player who along with his band, the Texas Playboys, ruled Texas music as one of the nation's most popular acts in the 1940s. Gatemouth is listening to the band's hit "San Antonio Rose" as he recalls meeting Wills for the first time, while playing at a club that Wills owned in Fort Worth.
Not surprisingly, liquor figures prominently in the tale.
"I'm up there playing fiddle and all of a sudden I smell this foul breath of whiskey. He was up there and couldn't hardly stand up. He just walked out there and started falling all over the place," Gate says, cackling.
He thinks he met either Lester Flatt or Earl Scruggs along the way, but he isn't sure which. What's beyond question is that he was hooked on the banjo-and-guitar duo after hearing the intro to the "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show. "They were riding in this old raggedy truck," he says of the show's opening credits. "Instead of looking at the truck, I'd listen to the music. Them two guys together was geniuses." Gatemouth's favorite is Scruggs's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the best-known banjo tune in history (thanks to the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde") and everything you need for a hoedown.
Gatemouth's career slowed in the '60s, as rock became the pop music, and for years he quit touring to stay put for regular gigs in Colorado and New Mexico. For a while, he was a deputy sheriff. "I didn't quit music," he says, like a man weary of dispelling the same myth. "I wanted to get out of the Chitlin' Circuit. I didn't want to play just for the black people. I wanted to play for everybody."
It turned out that he had a far larger following in Europe, particularly France, which at the time appreciated American roots music a lot more than most Americans did. He spent much of the late '60s in Europe, touring with people like Jay McShann, who rose to fame leading an orchestra featuring young Charlie "Bird" Parker. "He could just play them right chords," Gatemouth says of McShann, listening to "The Jumpin' Blues," a classic Kansas City bebop tune.
The song shows up as "Jumpin' the Blues" on Brown's "American Music," redone at a pace brisk enough for a pogo stick. Like so much of Gatemouth's work, it builds from an essential reverence for the source material, without seeming stodgy or backward-looking. Later that night, Gatemouth will sit on a stool during his set and survey the history of pre-rock pop, and whenever the indefatigable leader of this quintet takes a break, he just smiles. It's the smile of a man with a certain imperviousness to the world, the smile of a man who took his marching orders a long time ago, directly from the lips of the greats.
"When I was a youngster, I met Duke Ellington in Detroit and I was trying to impress him," Gatemouth says before he begins the night's show. "When I got done he called me to his table said, 'Son, you don't have to go through all of that, just set up there and play your guitar, you're good enough that you don't have to clown with it.' "
Gatemouth puffs hard on his pipe. "And I took his advice."