By Geraldine Wyckoff
OCTOBER 13, 1997: I'm a planetarian," says Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown as he sits in a booth dedicated to him in the House of Blues. This legendary guitarist and fiddler, puffing on his ever-present pipe and wearing classic Western attire, has brought his unique sound to the world for six decades.
"I'm always on a different planet," he says. "Everywhere I go is a planet. Even where I live, in Slidell, is another planet. You can go on the other side of town and it's a different planet."
Born in Louisiana 75 years ago, Brown was raised in Texas but eventually moved back home. In fact, Brown is even a badge-carrying member of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office Reserve, with all the power that comes with the position. But he sees himself more as a goodwill ambassador for the parish than a peace officer.
Having first taken to the road in the early '40s, Brown's vast life and musical experiences visiting many "planets" have become a part of his music. On a whim, he'll play jazz, bluegrass, swing, country or blues, or blend them all together for a hybrid style. He continues his heavy touring schedule as fervently as ever, including recent trips to Africa and China.
"Touring is my life; I know nothing else to do," Brown says. "Music is my life. I want to do something for the world, and that's the best way to do it. Religion won't work, politics don't work, but I guarantee you one thing -- music do."
Brown lands at the House of Blues this Saturday with his big band, the same one heard on his latest album, Gate Swings (Verve). The disc celebrates Brown's 50th year in the recording industry -- a half-century since he cut his first single for the Aladdin label. The horns were arranged by New Orleans' own Wardell Quezergue, who will lead the orchestra Saturday. The album includes original Brown material -- from the classic "Midnite Hour" to the newer "Gate's Blues Waltz" -- plus material ranging from jump blues to classic big band swing like "Take the `A' Train" and "One O'clock Jump."
Brown has included horns in his recordings before and he worked with big bands early in his career, but it's been a while since he fronted such a large ensemble.
"I did this back in 1947," says Brown. "The technology is way different though. The writing is different. Everything is different. Most artists, whatever they did way back then, that's what they do today. I don't do that. I say, `I grow as I go.' I don't like to hear that same sound all the time, and I won't. I went back and picked up a couple of my old tunes [for the album], but the arrangements are way different. The way I arrange things works with dynamics. There are four dynamics actually -- loud, mid-range, soft and off."
In one sense, his latest recording is not a new direction for him. ("I always used horns," he says.") But the difference between his style today and in his early career is obvious on a cut like "My Time Is Expensive," a song he recorded in 1947 with a 23-piece band. Here, a smooth Gatemouth Brown is playing in the style of the more romantic era. The horns on the single are lush. On Gate Swings, though, Quezergue has them punching emphatically behind Brown's stinging Gibson Firebird guitar.
Brown also has been known as a vocalist and a songwriter throughout his career, and the disc includes a mix of instrumentals and vocals. It's somewhat suprising, then, that Brown says he "hates singing."
"I don't consider myself a vocalist, but the world thinks I am," he says. "I consider myself an instrumentalist. Back in '47 when I first started recording, people thought you had to sing in order to play. But I proved to the world I could ... make the guitar and fiddle do the vocals. See, I phrase my instruments as horns -- other instruments than they're supposed to be."
Brown likes to be unpredictable and refuses to be put in any particular musical box. Performing on both guitar and fiddle, it's immediately apparent that he's not simply a blues, jazz, country or bluegrass artist. In fact, he's also been heard playing an array of other instruments, such as drums, mandolin, harmonica, viola and piano. Brown also fronts a regular working band, Gate's Express, which features him exclusively on guitar and a 13-piece horn section filled with New Orleans musicians.
He says that for years, the world accepted him as an artist with a variety of voices, but the media didn't.
"They thought I was in too many places at once. They couldn't pigeon-hole me. The country media tried like hell to keep me out of the country scene. But I broke in there, too."
Brown's father also was a multi-instrumentalist, and his son learned that he didn't have to limit himself to one ax or one style. "He encouraged me, but he didn't show me nothing. He just said, `Pay attention,' and I did."
Despite such a long stay in the business, Brown says he has never had to retreat -- never had to take a step back. During the '60s, however, he did pause to re-evaluate his situation.
"When I was playing what they call rhythm and blues, I stopped and people thought I had retired. But I didn't. I went to Durango (Colorado) and started developing my Cajun, country and bluegrass. I could see times were changing. I had to change, and I did."
Both his Louisiana and Texas roots can be heard in his style, which he calls "American and world music with Texas drive." He mixes and matches regional sounds using the rhythmic Texas "drive" -- accenting the first and second beat -- or by heading to the bayous for some Cajun-influenced fiddling.
On stage, Brown now appears to be more joyful than he was when his personal troubles sometimes affected the consistency of his shows. He could always play -- his startling virtuosity never faltered -- but he was sometimes moody, letting a touch of bitterness show through.
"Yes, I'm over a big hurt. But I promised my father that I would take care of myself in every respect."
"I don't worry about what was. I don't worry about will be. I think about what is." What "is" is Gatemouth Brown feeling good, sounding great and, with Gate Swings rising on the Billboard charts, continuing to move forward.
"Let the music get the the applause," says Brown. The words are spoken with all the character of a true lover of his work and a legend of our time.
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