Thursday, April 2, 2015


I love me some blues. I love playin' the blues, especially on dat non-fretted viola; dem slides and bends are marvelous! I love listenin' to the blues. That being said, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown did not consider himself a blues player, although he did play blues on the viola. I know smartasses who think violists get the blues from playing the viola, but that's not true. We get the blues from listening to violinists. Just kidding.

First 8 measures of "Blues at Dawn" by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown from my collection. I just transpose on my viola.

Anyway, I knew that when I chose this theme that I would write about Gatemouth. His life does seem to be the stuff of blues, but I don't really think he would have considered his life to be something that one would write a bluesy batch of songs about. He was born in Vinton, Louisiana, the heart of Delta Blues country, and began playing fiddle (the same thing as a violin) at a young age; his father, a railroad worker, played the fiddle and taught young Clarence. Subsequently, he picked up the guitar, mandolin, harmonica and viola. During a one-year Army stint, he was a drummer His professional life began when he sat in one night for T-bone Walker. He walked on stage, picked up Walker's guitar and made up a tune called “Gatemouth Boogie” and made 600.00 in tips in 15 minutes. Afterward, Gatemouth began to take his guitar playing much more seriously.                     

Typical Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown visage. Easy to see why he eschewed the term "Bluesman".

He typically dressed in Western shirts and cowboy hats and called himself an “American Musician”. He opined once, “Why do I want to moan and groan about women bein' bad and all that?” This left him free to explore different aspects of music and blend styles as he saw fit. He played a mixture of deep blues, Cajun, jazz and swing. He disdained deep delta blues, which he thought were too negative and was dismissive of Robert Johnson, the great blues player, who with only 27 recorded tunes under his belt and an untimely demise, became the cornerstone for modern blues and is lionized by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Robert Plant. I've listened to Robert Johnson's playing, and undoubtedly, he was great, but his greatness lay in his inventiveness, and more than likely several months of hard, hard practice. “Devil at the Crossroads” is a wonderful myth, but Brown eschewed it, while Johnson's contemporaries, like Son House and Willie Brown fed into the myth. Whether or not they truly believed Johnson made a deal with the devil is conjecture.

Robert Johnson. In the mid-30s, he was playing in the deep delta juke joints and was recorded. 27 of his tunes have formed the basis for today's Blues and Rock. Every great artist from Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd cite Johnson as a heavy influence in their artistry and development. Whether the Devil at the Crossroads had anything to do with it is another matter. Gatemouth thought it was a bunch of hooey, although he did respect and admire Johnson's artistry.

Whatever it is, it just adds to the richness of time and place, which is all important with the blues. There are Chicago and Detroit Blues Clubs and I have been in both. There are Elton John Blues, which are a gimmick; I have never experienced the kind of raw intensity that comes with listening to, or playing the blues that occur down here in the South. It's probably all a trick of the mind, but if so, it's a powerful one. The blues evoke hot, sultry nights, despair, loneliness and a deep longing for solace from the pain. Gatemouth played tunes like this, but so very seldom.

I have to admit, in finding pictures that exemplify Gatemouth and his joy, fun and exuberance, there are a plethora. This is just one of many!

His sets were filled with energy and fun. He had a tendency to swap out his instruments within songs, so he would jump from violin to guitar to harmonica. He'd pick up his viola and give it hell, tearing the hair from the bow in his exuberance. His songs were more like Texas Swing or something like the group Asleep at the Wheel. His sheer bursts of enthusiasm and energy would bring an audience (mostly drunk) to its feet in response to his liveliness.

This is just a small sample: "Okie-Dokie Stomp" If you like this, I ENCOURAGE YOU STRONGLY to listen to one of his hour concerts on youtube!

I had the great, good fortune to see him perform twice. The second time, we talked violas. Talk about a strange experience. I was telling him about my Italian thoroughbred and he said, “do you let him rip 'n' run?” I thought and nodding my head sagely, “yup, he does it right purty, too.” Gatemouth laughed and signed my book of Blues studies that he had a section in. I really cherish that.

I had been playing out of this book, "Blues Fiddle" by Julie Lyon Lieberman for many years, when Gatemouth first came to Tampa. I took it with me to the second performance that I went to, and with my heart in my throat, asked him to sign my book. We ended up talking about music and violas for a bit; he was funny and and his joy for life was apparent in everything he did.

Later on in that concert, when I was feeling no pain, he picked up his viola, and I jumped up on the table (we were outdoors, and most of the patrons were drunk; this as at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa) and yelled “Violas Rule!!!!” He said into the mic, “Don't hurt yourself!” I clambered down off the table, and he launched into something on his viola. All I remember is that it was lively and energetic.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
1924 - 2005
Grammy Award Winner and Iconoclast

That was in 1999. In 2005, several days after Hurricane Katrina, Gatemouth died at his niece's house in Orange, Texas. He had to be evacuated from his house in New Orleans, and I read somewhere that he lost most of his instruments. He died at the age of 81, of lung cancer, which he had decided NOT to have treated. He had lived life on his terms and went out on his terms and for that I respect him. Still, I cannot help but feel a bit of the blues, when I think of a world with no Gatemouth in it.  


Beth Camp said...

It's too early in the morning for me to play that clip from Gatehouse, but I will be back! What a wonderful testament to a creative musician, and I enjoyed all those jabs at violinists. Can't wait to share this with my daughter who plays violin and married a violist!

The Cynical Sailor said...

What an interesting post! I enjoyed learning about Brown over a cup of coffee this morning. Thanks for sharing! Cheers - Ellen

Viola Fury said...


Thanks for visiting! I was married to another violist, which was worse; I got a gig playing with the Moody Blues, and he didn't, shortly after our marriage and things became chilly in the house. I surmise that he was upset the Zither Fairy didn't appear on our wedding night, sprinkle magic Zither dust over me and voila! NOT a viola player.

Well, I went back to school and learned computer science and moved to Florida after graduation, and combined two careers into. . . something. I kid the violinists and they joke with us. I did play violin, but only when paid lots and lots of money for putting up with that little screechy thing under my ear -- come to think of it, I was probably doing the screeching! Thanks again for visiting! Mary

Viola Fury said...

@The Cynical Sailor!

Thanks so much for stopping by; the world of music is broad and the horizons are far; or something sea-like. I chose Brown because even with a classical training, an active performer is bound to pick up bits and pieces from other genres along the way. I've been fortunate indeed to have some of the best "jam" along with me on my journey and become a much better musician for it. Thanks so much for stopping by! Mary