This is the latest entry in the Between the Seats weekly feature, a collaboration between Elwood’s BluesMobile, the nation’s longest-running syndicated Blues music radio show, hosted by Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, and American Blues Scene Magazine, the recognized leader in blues music news.
Every week, Elwood Blues digs deep down between the seats and pulls another interesting, exciting, revealing interview with a blues personality from the archives.
This week’s “Between The Seats” features an intriguing snapshot of one of the most influential men in Louisiana’s music: the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown from way back in September, 2001.
Let me welcome you back to the House of Blues Radio Hour.
Hello Elwood, how ya doing partner?
Perfect. Here at The Bluesmobile, we know who you are, obviously, but for the listeners that don’t, give us some background on who you are and what you’re doing.
You ask me the question, I’ll tell you. I don’t know what to say behind that.
That’s fine. What are you doing these days? You’re out on the road touring?
Still working but mostly weekends all over the world. Instead of seven days, I’m working four or five days, that’s about it.
Is that easier on you?
Yes, it is.
Where are some of the places you’ve been recently?
Well, I was in Italy, Norway, England and that’s overseas. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, just everywhere.
This new CD that’s out right now is getting a lot of good reviews. What’s different on this CD from some of the stuff you’ve done in the past?
Well, this CD mainly is based on Louisiana-type music. Completely based on Louisiana.
What about the songs? All songs that you wrote?
No, no, I didn’t write them all. I selected a bunch from different artists. I wrote one on there, “Dangerous Critter”. It’s about an alligator.
What’s the story behind that alligator? Didn’t he live?
Oh, just letting the people know you don’t pet their heads and play with them. They’re not the type of pet that you can walk around like you do a dog. You can’t do that.
Can’t train them?
No, I wouldn’t want to.
You have alligators down around your house?
Oh yes. You can see them floating in what is supposed to be my back yard is water. Oh yes, during the summer you see them out there. Big ones.
You ever feed them?
No, my wife was feeding them and I stopped her from it because they can jump four foot out of the water. Hum.
Where were you born?
I was born in Western Louisiana, right on the boarder of Texas and raised over in Texas on the border of Louisiana so I belong to both places. I was born in Vinton, Louisiana and raised in Orange, Texas.
What was it like growing up there? What was your life like?
Well, farm town. I didn’t know nothing about Louisiana but Texas I know because at a week old, that’s where I grew up. Stayed there all my life until I left home as an adult.
Was that where you started playing? The first thing you started playing was what?
I first started guitar at five years old and fiddled at ten. I took up drums after that and all the instruments came after that. I left home when I was about 15 and traveled with — had a little band. But before that, we had our own little band at home. We’re home towners there and we kicked around like in Beaumont and Pt. Arthur and all in that area, Jasper, Texas and all up through there.
Then I finally left town with a little road show called W. M. Bimbo. The guy was named W. M. Bimbo. The show was called — oh, I’ve forgotten, it’s been so long. Then I went in the service and after that I got out of the service and that’s where I made my debut in 1947 in Houston. But before that, I worked with an orchestra as a drummer and a vocalist in San Antonio, Texas called Howard Hughes. Then I left after a year and come to Houston — come back to Houston rather and made my debut and I’ve been going ever since.
Can you tell us the story about that first debut when you picked up the guitar for T-Bone when he was sick?
Yeah man, I’m so sick of that one line. The man got sick and dropped his guitar, I picked it up and then a booga called Gatemouth Boogie on the bandstand and that was my first taste of professional going and I have been going from there ever since.
That was the first time you played that song? You didn’t know it already?
No, I didn’t have — no, I knew nothing about it. I invented it on the bandstand.
How did the crowd react?
$615 worth, that’s how they reacted. Tips.
Not bad for 40 seconds! Were you friends with T-Bone (Walker)? Did you know him?
No, I knew him but we wasn’t friends, never was ever.
What about any of the other guys that were around in Texas at that time?
Well, they didn’t have any others at the time?
Was it Pop Wilson or Lightning Hopkins down there or did you know him?
No, I knew of them but I didn’t deal with them kind of people because I don’t like that kind of blues.
What kind of blues do you like?
Well, I like positive-type blues. You listen to my lyrics, all my blues are very positive. It’s not how much help somebody can give me, it’s how much help I can give somebody else and that’s the way I see music period.
When you started playing, when you started first getting into music and playing it, did you really like the blues or did you just like all kinds of music?
No, no, I listened to the blues. I didn’t care for it. Not the kind of blues that was the downers like the Mississippi Delta blues is, I didn’t care for that. What people don’t really know that the blues from Mississippi drive up to Chicago here, that’s what they have here. It’s just a transplant. So most of these guys are Mississippi blues players moved up to Chicago for freedom I guess. They was getting away from those plantations I would suppose, and this was the most freedom place they could find was Chicago I guess. I mean, what they call up-north freedom, you know…
I know you’ve done a lot of different kinds of music. You can’t really say your music is just blues, it has all kinds…
No, no, I play American music but it’s Texas drive. I play American and world music, put it that way and Texas drive because I play a little music from any world part of the world I want to.
You’re probably one of the only blues musicians that have ever been on Hee Haw.
Yes well, I hate to be called a blues musician because I’m not.
What was it like playing on Hee Haw?
Just another groove. Just another show. Yeah, I’ve been on that Ralph Emery show when he was on many times, Austin City Limits a lot. Let’s just say since we’re all labor, I’m the only black person that’s ever been on all those shows period.
That’s an impressive thing for sure. Who is your favorite musician beside yourself? Do you have any people you listen to, anybody you like?
Well, I did like Count Bassie. I like some of Duke Ellington. I like some of Lionel Hampton, some of Louis Jordan. I used to like some of Jimmy Smith when he first come out on organ. I used to like some of Dizzy Gillespie.
So a lot of the big bands?
Yes. I like small bands because Jimmy Smith never did have no big band but I used to like the way he played organ. But I didn’t follow this other stuff at all. Like this stuff they’re doing today, I don’t follow it at all period. These youngsters do.
Did you get a chance to meet any of those guys? Count Bassie or any of them?
Yes, I know them all, yeah.
Can you tell us anything about especially for the younger listeners that don’t know? Tell us a little bit about Count Bassie or Duke Ellington or what it was like?
Well, there were fine people. They was seasoned people, they was disciplined musicians. That’s all I would like to say about them now. Personal, I don’t know but to me they treated me awful nice and what can I say? I learned a lot from them. That’s why I was able to distance myself in this field rather than being a clown or Uncle Tom or some old stupid acting person. I’m not that at all. Them people had a lot of class about their selves and I believe in that myself too today.
Especially back in the older days, you used to go out on the road with huge bands and I read something about a 23-piece band that you traveled with. Did you get some of that? Did you start working with those kinds of big bands because of some of the people like Duke Ellington and Count Bassie that you saw or how did that come about?
Yes. That’s because I was the biggest band, the youngest biggest bandleader in all America at one time back in the ‘50’s. That’s how I learned how to play my instrument different from most of the guitar players. If you notice, I play my guitar, even my fiddle or my viola like a horn rather than the instrument is meant to be. That’s why I’m different from the guitar players and I do not tear up my face and go through all these rituals to play. I play and that’s about it.
What’s your live show like today? What could our listeners expect to see if they went to see you in their hometown?
The best music I can produce to them.
What kind of band you’re playing with today?
I’m only using four pieces besides myself. One alto, a keyboard. My alto’s name is Everett Dimmer, a great alto player. My keyboard player is named Joe Crown, a great keyboard player. My bass player is Harold Floyd, a great bass player. Then David Peters is my drummer, a great drummer. That makes up the Gates Express. Plus I’ve got a big orchestra that I take in certain places. In Norway, I’ve got an 18 — a 13, oh man. A 13-horn section I take over to Europe a lot of times. I took them over to Switzerland. I took them to Norway, a big band.
That’s got to be fun.
Yes, but I can’t use them all the time because it costs too much. This country can’t afford it that much. Now, I did it in New York at Central Park and I did it at Carnegie Hall, places like that. I did it at Washington, DC in front of the Smithsonian Institute. But you can’t use a big band like that all over, I wish I could. But yet the music, I play the big band arrangement with the small outfit. You’ll see tonight if you’re there.
You say a lot of your licks come from horn phrasings?
That’s right, horns and pianos as well.
Who are some of the horn players?
Well, I mean not necessarily into the horn players. I don’t know but I have a horn sound, just put it that way. Nobody in particular.
Going back to where you’re living now is there any kind of blues scene where you’re at now, where you’re living?
Not where I live, no. But in New Orleans, there is a blues scene if that’s what they call it but I don’t participate that much.
You don’t play much in New Orleans?
Yes, I play at the House of Blues maybe once or twice a year maybe. I played Momma Blues for my CD release last Saturday. I played a festival in a little small town called Abita Springs where they have this water. Abita Spring water I played there and that’s about it.
What kind of musicians would you recommend that are like younger people who are trying to start to get into the blues?
I don’t know. I stand on the fifth. All I can say to these people who are trying to get into the blues try to create music of their own whether it’s blues or whatever it is and don’t sound like everybody else I’ve heard for a thousand years because that gets old man. When you turn on the radio, you might want to go listen to somebody and they’re trying to sound like somebody you’ve already heard. What’s the point in going? You either wait and go see this person or if the person if the person is dead buy a record. No point in going to listen to somebody who is going to sound the same way. It’s all right to use people’s music but keep the identity but put yourself into it.
Do you have any other advice for the young musicians that you give them that are out there?
Yes, stay off narcotics, stay off of dope. That’s what I mean narcotics, dope. Lay off of that whiskey and concentrate on good music, it’s possible. Be creative most of all.
What’s your secret? You’ve been out there for over 50 years now and you’re still running around like you’re 25 years old.
Doing the things I just gave to the world out there. Think positive, live positive, don’t watch these light bulbs go out because you’re eyes won’t last longer than light bulbs. Forget about all them parties because none of this works too long. That’s about it.
Do you remember whom the first blues artist that you might have seen live maybe back in your hometown when you were a kid or seen anybody come through town?
No. I remember hearing a bunch in these old juke joints. I would sit across the street and listen to this stuff. To me it was so sad; I said I don’t ever want to play this kind of stuff. People like Big Maceo and — I can’t hardly think of these people. They used to come on the radio and be on them old jukeboxes and it was real sad stuff. They was screaming and hollering and like I said begging for help and I just didn’t like that. I still don’t.
That’s why you do your stuff different, right?
Was there one moment in time when it just hit you that you wanted to be a musician and you knew that you didn’t want to have a regular day job?
Yes, when I was first born and before.
Before you were born?
You remember thinking about it?
That’s right. My mom told me. Before I could think, she said I was thinking because I was trying to kick my way out when my daddy would be playing.
You were keeping time?
I guess, trying to kick out of her so I could get out there with my dad I guess.
What did your dad play?
He played fiddle, mandolin, accordion, banjo and he sung Cajun, French — I mean, Cajun, country and bluegrass. That’s why I can play. That was my first music. It wasn’t itself called blues because that stuff I picked up later.
Do you play any Zydeco?
Yes. I can do it, that ain’t nothing but a form of blues man.
It was your dad that first gave you lessons?
He did not give me no lesson, he told me to play or think it and I just followed him. Started off on guitar strumming.
Have you ever given lessons to anybody?
No, I don’t have no patience for no lessons, no.
At one point weren’t you an officer of the law?
I’m still is right now.
Are you deputy sheriff?
I am a deputy sheriff in St. Tammany Parish, Slidell, Louisiana and I’m also an honorary city marshal. And they’re going to put my museum up over the train station, over the Amtrak Train Station.
What’s the most run down hole in the wall club that you’ve ever played?
Oh God man, I don’t know. [Laughs].
You’ve probably been in a couple, right?
Oh yes. I’ve been in many, oh yes.
What did some of those old juke joints look like just for listeners that are younger and never had a chance to see them?
Well, old wooden benches. No PA system. Wasn’t worth a crap, the walls falling in. I worked in one in New York one time. New York City way out in the country. It was called some Bell. What was the name of this place? Boy, that was the funkiest place I ever worked in my life.
What was it like?
Oh, it was terrible. They had an old mechanical bull in the middle of the floor with old nasty mattress for the people to land on. It looked like dogs and cats had been sleeping on it. That thing burnt down. A rock ‘n’ roll group went in there later on and they burned it down. The motel was 23 miles away. Oh, that was terrible.
They try to get you on the bull?
Yeah, they always did. I don’t go for that stuff man. I don’t go for that stuff. I used to work rodeos when I was young. I had some beautiful horses in New Mexico and I used to just ride and take the steers out and let the cowboy jump off his horse and rope the steers. I would never do that. I just helped guide them out.
What do you do in your free time when you’re not playing music?
Relax… Get in my car and ride.
What kind of car are you driving?
Well, I’ve got three different ones. I’ve got a ’76 Cadillac Sedan Deville, mint condition. I’ve got a ’67 Lincoln Continental with the suicide door. I’ve got a ’76 Buick Rivera. And I bought me a kit car, a [Brigotti] and I’ve got a ’78 Dodge pick-up. That’s it.
You like the classic ones, huh?
Oh yeah, I don’t like new cars. I bought my daughter a new car, man. I don’t like no new car.
No, you’d rather have those big old ones.
Yes, its safety too, believe me.
Do you spend a lot of time right now in your home in Louisiana?
Yes, I do.
Is that the only place that you live?
Yes, right now yes. I’ve been there since ’83.
What’s your favorite food?
Your wife’s home cooking?
What kind of stuff does she make that you like?
Well, just whatever I feel like I want to eat.
What’s her specialty? It’s your chance to make her famous on the radio now. Her cooking.
Well, Yvonne is her name. She likes doing it so much. She likes to make crab stew and it’s good.
That sounds good.
Yes it is good. Crab stew, yes she can really cook that up.
You guys have all that fresh seafood that we don’t get.
Yeah I know, don’t have to import it either.
Is there a favorite food that you have when you’re out on the road that you don’t want your wife to know about?
No, it’s no favorite food out here. I don’t like the road food period. That’s what got me sick. It’s nothing I want to eat. I ordered some food last night to be brought to me this morning. When the eggs got to me it was too cold to eat. The meat patties I don’t know what it was, it didn’t taste like no meat to me and it had potatoes and I mean the patties tasted like — you can see it up there on the thing, I didn’t eat it.
Did they come to you and ask you to do this album or is this one that you’ve wanted to do for a while? How did it come about?
No, it’s not that. I do whatever album I feel like it. Jim Bateman my manager now, we put it together and do it. He helped me select the tunes. He asked me do I like them and if I like them I do them and if I don’t I won’t. Then when we get it completed, we call the company and say there it is. Nobody produces my stuff but me and Jim Bateman.
By the way getting back to food, anybody wants some of the best food in the country, go to the House of Blues in New Orleans.
That’s right. They’ve got the best food there out of all of them as far as I’m concerned. And on top of that, they can enjoy my booth. I own a booth there. The only one there with a cushion back in the seat.
That’s your booth?
That’s right. And also own — they dedicated a club in my honor upstairs and it’s called Gatemouth Parish.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu there?
That’s pretty impressive. You’ve got your own catfish bites there.
That’s a good thing. Tell our listeners what the new album is called.
Back to Bogalusa.
Where did that name come from?
Bogalusa, Louisiana. See I did my first American album in the ‘70’s in Bogalusa, but it was European release. So I decided to use the name of that town for a tune that was on there called “Bogalusa Boogie Man”. So I said Back to Bogalusa and I re-cut that “Bogalusa Boogie Man” because the European had it and it never was released in America. It was released over in Europe so that’s why some of those tunes are repeated because we want them to be released in this country.
What’s your favorite song on the album? Do you have one you like the best?
All of them.
I think we’re good. I just have to get you to say goodbye now to Elwood Blues. Thanks for being on the show Mr. Brown.
All right Elwood Blues, thank you partner. Enjoyed being on the show. Hope to see you one day somewhere. This is Gatemouth, thank you.