Saturday, May 19, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Clarence

"Find out what it is you do that people like, and do more of that."  Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown


It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I'd been a fan of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown since my early teenage years and I when I heard he was playing a show at Whiskey River on Greenville Ave. in Dallas, I just had to be there.

If you don't know about Clarence's contribution to the world of music, you can read about him HERE, see/hear him play HERE, and listen to an interview with him HERE.

Me and a buddy went to the show.  It was a decent sized venue, but there were only about 10 folks in the crowd.  Nonetheless, as his band played the theme to Peter Gunn out came Clarence carrying himself as though he was in a crowded coliseum. In spite of the small audience, he played a GREAT show that night - several sets of pushing a lot of energy out of his guitar, fiddle, and vocals and into his trademark blend of Cajun, jazz, blues, and R&B music.  Here was a guy who would win a Grammy in the next couple years, playing to a near empty room with all of his heart.

At one point in the show after completing a song, he looked at the handful of folks in the crowd and said emphatically, "I won't play another tune until I sell five records!!" as he pointed to a box of LPs there on the stage.  I went up and handed him the money and he handed me the record. I guess at least four other folks did the same as the show then continued.

During one of his breaks I asked him to autograph my record as he walked past our table.  He sat down and signed it.  I was in my late teens or early twenties at the time and said to him, "Clarence, I'm a guitar player.  Do you have any advice for me?"  He sat back and looked me in the eye and said, "Find out what it is you do that people like, and do more of that."  He went on and kindly elaborated on that concept, but it was that first sentence that was burned into my soul - a profoundly simple concept that would be a North Star for my musical journey.

I've never forgotten that statement from a man who - although not a household name - was truly a unique pioneer in the music world. 

As guitarists, it is much too easy to get spread thin attempting to master so many styles, songs, sounds, etc. - to succumb to peer pressure to play certain things certain ways.   But each of us carry something in our musical DNA which is unique - and which connects with listeners in a way that no other musician can.

As you play your music, keep your antenna up to note what licks, styles, approaches, songs, techniques, etc. result in the most positive reaction with your listeners.  Your musical bag of goodies may contain gold, silver, and precious gems, as well as wood, hay, and stubble.  Sort it out.  What is that you have that you should focus on?  What is it that you do that people like?

Now I'm not suggesting you sell-out and compromise the musical message you carry inside of you merely to please a crowd.  But as you deliver what you carry, pay attention to the most effective and powerful ways to make an impact on those who are listening.

Such a simple concept for life in general, yet so easy to overlook.

Rest in peace Clarence.  I'm glad I met you.


  1. Thanks for posting this wonderful story. You are mighty lucky to have spent a few moments with such an amazingly underrated guitarist AND legend. Brown continues to blow me away with his unique technique and bag of tricks! Take care, Rob

  2. That wisdom reminds me of something Freddie King told me when I was 14. I asked him "How can I learn to play like that?" He answered "If you go into a room and there's a guitar, play it 'til you leave the room."

  3. I've only recently begun to understand...I play a few styles, some classical, some standard fingerstyle, and my own weird tuning that creates an underlying drone sound and play melody on top of that. I've noticed that when I play my classical or standard pieces I get polite and sometimes enthusiastic applause, but when I play my "Six String Raga", people flip out, and guitar players come up to me and say they've never heard anything like that's the direction I've started to go...apparently with Gatemouth's blessing!!!

  4. I had the good fortune of growing up near Gatemouth's adopted home of Slidell, La, and also had the good fortune of playing with him and many of his band members over the years. He was a genius beyond measure, with a razor sharp wit that could keep you in stitches for hours, or make you feel about two inches tall if you stepped out of line. One of my proudest accomplishments as a player is that Gate liked what I did, no matter what happens with my career, who enjoys my music and who doesn't, I'll live on the fact that Gate told me I was good for the rest of my life.

    My current gig is with Bryan Lee, another Louisiana blues legend and a close friend of Gate's. If you watch the Kenny Wayne Shepherd documentary 10 Days Out:Blues From The Backroads you'll notice that they filmed Gate and Bryan's segment at the Blues Club on bourbon street where our house gig was at the time. Jimmy Wallace, who was Kenny's keyboard player at the time (and is an absolute monster player) was on the receiving end of one of Gate's famous rants. They left some in the film, but the particularly vicious parts were edited out. When they were done filming Jimmy came to me and I told him that Gate could be tough and not to take it too hard, his only reply was "It was hard to hear, but he was right."

    Sorry for writing a novel in your comments section, but reading your post reminded me of my time with the man, and it got me all nostalgic. Thank you for this post. It's very well written, and I will be checking back here more often. Thank you as well for keeping Gate's legacy alive. He's so often overlooked in people's lists of master guitarists, and he deserves to be held in higher regard.

    He changed quite a bit at the end. The sickness rounded off a lot of the sharper edges of his personality, and he began to understand that his time was short. He really tried to communicate the deep love he had for his friends that we always knew was there, but he often didn't communicate to us. I'll never forget the phone call I got from his road manager telling me he was gone. He had gotten a little stronger, and seemed healthier and more vibrant than he had in awhile. They said after Katrina hit he asked what had happened to his home, and when they told him that it, and everything in it, had been washed away, he just gave up his fight. I truly believe he died of a broken heart.

    Thanks again man, I hope that all is well with you.

    Brent Johnson