Weakened by lung cancer and devastated by the destruction of his beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Grammy Award-winning singer and guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown died in Texas this weeke
Weakened by lung cancer and devastated by the destruction of his beloved New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Grammy Award-winning singer and guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown died in Texas this weekend, his longtime keyboard player said on Sunday (Sept. 11).
Brown, 81, won a blues Grammy in 1982 for his album "Alright Again!" and was a pioneering electric guitar player who helped make the instrument a centerpiece of popular American music.
Early in his 60-year career, he was a drummer for blues legend T-Bone Walker and a friend of Lightnin' Hopkins, but he eschewed the label of "bluesman" and played a range of styles including blues, jazz, country, big band, rhythm-and-blues and Cajun.
New Orleans musician Joe Krown, who played with Brown for 15 years, said he died on Saturday after evacuating to his brother's home in Orange, Texas just before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29.
Brown was diagnosed with cancer last year and was in bad condition, but news that Katrina had ruined New Orleans and destroyed his home in the community of Slidell was the final blow, Krown said.
"It was just devastating. There was nothing to go back to," said Krown. "He lost the will to live."
Brown, born in 1924 in Vinton, Louisiana, but raised in nearby Orange, came from a musical family and played guitar, fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and drums.
A teacher said his deep voice sounded like a swinging gate, which resulted in the nickname "Gatemouth."
One day in 1947, Walker fell ill during a Houston show, so Brown picked up his guitar and took over the show.
Appreciative fans showered him with $600 in tips, which led club owner Don Robey to sign him to a recording contract and launched his career as a guitarist.
His most popular album was "Standing My Ground," which came out in 1989. But Brown was best known as a touring musician who played endlessly in clubs and juke joints around the world.
His eclectic musical tastes pleased live audiences, but his refusal to stick to the blues kept him from becoming a superstar, said Krown.
"If he had embraced the blues community a little more, he might have reached a greater audience, like B.B. King," he said.
In the post-World War II era, the electric guitar went from a background instrument to the front of the bandstand, a transition in which Brown's fast-paced, high-volume style played a key role, Krown said.
"He was on the cusp. Gate is a piece of American musical history because he was one of the architects of electric guitar playing," he said. "There was T-Bone, and then there was Gatemouth Brown."
The destruction Brown's home was so complete that virtually all of his career memorabilia was lost.
"The only they saved was his legendary Firebird guitar," said Krown.