In the history of what we popularly consider to be the Blues, who do you think might be the greatest musician?
That is a very hard and revealing question—
I’d have to mention Lonnie Johnson for sure, Little Walter, and Chuck Berry’s Johnnie Johnson.
If I was really trying to be impressive, I’d mention my love for Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, both of ‘em real bluesmen. starving, on welfare if lucky, playing in the cold, empty, dirty lofts of the Lower East Side in the 1960’s for our pocket change, with simply no other choice but to open up our ears to the ENERGY of the Blues right from the bells of their horns, directly into our so-called brains.
But my heart would be saying Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Gate was a brilliant, way underrated guitarist; and a fine fiddle player, and probably played a little bit on any instrument you could imagine, with no little bit of confident arrogance.
We hosted him and his band three times. He was something else again, young citizens!
Example: The first time we booked him, he played the Berkeley Jazz Festival the weekend before the FBF. The SF Chronicle music critic’s review had wondered why they would book “an old bluesman” to play the Jazz Fest. “Washed up” was kind of implied. Or at least Mr. Gatemouth Brown thought it was. He opened his headlining set for us with a little terse kind of moan about how pissed off he was that the critics weren’t there to “——- listen to this”! Then with a nod of his head he ran his little four piece right into “Take The A Train”, the Duke Ellington Big Band version, note for note, perfect, just perfect.”I am not no old bluesman!”. Gate yelled at the crowd. They absolutely loved him.
He was tall and skinny, and looked like he could have ridden a horse to the stage just fine. His long and thin face usually looked kinda sad. He talked and acted kinda sad as well. He smoked a Sherlock Holmes pipe.
Gatemouth was pretty easy to piss off, like the Chron review. After his second time amazing our crowd, KSJS’s great blues DJ “Chef” Ramon Johnson, in a great liver- than- live interview, got Gate talking about “modern” blues musicians.
It did not take long for all of us to find out that Professor Brown did not think that Stevie Ray Vaughn was a bluesman at all, much less any kind of a musician! “Pretty good copy band”, he said.
Gate’s sets were like the Grateful Dead’s sets. His bands (usually guitar, bass, drums and a very good alto sax player) had to know upwards of 200 songs. And be the kind of exceptional players who could fake any number of obscure or even unknown tunes at the drop of a song title. These were jazz, blues, rock, gospel, swing, soul and “what the hell do you want? compositions. And they swung their asses off, young readers. With only four instruments: the complete Count Basie songbook, the real down front-porch Mississippi blues howls, Stones, brass bands, hell, even square dancing (did I mention he was a remarkable fiddle player?).
Gatemouth’s wonderful music left a large beautiful garden plot in my musical mind and memory.
Maybe he did it to yours too if you were cool enough to be there. He was definitely, indelibly, a brilliant unforgettable MUSICIAN. But the very best?