Wanting to play music is in my blood. My dad was a musician who played nothing but Cajun, country, and bluegrass. He was an accomplished performer—not recording-wise, not famous-wise, but he could play. When I was young, I would sit in with him on an old guitar, banging with him, trying to learn how to play. He didn’t teach me; he just played, and when I hit a chord that sounded like his, I’d keep going. I had fun with it.
I started playing the guitar when I was five years old. I was ten when I started playing the fiddle. I picked that up on my own too. In Orange, where I grew up, my dad played at different house parties on the weekends, to release tension from work. He worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for about 25 years. Orange was a very small town, and everybody knew everybody. Me and the white kids used to get together with all the other musicians and play. My family invited everybody over to our house. My mom would move all the furniture out of the living room, and that’s where we’d dance all night. She would cook, and there’d be a lot of music. When the kids got sleepy, we’d just go to sleep on the floor. We were all just like brothers. It was great in those days.
I taught myself how to play other instruments: the harmonica, the drums, the viola. I wanted to play them all, but I wanted to learn one as much as I could and then go to the next one. I keep going back to the guitar because that’s where I started. And I can’t drop it because the world wouldn’t let me do it. I love my guitar, you know.
I met Count Basie in Orange. He was playing a big party at the time, on Second Street, at the same place that I met [rhythm and blues saxophonist] Louis Jordan. I was about thirteen, and I wasn’t old enough to get in, so I sat at the back doors and watched him play. And I thought he had the greatest big band in the world. That’s why I love horns today, because of Count Basie. His horn arrangements were a big influence. When I recorded my first album, it was with Maxwell Davis and a big orchestra. Twelve horns. When I play in New York or overseas, I still have a twelve-horn section. I imitate the sounds of a horn when I play my guitar; I even play horn parts on my fiddle. That’s just the way I do it.
When I was around fourteen I left Orange to tour with a road show called the Brownskin Models. After that, I went into the service, then moved to San Antonio, where I lived for eight years. I was a drummer there at Don Albert’s Keyhole and a guitar player at the Eastwood Country Club. But my first big break as a musician came in 1947, in Houston, at the Bronze Peacock club. That was my debut. T-Bone Walker was playing one night, and he got sick and dropped his guitar. I was in the crowd, and I went up on the bandstand and picked it up. I didn’t know what I was going to do—no one knew I played guitar; they knew me as a drummer—and so I started a boogie-woogie called “Gatemouth Boogie.” See, I’m the one who introduced boogie-woogie on the guitar in this country. It was a big hit.
Music—good music—is the best thing on earth. I never play the same thing the same way twice. I create it in my mind as I go. That’s why it’s hard for a musician to follow what I’m doing, because what you think I’m going to play, I won’t.
People like my music all over the world. I used to be a goodwill ambassador for America, and in 1979 I went to Russia. It was all Communist at that time, but they treated me awful nice; I can’t say nothing wrong. My baby daughter was there with me, and she was six weeks old. Today she’s 24. She is a great vocalist; she was on my last album. She won’t do it professionally, though; she quit when she was 13. I’m glad, because the music field is hard for females. I’ve seen it all these years. It’s a cold-blooded field.
I’ve gone up against many walls; a lot of people thought I would never make it. But I proved to them I could. I enjoy and appreciate what my father set up for me in life. Playing was my destiny.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who turns eighty this month, is up for his thirteenth W. C. Handy Award as instrumentalist of the year, to be announced on April 29. He lives in Slidell, Louisiana.