Bobby Brown reminisces on life of music, brother “Gatemouth”
Sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of Paul Masson brandy and a Black and Mild cigar Bobby Brown, 75, looked back at nights of playing clubs all over the South.
“I used to drink a lot of gin. I had to quit drinking that gin cause it would go to your head.” He said he couldn’t really smoke anymore because of his lungs, but he liked to taste it. “If I inhale this thing,” he said, “It would look like my chest is going to blow up. I can’t inhale it.“
Brown said he used to take two fifths of liquor to the bandstand to play. “And smoke them cigarettes.” He said, “Sometimes you couldn’t even see the band in clubs because of the cloud of smoke.”
Brown is the youngest and last remaining member of a family of musicians. His father started singing and playing the violin on the street corner in Orange in front of Farmers Mercantile. He was joined with Bobby’s oldest brother James “Widemouth” Brown and Wilson “Cutie” Brown. They had a washtub and people would throw money.
“My dad had a pretty big name around here. Everybody downtown liked him. He helped out nearly everybody that came to Orange. Helped them get started. He played violin, guitar, French harp. Cutie played bass.”
The most famous member of his family was his Grammy award winning brother, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
“Widemouth” and “Gatemouth” moved to Houston to pursue their music careers. Clarence’s big break came when he was at a T-Bone Walker concert in Don Robey’s Bronze Peacock club in Houston. “T-Bone got sick. I guess he was on drugs real hard back then, backstage like all musicians. Robey said, ‘Man we gotta have a guitar player. T-Bone can’t perform, he’s too sick back there.’ Gatemouth used T-Bone’s guitar and improvised “Gatemouth Boogie.” Bobby said Robey told T-Bone he was through and Clarence had the gig. “You got a new star in town, so he took the crown,” said Bobby.
Bobby said they busted up the guitars left at home, because they didn’t want him to learn how to play. That ploy didn’t work. He went to Houston to follow his brothers and went in a club where Albert Collins was playing. Bobby thought is was “Gatemouth” because of the way he was dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt, but it wasn’t. Frank Newsome, “Widemouth’s manager” was in the bar playing cards. Bobby said Newsome hustled cards sometime to get traveling money. “Hey ‘Little Gate,’” he said, “uh all your brothers play something, you don’t play nothing?”
“I didn’t know I could play anything, I had never tried. Before Gatemouth left home he took a guitar and busted it on a block to keep me from learning.”
Newsome put some money in the jukebox and told Bobby, “You get up there and play behind them drums.”
“I was playin’ behind Little Richard and James Brown records. I’m up there playing every day, every day, every day and one night some group needed a drummer. And they carried me way up into Louisiana. I think it was near New Orleans. It was back up in a cornfield. There was a club way back there.” That was the start of his career. He auditioned for the Showboat, which was ‘across the river.’ “Wesley Brown was playing there. He had a jazz band. I went there that day to give an audition. I’m not bragging, I sung like anybody. I sung like Fats Domino, Joe Turner,” He stole Brown’s job and traveled to Mississippi.
He spent three years playing on the Mississippi River Boat, the “Robert E. Lee.” “The ship like to sunk two times because it was all rusty on the bottom. We had everybody on that boat. The old boat would be bouncing with all the dancing, it could have broke and killed us all. It broke loose a couple of times,” laughed Brown.
Later, playing drums for his brothers was an on again off again proposition. They would come get him to play drums for them, then they would get in fights and he would leave and come back home. They played all over Texas, Louisville, Ky. Oklahoma.
“We lived in Austin and worked out of Austin. When you’re a musician you can’t make money where you live at. You have to get out to make it.”
“We were on the road like you call it, but this was home. We couldn’t play around here because the people didn’t like us. That’s for all musicians. We don’t play in your own hometown too much, you might play a little bit. You know I played across the river a lot at Lou Ann’s over there for years and years, but if I play over here, ‘oh that’s ole Bobby Brown, we ain’t going in there.’ That’s the way it was,” he said.
Bobby said he doesn’t play anymore. Occasionally he might sing one song if asked when he’s at a club. He never achieved the same fame of his older brother.
Gatemouth not only received a Grammy in 1982, he released several albums and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation recognized him in 1997. He was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Museum of the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
Clarence died of lung cancer in Orange on Sept. 10 2005 after evacuating from his home in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina and two weeks before Hurricane Rita ravaged Orange County. He was buried in the Hollywood Cemetery on Simmons Drive.
When the waters of Hurricane Ike came through in September of 2008, Gatemouth’s was one of the many bodies that were removed from their resting place by the surge of waves during the storm. Bobby had to identify the body. He said the cover of the tomb floated off and upended in the vault allowing the casket to float out and away. Luckily, Gatemouth’s casket was found against the fence. He was one of the easier ones to identify.
Bobby is the only one left. He has buried them all. He lives in Orange, in a house that “Rita” built. Brown spends his evenings shooting pool or playing dominos, while enjoying a bit of brandy and cigars.