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Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, 81; music legend died after escaping Katrina

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Clarence ''Gatemouth" Brown was a musician who defied and denounced categorization. A leading bluesman a half century ago, he spent much of the rest of his career exploring country, jazz, Cajun music, and American standards. Considered a guitarist and singer, he began his career as a drummer and played the fiddle, mandolin, viola, and harmonica with equal ease.

Mr. Brown died Saturday in Orange, Texas, where he had gone to escape Hurricane Katrina. He was 81. He had been battling lung cancer and heart disease, said Rick Cady, his booking agent.

Cady said the musician was with his family at his brother's house when he died. Mr. Brown's home in Slidell, La., a bedroom community of New Orleans, was destroyed by Katrina, Cady said.

''He was completely devastated," Cady said. ''I'm sure he was heartbroken, both literally and figuratively."

Although his career first took off in the 1940s with blues hits ''Okie Dokie Stomp" and ''Ain't That Dandy," Mr. Brown bristled when he was labeled a bluesman.

In the second half of his career, he became known as a musical jack-of-all-trades who played a half-dozen instruments and culled from jazz, country, Texas blues, and the zydeco and Cajun music of his native Louisiana.

By the end of his career, Mr. Brown had more than 30 recordings and won a Grammy award in 1982. He called his work ''American music, Texas style." It was also the title of one of his albums.

His versatility came partly from a childhood spent in the musical mishmash of southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas. He was born in Vinton, La., and grew up in Orange, Texas.

Mr. Brown often said he learned to love music from his father, a railroad worker who sang and played fiddle in a Cajun band.

Mr. Brown started playing fiddle by age 5. At 10, he taught himself an odd guitar picking style he used all his life, dragging his long, bony fingers over the strings.

Two other children in his family were talented musicians: drummer Bobby and guitarist James ''Widemouth" Brown. They played impromptu street concerts, taking their father's advice: ''Tune your instrument, don't overplay and play some of everything so you don't get stuck in one bag."

Mr. Brown, who was dismissive of most of his contemporary blues players, named his father as his greatest musical influence.

''If I can make my guitar sound like his fiddle, then I know I've got it right," Mr. Brown said.

He left home at 16 to tour on the ''Chitlin Circuit" of black concert halls and honky tonks, mostly working as a drummer. He recalled one early job with a group called W.M. Bimbo & His Brownskin Models, whose leader took all the band's money and left everyone stranded in Norfolk, Va.

After brief Army service, he found himself in Houston. According to a story that has been embellished over the years, he sat in for legendary guitarist T-Bone Walker at the Bronze Peacock, a prestigious black clubs.

Mr. Brown said Walker got ill on the bandstand and ran offstage, prompting the unknown Brown to pick up Walker's guitar and lead the band in an improvised blues boogie in E natural -- the only key he knew.

He made dozens of recordings in the 1940s and '50s, including many regional hits -- ''Okie Dokie Stomp," ''Boogie Rambler," and ''Dirty Work at the Crossroads."

Many were swing-tinged arrangements but given an aggressive spirit through Mr. Brown's picking style. Known as an aggressive instrumentalist, he also had a distinctive growl of a voice that, in his school chorus, had earned him his nickname.

He became frustrated by the limitations of the blues and began carving a new career by recording albums that featured jazz and country songs mixed in with the blues numbers.

''He is one of the most underrated guitarists, musicians, and arrangers I've ever met, an absolute prodigy," said Colin Walters, who is working on Mr. Brown's biography. ''He is truly one of the most gifted musicians out there.

''He never wanted to be called a bluesman, but I used to tell him that though he may not like the blues, he does the blues better than anyone," added Walters. ''He inherited the legacy of great bluesmen like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but he took what they did and made it better."

Mr. Brown -- who performed in cowboy boots, cowboy hat, and Western-style shirts -- lived in Nashville in the early 1960s, hosting an R&B television show and recording country singles.

In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded ''Makin' Music," an album that included blues and country songs and a cover of the Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellington classic ''Take the A-Train."

He leaves three daughters and a son.

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.

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