Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleansby Keith Spera
The recent history of New Orleans is fraught with tragedy and triumph. Both are reflected in the city's vibrant, idiosyncratic music community. In Keith Spera's intimately reported Groove Interrupted, Aaron Neville returns to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina to bury his wife. Fats Domino improbably rambles around Manhattan to promote a post-Katrina tribute CD. Alex Chilton lives anonymously in a battered cottage in the Treme neighborhood. Platinum-selling rapper Mystikal rekindles his career after six years in prison. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard struggles to translate Katrina into music. The spotlight also shines on Allen Toussaint, Pete Fountain, Gatemouth Brown, the Rebirth Brass Band, Phil Anselmo, Juvenile, Jeremy Davenport and the 2006 New Orleans Jazz&Heritage Festival. With heartache, hope, humor and resolve, each of these contemporary narratives stands on its own. Together, they convey that the funky, syncopated spirit of New Orleans music is unbreakable, in spite of Katrina's interruption.
“In Groove Interrupted, Keith Spera captures both the elation and the heartbreak of post-Katrina New Orleans through the stories of some of the city's best musicians. Spera knows New Orleans and its music inside-out, and he lived through the disaster and saw it all for himself. Anybody who loves the Crescent City and its music will experience shocks of recognition, humor, sadness, and intense beauty throughout. This is a terrific book.” Tom Piazza, "author of City Of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters"
“With Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood that followed, New Orleans suffered a near-death experience. Eighty percent of the city flooded. Musicians suffered along with everyone else, and in the weeks and months after the storm it was unclear if they, and the music would ever return to the Crescent City. Keith Spera's invaluable book brilliantly chronicles the experiences of some of New Orleans', and America's, most important musicians -- Fats Domino, Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint, among others -- before, during and after America's worst man-made disaster.” Eric Overmyer, Executive Producer Treme (HBO)
In Groove Interrupted, Keith Spera captures both the elation and the heartbreak of post-Katrina New Orleans through the stories of some of the city's best musicians. Spera knows New Orleans and its music inside-out, and he lived through the disaster and saw it all for himself. Anybody who loves the Crescent City and its music will experience shocks of recognition, humor, sadness, and intense beauty throughout. This is a terrific book.
Uneven, intermittently compelling series of portraits of New Orleans musicians.
As the veteran music critic for the Times-Picayune (and a writer for a New Orleans music monthly before that), Spera would seem to be in a great position to provide a comprehensive narrative concerning the effects of the devastating hurricane on a city with such a musical lifeblood. Yet these 13 profiles, many of which have been expanded from newspaper pieces, might better serve as source material for a more ambitious book. The author plainly has access to subjects who trust him and an appreciation for younger styles of music (metal, hip-hop) that figure more strongly in contemporary New Orleans music than in most books about the city's musical legacy. But some of the profiles are only tangentially related to Katrina and its aftermath, while too many others fall into a formulaic rhythm: opening anecdote, extended biographical chronology, effects on the subject of the devastation and destruction of Katrina. The chapters on Aaron Neville, Fats Domino, Jazz Fest director Quint Davis and formerly incarcerated rapper Mystikal are particularly pointed and revelatory. The chapter on the late cult icon Alex Chilton, however, is a missed opportunity, in which the author writes about how rare such an interview was and how articulate and intelligent the subject was, but then offers few quotes from that interview. The chapter on a recording session with Jeremy Davenport, a jazz lounge singer and trumpeter who may be well known in New Orleans but little known beyond it, does a fine job capturing the studio interplay but seems out of place given the book's supposed focus on Katrina. "Katrina changed everyone, at least temporarily," writes Spera, but his reporting barely scratches the surface of those profound changes.
Six years after Katrina, too many of these pieces have a warmed-over feel.
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Gatemouth Brown’s Last Ride
In the fall of 1997, photographer Jennifer Zdon and I visited the notoriously cantankerous Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at his ramshackle bayou-side bachelor’s pad outside Slidell, Louisiana. He immediately antagonized Zdon. He’d rather marry a gorilla and keep it in his lemon tree, the thrice-divorced Brown informed her, than marry another woman. Not amused, she struggled to maintain her professional composure even as Brown refused pleas to pose with his trademark cowboy hat.
Eight years later, as Brown wasted away from cancer, heart disease and emphysema, Zdon asked to document his struggle for The Times-Picayune. He agreed, with one provision: That he be allowed to preview the photographs before publication. In the end, the dying musician objected to only one image of himself, shirtless and skeletal, being helped into bed. It was too intimate, too revealing, too raw.
As evidenced by his frequently impolitic assertions and boasts, Gatemouth Brown didn’t worry all that much about other folks’ opinions of him. But to expose his own weakness so nakedly was more than he could stomach. Even Gatemouth, at some point, was vulnerable.
Zdon honored his request. The photo never ran.
The black-and-red backpack never strayed from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s side. Inside were the tools of the guitarist’s trade as a living legend of Gulf Coast music: copies of his latest CD; promotional photos; a Sharpie for signing autographs.
The backpack also contained personal items: a reserve sheriff’s deputy badge from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana; assorted pipes and tobacco; an ashtray for use in establishments that didn’t ordinarily accommodate smokers.
Most critically, it concealed the realities of his precarious day-to-day existence in the spring of 2005: two portable oxygen tanks; an inhaler; an electronic blood pressure gauge; a supply of pills.
The previous September, Brown, then eighty, announced that he had lung cancer. After consulting with doctors at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he opted to forgo treatment. He would ride it out, one day at a time, puffing calmly on the pipe that was his constant companion and a likely culprit.
Cancer was not his only ailment. He also suffered from emphysema and partial blockage in his arteries. Doctors wouldn’t risk an operation because of his diminished lung capacity.
Clearly, Brown was nearing the end of his remarkable run. During a fifty-year career, commercial success on par with that of fellow blues traveler B. B. King had eluded him. But to fans and admirers, including Eric Clapton, the broad scope of his musicianship was unparalleled. Fluent on guitar, fiddle, mandola, harmonica, drums, viola and piano, he released his seminal single, the horn-heavy instrumental “Okie Dokie Stomp,” in 1954. Like many of his roots-music peers, he faded into obscurity until European blues enthusiasts “rediscovered” him.
Brown stormed back, a font of jump blues, big band swing, country, jazz and Cajun music. Long, elegant fingers teased out precise licks; he demanded similar perfection from his musicians. “He’s a very opinionated, hardheaded person sometimes,” said Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the young blues-rock guitarist from north Louisiana who recruited Brown for his Grammy-nominated 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads project. “I mean that in an endearing way. If he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t be Gatemouth.”
A string of acclaimed albums in the 1990s—American Music, Texas Style, Long Way Home, Gate Swings—found him at the peak of his powers. Clapton enlisted Brown and his band, Gate’s Express, as the opening act on arena tours of Europe and North America. Brown was riding high once again. Not surprisingly, as illness encroached on his world, he refused to relinquish it quietly.
* * *
A weekday afternoon in October 1997 found Gatemouth Brown at his home near Slidell, a sleepy bedroom community east of New Orleans on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. His abode alongside Highway 11 teetered above a canal on wood pilings; the back porch overlooked an expanse of marshland stretching to the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Parked among the banana, plum, pecan and lemon trees out front was his barge-like black 1976 Cadillac DeVille. A side window bore a caricature of him as a lean cowboy guitar-slinger.
The arrival of visitors roused him from a siesta necessitated by a late night in Baton Rouge. “Gimme a few minutes to wake up,” he mumbled, embarking on a quest for coffee and his trusty pipe. The restless Brown was rarely that idle. That July, at age seventy-three, he performed in both China and South Africa. Tours of the West Coast, France, Slovenia, Austria and Belgium followed.
Slowly coming alive at his kitchen table, he reflected on his epic life. He was born in 1924 in the southwest Louisiana town of Vinton, months before his family moved across the Sabine River to Orange, Texas. Accounts of the origin of his nickname varied. Some say the source was an exasperated schoolteacher who said young Brown’s mouth swung open and shut like a gate; others claim it was Don Robey, Brown’s first manager, who concocted “Gatemouth” as a stage name. Brown generally declined to elaborate—he planned to save the story for his autobiography.
Music abounded at home. His father, a railroad engineer, was also a bluegrass and Cajun fiddler; Brown’s brothers played guitar and drums. In his late teens, he cut his teeth with various Texas bands, then served a stretch in the Army. Back in Texas, he worked as a journeyman guitarist. One evening at Houston’s Bronze Peacock nightclub, he picked up an ailing T-Bone Walker’s guitar and improvised a song. Impressed, Robey, the club’s owner, resolved to get Brown a record deal.
Starting in 1947, Brown cut singles first for Los Angeles–based Aladdin Records, then Robey’s own Peacock label. Those early sides contributed to the development of Texas blues; the Lone Star State would continue to claim him even after he settled in Slidell in 1983.
After the blues market dried up in the mid-1960s, Brown rambled around Colorado and New Mexico. In 1966 in Nashville, he fronted the house band for an R&B-based TV variety show called The!!!! Beat; he and The Beat Boys performed alongside African-American go-go dancers in white boots and fringed miniskirts. After the show’s one-year run, he dropped out of sight.
But roots music rewards longevity. Like many blues-based artists, Brown endured a long, fallow period as a has-been only to reemerge, like a butterfly from a cocoon, as an elder statesman. By the mid-1970s, he was appearing on Hee Haw. His 1982 release Alright Again! won a Grammy as Best Traditional Blues Album.
The 1990s proved to be the most lucrative period of his career. He could afford to record and occasionally perform with big bands, indulging his fondness for the arrangements of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. “Guys get on their knees bowing to me,” he said, not altogether unpleased. “I get very embarrassed sometimes, but that’s what they do.”
Eric Clapton became an unabashed Brown booster on November 22, 1994, the second of Clapton’s three consecutive nights at the New Orleans House of Blues. During his encore, Clapton invited Brown to sit in. After warming up, Brown stepped to the microphone and announced, “For my next song…” He essentially hijacked the show as a grinning Clapton shrugged and slipped into his newly assigned role as sideman.
“How many people would get up onstage with Clapton and do that, and not even hesitate?” said Shepherd. “Only guys from that generation can do something like that and get away with it.”
Weeks later, Clapton invited Brown to join him at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He then asked Brown to open dozens of concerts across Europe and North America, exposing the old master to thousands of fresh ears. “I was doing damn good before Clapton,” Brown noted. “That just helped a little.”
When not on the road, he made the rounds in New Orleans or holed up at his Slidell hideaway. Following his third divorce, he lived alone amid a confirmed bachelor’s clutter. Dozens of elaborate model ships gave the den/living room/kitchen of his glorified fishing camp a nautical cast. He was especially proud of one vessel with a hull consisting of lacquered bones.
In one corner stood a copy of his plaster bas-relief portrait that is set in the ceiling of the New Orleans House of Blues; the club permanently reserved a booth in his honor. A photo of his Grammy award substituted for the actual trophy that resides in a Baton Rouge museum. Five W. C. Handy statuettes—the Grammy of the blues world—sat atop a dormant organ. A Rhythm & Blues Foundation plaque naming him 1997’s “Pioneer Artist” was a particular favorite—it came with a substantial check.
Brown relished the role of curmudgeon, but a sly smile often followed his most outrageous pronouncements. He hated posing for pictures and loved to let photographers know. He loathed rap and “head-banging” hard rock. His definition of love? “A misunderstanding between two damn fools.”
Initially, he declined an offer to contribute to a Rolling Stones tribute album. “I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t like Mick Jagger’s writing. It don’t make no sense.” He finally relented and recorded “Ventilator Blues.”
Years later, when asked his opinion of Me and Mr. Johnson, Clapton’s 2004 homage to blues pioneer Robert Johnson, Brown said, “I didn’t like those songs the first time, so why in the hell you think I’m gonna like ’em now?”
He complimented Clapton only grudgingly. “He’s all right,” Brown allowed, before correcting himself. “No, no—he’s a good guitar player. But what I notice is most guitar players in the white society figure the Delta blues is it. They don’t know that there’s a helluva lot more music than Delta blues. That’s the kind of music I avoid, because it’s depressing. It’s negative, and I won’t play it.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I play the blues, but it’s positive. It’s not about ‘my woman done left me’—a woman done left everyone who ever walked upright. That’s what’s wrong—every son of a bitch out there is trying to tell the world his woman deserted him, but that’s nothing to teach our kids.
“Blues players can’t give no information—they don’t know what to say. A certain individual, I won’t give his name, was on TV and they asked, ‘What is the blues to you?’ You know what his answer was? ‘A feeling.’ I cracked up, boy.”
Given such perceived absurdities, he intended his then-current album, Gate Swings, as a musical primer. “I could see son-of-a-guns out there trying to play big-band music and couldn’t even voice their instruments, didn’t know what they were doing. I showed them how it’s supposed to be voiced, what kind of dynamics it’s supposed to have. I play big-band lines—it’s not just twang, twang, twang. You’ve got to be making a statement.”
On Gate Swings, the big band interacts with, but does not overwhelm, his guitar. As he listened to the CD at his kitchen table, arched eyebrows, slight grimaces, quick smiles and a fist that clenched and pumped for emphasis all reflected his nuanced guitar work. “See how smooth that is?” he said, reveling in the moment. “That’s how music is supposed to be.”
He knew the arrangements intimately. Unlike some other blues legends who may only trot out token licks, he was clearly the conductor of Gate’s Express. After fifty years, he still strove for excellence.
“One time I was telling Clapton and my band, ‘You see that staircase? I started years ago at this bottom step.’ Then I didn’t point to the top step—I said, ‘I’m right here [in the middle], still climbing.’ And I don’t look back. What was is gone. What will be, who knows? But what is, counts.”
He refused to speculate about the future, about what his next album might be or whether he would continue to tour incessantly. “Who knows? I have no idea from one day to another. People ask, ‘What are you going to do next?’ I don’t know.”
After the sun had sunk into Lake Pontchartrain, a fully engaged Brown saddled up for the evening’s adventures. He pulled on black boots, positioned a matching cowboy hat atop his head, slipped his reserve sheriff’s deputy badge into a back pocket and tucked a holstered .38 into his waistband.
His immediate itinerary was uncertain. He might drive into New Orleans for a late supper at the House of Blues. Maybe he’d cruise around Slidell “hollerin’ at people I know.” Outside, he fired up an old pickup with a new set of brakes, and Gate’s express pulled out of the station.
* * *
Not surprisingly, a defiant Gatemouth Brown rejected farewell scenarios when diagnosed with cancer seven years later.
On a cloudy afternoon in October 2004, he ambled into the bunker-like Studio in the Country, a favorite haunt north of Lake Pontchartrain in the pine woods of Bogalusa. Looking every bit the cowboy depicted in his silhouette logo, he was the honored guest during a recording session by Japanese punk band Highway 61.
Gene Foster, the studio’s engineer, greeted him with an all-too-familiar query: “How you feeling, Gate?”
As usual, he was in no mood to discuss his illness. He’d rather talk about his latest CD, Timeless. The disc swung through a variety of styles, as was Brown’s habit onstage. He paired his country fiddle with a pedal steel guitar on Bobby Charles’s “Tennessee Blues” and his own “Six Levels Below Plant Life.” He injected “Unchained Melody” with crisp, bell-tone lead guitar lines. In the spoken-word intro to “The Drifter,” he expounded on a favorite topic: woman trouble. Timeless, he said, was intended to demonstrate “the purity of music. The positive in music. The dynamic of music. The discipline in music.”
The record’s second track is “For Now, So Long,” a song he wrote in the 1950s and first recorded for Peacock. “Good-bye, I hate to leave you now, good-bye,” he sings. “So long for now.” Given his grim medical prognosis, such lyrics could be especially poignant.
But he had no use for sentimentality. While in Texas in September 2004 for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, he agreed to contribute to an album by Lone Star State all-star band Los Super Seven. The morning of the session, he learned what song he’d been assigned: Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” which Bob Dylan popularized.
The graveyard imagery did not unnerve him as much as the arrangement—straight-ahead blues, of the sort he normally disdained. “I didn’t want to do it, but they paid enough money,” he recalled. “I changed the music so I could tolerate it.”
In Bogalusa a month later, he still felt like himself, save a slight cough and the general wear and tear accumulated during five decades on the road. He clearly enjoyed the commotion triggered by his visit to a diner near Studio in the Country. He asked a waitress for twenty dollars, a mischievous stunt he often pulled with both strangers and acquaintances. “I try to mess with ’em, get ’em grinnin’. I can tell if you’re a good candidate. If you’re not, I don’t want to mess with you.”
After lunch, Brown piloted his Cadillac DeVille back to the studio where the members of Highway 61 were hard at work. A long-ago incident at the same studio with another Japanese rock band, the Privates, is the stuff of legend. Like many Japanese musicians, the Privates idolized traditional American bluesmen. They were thrilled to meet Gatemouth Brown. Showing off, he whipped out a .38 and fired a round into a pine tree as the Japanese scattered. Later, they dug out the slug as a souvenir.
This time, perhaps not quite as confident about the steadiness of his hand, he waved his gun around outside, but did not fire. Instead of a spent slug, the Highway 61 crew collected video footage of his Cadillac. Given their limited English and inherent respect, they did not inquire about his health.
Had they asked, “I’d tell them I feel fine,” Brown said, chuckling. “And I do. You ought to see my Web site. Messages from all over the world, wishing me well. It makes me feel real good to know people think that much of you.”
He was less amused by rumors that circulated online before he announced his diagnosis. “People spook easy. But I’m not going to let nobody gut me like a pig and kill me because they want big money. Them doctors—it’s all about money. Everybody’s got some kind of medical problem. I know some eighteen-year-old kids that have cancer.”
He bristled at the suggestion that he might “try” to make another album.
“Try? What do you mean ‘try’? You goddamn right I’m going to make another record! Several records. I’m going to do a bluegrass album next. All fiddle, maybe some vocals and guitar.”
And he intended to maintain his concert schedule. His longtime friend and manager, Jim Bateman, had approached Carlos Santana, Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt and Kenny Wayne Shepherd about performing with Brown to boost his profile and payday. “I’ll work as much as I want,” Brown said. “When I don’t want, I won’t.”
As his visit to Studio in the Country wound down, he listened politely to the howls and distorted guitars of a Highway 61 track called, appropriately enough, “Power to Live.” As the final chord faded away, the Japanese asked to take a picture with their honored guest. The camera’s flash failed on the first two attempts. Moment finally captured, they bowed in thanks. “That’ll be twenty dollars each,” Brown said. “And that’s American money, too. I don’t want no yen.”
The Japanese laughed nervously, not entirely sure if he’s joking. Brown offered some final words of encouragement: “Keep it up, fellas. Keep it up.”
He planned to do the same, as long as possible.
* * *
Mortality came calling on Brown weeks later. One night that December, he climbed the stairs to Rock ’n’ Bowl, a famed New Orleans nightspot that, at the time, occupied a second-floor, 1940s-era bowling alley. The ascent left him winded, but he still played two sets with a combo fronted by Joe Krown, the longtime keyboardist in Gate’s Express. Nine days later, Brown collapsed onstage at actor Steven Seagal’s New Year’s Eve party in Memphis, Tennessee, and landed in a hospital. “He was pissed off about that,” Krown said. “He’s not a big doctor guy.”
Over the objections of the hospital staff, Brown checked out and boarded a train for a gig in Atlanta. Barbara Peterson, a longtime friend from Austin who would later move into Brown’s house to help care for him, ranked that show on January 8, 2005, among his best. Gregg Allman and guitarist Susan Tedeschi were on hand to fill in if Brown couldn’t finish. “They only got to play with him,” Peterson said. “They didn’t play for him.”
Back in New Orleans two weeks later for OffBeat magazine’s “Best of the Beat” Awards, Brown was honored for a lifetime of achievement. In front of hundreds of fellow musicians and music industry insiders, he sat on a stool and coaxed a few notes from his guitar. But new antianxiety medication had left him groggy. After two songs, he signaled to Krown that he’d had enough.
The weekend after Mardi Gras, Brown and Gate’s Express traveled to the Northeast for three grueling shows, starting at B. B. King’s Blues Club in Manhattan. “His hands wouldn’t work,” Krown said. “He couldn’t even play ‘Unchained Melody,’ which is his favorite moment in the night. He couldn’t find the notes. It was heart-wrenching.”
Offstage, Brown rode in a wheelchair and piled on hats, coats and blankets in a futile effort to keep warm. Medical technicians met the band at each airport and set up oxygen generators at hotels. In Columbus, Ohio, the hotel’s power failed, shutting down the oxygen machine. “He had a panic attack,” Krown said. “He couldn’t get enough air. He got headaches, his arms and chest hurt, like a little heart attack. It was painful to watch.”
Back in Louisiana, Brown grudgingly forfeited more of his fiercely guarded independence. For months, he’d been unable to drive; his beloved Cadillac DeVille languished outside his house, collecting dust. He depended on friends to provide round-the-clock assistance and shuttle him around in a decidedly less iconic 2003 Toyota Sienna minivan.
With traditional medicine offering little hope, Brown turned to alternative therapies, including a “white light” treatment. The month of March was especially rough; he struggled to even get out of bed. But he painstakingly completed one important task: autographing several hundred copies of the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s commemorative Congo Square poster bearing his likeness.
Meanwhile, manager Jim Bateman canceled Brown’s spring performances, resigned to the possibility that the guitarist might never play again.
What happened next, those around him say, was a miracle.
* * *
On March 27, 2005, Joe Krown looked up from the tiny stage of the Maple Leaf Bar, a dim, low-slung music club with pressed-tin walls in New Orleans’ Carrollton neighborhood. He watched in amazement as Gatemouth Brown sauntered in, decked out in full cowboy regalia.
“I’d seen him two weeks before, and he looked horrible,” Krown said. “He had that glazed-over look in his eyes. He hadn’t been out of bed in two weeks.” Now here he was wearing cowboy boots again, “which was a big thing. For two months, his feet had been too swollen to wear them.”
Four nights later, Krown met Gatemouth at Lucky’s, a twenty-four-hour bar on St. Charles Avenue. “Every other time I’d seen him, he was so lethargic that he couldn’t hold his head up,” Krown said. “But I don’t think his chin touched his chest once. He was cutting up on people. He said he felt really good and that he had energy. It was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Brown’s hands shook as he tried to light his pipe, but otherwise he seemed fine. When Krown left at two A.M., Brown was still holding court. “Everybody said he was like the old Gate,” Bateman said. “It’s like he got a second wind. I guess he made up his mind that he was going to get out of bed and keep going.”
Suddenly it seemed possible that he might fulfill the only two engagements remaining on his 2005 calendar: a free show April 13 in a downtown New Orleans park, and the all-important April 28 appearance at Jazz Fest. To prepare, Krown suggested Brown—who hadn’t touched a guitar in weeks—join him for a handful of informal gigs. “I told him that it would be a real shame if he walked out onstage at Jazz Fest in front of five thousand people and his hands were too shaky to play.”
So on April 1, Brown showed up for Krown’s weekly happy hour gig at Le Bon Temps Roule, a scruffy, roadhouse-like Uptown bar on Magazine Street. Fifty people filled the bar’s back covered patio. Most ignored the elderly black man in the gray Levi slacks, black boots, beaver-skin cowboy hat and black leather Hard Rock Cafe jacket. He settled alongside the weathered upright piano armed with his signature guitar, a 1966 Gibson Firebird with GATEMOUTH stamped on the brown leather pick guard.
He wiggled his fingers and adjusted the guitar’s knobs. He braced a pinky against the instrument’s body, tapped the strings with three fingers and strummed with his thumb. Clean, tidy solos, the sort he’d spun for five decades, cut through the din.
The song? “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
After twenty minutes, he retired to a nearby table and tucked into a dozen fried oysters, sipping beer through a straw. “Does that look like a dead man to you?” Barbara Peterson said, somewhat hopefully. “I’ve never seen anybody on their death bed eat oysters like that.”
Later that night, Brown played two sets with Krown’s band several miles away at the Banks Street Bar & Grill, an equally informal joint in Mid-City. The benefit of such activity “goes beyond the gig,” Krown said. “It’s psychological therapy. He’s so much happier that he’s out. I was waiting for the call that said it was over. And then here he is, calling me and telling me to book some dates. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but he’s back.”
* * *
In the hopes of making a few extra dollars, Brown advertised his next guest appearance on April 10 at the Maple Leaf. As long as he toured, he had earned enough to help out his grown children. But as Bateman once noted, “Savings accounts don’t exist in his world.”
Brown’s inability to tour put him in a precarious financial position. Medicare and a supplement covered most of his hospital and doctor bills, but not the stipend paid to his caretakers or the $600 monthly tab for medicine.
Carlos Santana sent a $10,000 check, but money remained tight. Bateman contacted organizations that provide a safety net for musicians: the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, the MusiCares arm of the Recording Academy, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, among others. But assistance from such organizations was limited. Even a low-key gig at the Maple Leaf helped.
Two months earlier, Brown could not draw enough breath to sing or raise his arms to play fiddle. He did both, briefly, at the Maple Leaf. Three nights later, he faced 3,000 people at Lafayette Square, a magnolia-lined park in the heart of downtown New Orleans, as that week’s headliner for the free Wednesday at the Square spring concert series. Seated on a padded stool center stage, with a tube from a small oxygen tank running to his nose, he played only intermittently early in the set. Mostly he deferred to country-blues singer and harmonica player Delbert McClinton, whom Bateman had added to the show as backup. Later, Brown played a bit more.
Afterward, he settled into a van parked behind the stage. He faced the open cargo door and received well-wishers for thirty minutes, posing for pictures and signing autographs until fatigue set in. His fingers, he reported, were less stiff than at previous shows. “Delbert helped me out, and my band did great,” he said. “I had a great time.”
McClinton, too, was impressed. “He’s an amazing character. He’s gonna go down swingin’.”
Emboldened by the guitarist’s newfound stamina, Terry Phillips, a friend and caretaker, drove Brown to Dallas for an April 17 benefit in his honor. “He’s played at so many benefits over the years,” Phillips said. “Why not have one for him?”
To make the Dallas journey as comfortable as possible, Brown’s mattress was laid across the floor of Phillips’s minivan. Following the show, they left Dallas at midnight and drove all night. Exhausted, Brown rested at home for most of April 18, a Monday, then celebrated his eighty-first birthday that night at Palmetto’s, a Slidell restaurant.
In hindsight, the Dallas adventure might have been too strenuous. Soon afterward, Phillips—who had befriended Brown two years earlier while working at Smokin’ Blues, a Slidell barbecue joint the guitarist frequented—moved in as a full-time caregiver.
Brown, though feeble, still resisted the idea of hospice care. “When you go with hospice, you’re pretty much resigned that there’s no hope,” Bateman said. “And Gate’s reluctant to make that resignation.”
Days before the first weekend of Jazz Fest, his weight had dropped to 100 pounds—nineteen pounds fewer than a weigh-in weeks earlier, an ominous sign. But Joe Krown, for one, wouldn’t bet against his boss’s resolve. “In January, doctors gave him another month or two. Maybe the powers above have given him a break so that he can play Jazz Fest. He’s beaten the odds so many times. He’s a warrior.”
On the eve of the festival, Brown attended an afternoon reception at the swank Ogden Museum of Southern Art in honor of his commemorative Jazz Fest poster. As was his habit, he lit up a pipe. A museum official asked him to extinguish it, as smoking is strictly prohibited inside. Instead, Brown—still as stubborn as ever—left.
The next night, he accompanied Krown to the fabled New Orleans nightclub Tipitina’s to see Austin rhythm-and-blues pianist Marcia Ball, an old friend. Ball embraced Brown for a long good-bye hug. “Gate’s going out the way he wants—in the clubs,” Krown said. “It’s not even about playing. He just wants to be out there, around music he likes, as much as he possibly can. And he’s doing exactly that.”
* * *
The Monday between Jazz Fest weekends, Brown was to be inducted into the Tipitina’s Walk of Fame with a commemorative plaque set into the sidewalk on the Napoleon Avenue side of the club. That night, the skies over New Orleans opened up with a deluge. The induction ceremony’s organizers erected white canopies over the sidewalk. Dozens of fans and photographers huddled together, waiting for Brown and the other inductees: 1960s girl group the Dixie Cups, and acclaimed rhythm-and-blues arranger Wardell Quezergue.
Brown arrived early with his entourage and holed up inside the Tchoup House, a refurbished home/private clubhouse next door to Tipitina’s. He stretched out on a bed wearing black jeans and, on his right hip, the new .38 Taurus pistol he purchased that afternoon.
At the appointed time, Quezergue, who is nearly blind, and the three Dixie Cups took their places outside Tip’s under a canopy on a low riser the size of a table top. Before Brown could exit the Tchoup House, he required oxygen and a blood pressure check. Terry Phillips handed him a pill.
“What pill is this?” Brown asked.
“Anxiety,” Phillips said.
Finally, Gate pulled on his leather Hard Rock Cafe jacket and headed out the back door. The forty-five-second walk from the Tchoup House through Tipitina’s to the sidewalk left him breathless.
As the Walk of Fame ceremony commenced, Brown needed to sit down. Someone set a metal folding chair next to the riser where the Dixie Cups and Quezergue stood. A knot of fans quietly sang “Chapel of Love,” the Dixie Cups’ biggest hit, as the three women hugged, smiled, laughed and posed with Quezergue.
Off to the side, Brown sat motionless in the shadows, leaning forward, elbows at rest on rail-thin thighs, fingers clasped over his knees. A tube in his nose tethered him to a portable oxygen tank.
From below the brim of his beige cowboy hat, he stared up at his fellow honorees, eyes wide, willing himself to join them, not having the strength to do it.
The rain fell harder.
Former Tipitina’s Foundation director Bill Taylor saluted the Dixie Cups and Quezergue. The honorees spoke briefly.
Finally it was Gatemouth’s turn. As Taylor listed his accomplishments, Brown bolted upright and made his way to the microphone, eyeing leaks at the canopy’s seams. Cameras flashed and people cheered.
“All I can say is thank you,” he said, his voice steady, his eyes moist from the rain or maybe something else. “Thank you very much.”
And then he hustled back to the folding chair.
He never did see the steel Walk of Fame plaque that was carved with his name and set in the sidewalk. As Quezergue and the Dixie Cups clustered under umbrellas for the unveiling, he was already in Phillips’s minivan, his sanctuary. Where it was quiet, warm and dry. Where he could rest undisturbed, breathe pure oxygen, and stave off shortness of breath.
He had arranged to inspect a motor home the next day, with an eye toward buying it with money he did not have. Because after Jazz Fest, Gatemouth Brown fully intended to hit the road again.
Only he knew the destination.
* * *
That destination turned out to be Orange, his boyhood home in southeast Texas. First, though, he rose to the occasion at Jazz Fest.
At the Gentilly Stage, one of two main stages flanking the Fair Grounds’ twenty-six-acre infield, Brown cut a sharp figure in a blue-gray embroidered Western shirt, suspenders, a crisp straw cowboy hat and mirrored shades. His oxygen tank sat unused at his side as he finger-picked lean, lyrical guitar solos throughout “Grape Jelly.” In the autobiographical “Born in Louisiana,” he sang with authority, sawed on a fiddle, and switched back to guitar for yet another solo. He dedicated a song to his youngest daughter, Renee, who would soon make him a grandfather once again. “It’s hard to take,” he said with good-humored resignation, “but I have to accept it.”
During Joe Krown’s Hammond B-3 organ solo in “Jumpin’ the Blues,” Brown pointed at the vast audience and swept his extended arm across the field as if bestowing a benediction. At the set’s conclusion, he turned and walked off, tall and proud, under his own power.
Backstage, he greeted B. B. King, who would follow him on the same stage. He boarded a golf cart and crossed the infield to the festival’s on-site record tent, where he signed autographs. A determined Gatemouth Brown was clearly still a force with which to be reckoned.
* * *
However, determination could only carry him so far. In the weeks after Jazz Fest, his condition deteriorated rapidly as his body wasted away. His dream of touring again proved impossible; sheer force of will no longer sufficed.
In late August, as Hurricane Katrina stalked southeast Louisiana, a weakened Brown finally consented to evacuate to Orange with his ex-wife Yvonne and their daughter, Renee. Heavy traffic stretched what is normally a five-hour drive into a twelve-hour ordeal.
On August 29, Katrina’s winds and storm surge obliterated Brown’s beloved Slidell abode, washing the entire house and its contents—the gun collection, the awards, the photos, the memorabilia, the model ship built out of bones—into the nearby canal and marsh. All that reminded were lonely pilings upon which the house once stood and scattered debris—a sodden guitar case, stained and smeared pictures, the ruined black Cadillac.
After several days in Orange, an effort was made to move Brown to Austin, where club owner Clifford Antone had agreed to look after him. Longtime Gate’s Express saxophonist Eric Demmer and his wife, Dusty, traveled from Houston to Orange in a borrowed limousine on the night of September 5, 2005, planning to drive Brown three hundred miles to the Texas capital.
But they discovered that he was much frailer than when they’d last seen him in Slidell on August 21. “I was shocked at his condition,” Dusty Demmer said. “I was afraid he might die if we took him to Austin.”
Instead, they summoned an ambulance, which rushed Brown to the Medical Center of Southeast Texas in nearby Port Arthur. Doctors inserted a stent to relieve pressure on his blocked arteries. Four days later, on September 9, he checked out of the hospital, apparently against the advice of doctors.
He died less than twenty-four hours later at a grandniece’s apartment in Orange.
* * *
On the afternoon of September 17, 2005, family, friends and fans gathered at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in a leafy, working-class neighborhood of Orange. The sanctuary was decidedly humble: low ceiling, cheap paneling, frosted glass windows, uneven, creaky floor. The Sunday before the funeral, Mount Calvary hosted fifty-four congregants.
Nearly four times as many souls settled into the cushioned pews for ninety minutes of music and memories in honor of Gatemouth Brown. A banner above the lectern spelled out the house rules: LET THE PREACHER DO THE TALKING! LET THE USHERS DO THE WALKING!
Brown, lying beneath the banner in a bronze-tinted steel casket, likely would have appreciated the no-nonsense directive: on the bandstand, as in life, he did not suffer fools or foolishness gladly. Had he been able, he likely would have halted the Mount Calvary band after the guitarist’s first sloppy chord change. Later that afternoon, at a repast stocked with barbecue chicken, ribs, potato salad and spicy “dirty” rice, friends joked that God had forced Brown to endure the subpar music. “I’m surprised Gate didn’t get up out of that coffin and take that guitar,” said Terry Phillips, his former caretaker.
Had he arisen, Brown would have been dressed for the occasion. In repose he wore his trademark black cowboy hat, a black Western shirt embroidered with elaborate yellow and green flowers, and an oversize belt buckle borrowed from his brother; his own buckles lay buried in the marsh outside Slidell.
The funeral functioned as a reunion for Brown’s far-flung family. Two of his four children by different women had never met. A great-nephew who spoke during the service confessed that he “wasn’t real close” to Uncle Gatemouth. “I was just scared of him.”
B. B. King and Delbert McClinton sent flowers. Famed Austin guitarist Jimmie Vaughan attended the service, as did members of Baton Rouge–based guitar-pop band the Benjy Davis Project. Bateman managed the young band; Brown’s guest appearance on the Benjy Davis Project’s 2006 CD The Angie House was his final recording.
Gold embroidering inside the coffin lid trumpeted his 1982 Grammy for Alright Again! The album’s artwork dominated the cover of the glossy funeral bulletin. “He was the number-one guitar slinger from the Gulf Coast,” said a somber Vaughan. “I learned a lot from his records. I never dreamed that I would grow up to meet him and play with him.”
During the service, Brown’s friend and collaborator Gene Gunulfsen reprised an a cappella “For Now, So Long,” from the Timeless album. Backed by an electric keyboard, guitar and an eight-man choir, Pastor Joe Roberson sent up an exhilarating “I Got Nothing But the Holy Ghost.” Urging mourners to “put your hands together,” he gripped the lectern, hunched his shoulders in time with the rhythm, and rocked the house with a gritty high tenor.
Pastor George H. Brown—no relation to the deceased—delivered a thirty-minute sermon that only occasionally referenced the Grammy winner lying before him. His cadence was that of Bill Cosby posing as an elderly preacher. In a knee-length cream jacket and matching vest, he described how he was once “crazy in my mind and no sense in my soul,” then found salvation.
Having concluded his speech, Pastor Brown abruptly announced “the undertakers are coming.” The undertakers slowly wheeled the casket down the center aisle, preceding pastors, family and friends who quietly sang “I’ll Fly Away.” A black Cadillac hearse—Brown always loved black Caddies—transported the body two miles to Hollywood Cemetery. He was laid to rest between a water tower and a drainage canal, alongside his mother, sister and uncle in a grassy field studded by magnolia and cedar trees and cement slabs.
Under a punishing sun, a seven-man honor guard—Brown’s honorable discharge from the Army qualified him for a military funeral—fired three volleys. A trumpeter sounded “Taps” before a chaplain oversaw the ceremonial folding of the flag draped over the casket. The mourners drifted away to eat and drink and share stories about Gatemouth Brown, of which there were many.
His long road had finally circled back to where it began.
* * *
Gatemouth Brown’s adult children were civil to one another at his funeral, but two years later they tangled in court over his modest estate, which Jim Bateman—whom a judge would eventually name executor—valued at around $120,000. The most precious artifacts were the musician’s fiddle and his 1966 Gibson Firebird guitar; according to Bateman, both Steven Seagal and a Japanese collector had offered Brown tens of thousands of dollars for the guitar. The instruments were in Renee Brown’s possession after her father’s death. Bateman wanted them held in trust by a museum, and insured. Renee then testified that the guitar and fiddle had been stolen from a storage shed, and burned.
In the early morning hours of September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast near Orange. Storm surge and rainwater flooded Hollywood Cemetery. The water forced open Brown’s subterranean vault and flushed out his bronze-tinted casket, which came to rest against a nearby fence.
Not even death could halt Gatemouth Brown’s rambles.
Copyright © 2011 by Keith Spera
Foreword copyright © 2011 by Harry Shearer
Meet the Author
KEITH SPERA writes about music for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In 2006, he was a member of the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team. He has also contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender, LA Weekly, Garden&Gun and numerous documentaries. He lives in his native New Orleans with his wife and two young children.
Keith Spera writes about music for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In 2006, he was a member of the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team. He has also contributed to Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender, LA Weekly, Garden&Gun and numerous documentaries. He is the author of Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans. He lives in his native New Orleans with his wife and two young children.
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