“There’s no way in the world that I would spend months and months making a record,” says multi-instrumentalist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “When I listen to something I know right away if it needs an adjustment. If it does, I do it. I work quickly, always have. And no producer is going to tell me what to play, either. It’s fine if they ask me, but don’t tell me. I’ve been doing this for 51 years.
“People like to put me in a box, and specify me as a blues artist,” Brown goes on, “and I don’t like that. Yes, I’m known as a blues artist, and I play the blues, but my way. I play positive blues, not that down-hearted, negative blues. I play a lot more, besides: Cajun, country, bluegrass, jazz, polkas, calypso, Caribbean, all of that. And I don’t dress like a typical bluesman, either-I wear a cowboy hat and Western clothes. I’ve been doing that all my life. I was raised in Texas around horses and ranches, and that’s what I’ve always worn. A lot of people don’t know their history, but the first cowboys were black.”
One minute of conversation with the man known as “Gate” reveals an opinionated edge, a big heart, vast talent and worlds of experience. At age 75, the Grammy-winning guitarist, fiddler and singer is in fine, feisty form and deservedly excited about his new album, American Music, Texas Style on Real/Blue Thumb Records. The big band set, recorded in just two days, harkens back to the sound of Brown’s vinyl debut in 1947, on Aladdin Records. Those sides were followed in the early ’50s by a string of big band records cut for Peacock, a Houston-based blues, soul and gospel outfit that was one of America’s first black-owned and -operated labels. Those recordings-known collectively as “the Peacock sessions,” and yielding a hit entitled “Okie Dokie Stomp”-established Brown’s reputation as an agile, inventive and rhythmically precise guitarist whose style drew equally on the Texas blues sound of T-Bone Walker and the bluesy big band swing of Count Basie. Over the decades that followed, Brown has worked in many configurations and stylistic settings, but big bands have always been his favorite format. What’s more, it was a big band album, Alright Again, on Rounder, that won him a Grammy in 1982.
Brown is bluntly unimpressed with many of his fellow musicians, especially blues artists, but he’s quick to state that “I admire Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan. I like horn music, and I play my guitar like a horn, the way that I phrase. You got to breathe and leave some open space.”
Brown performs with a big band whenever possible, but due to logistics and economics, you’re more apt to catch him live with his tight, veteran road band: drummer David Peters, bassist Harold Floyd, keyboardist Joe Krown and alto saxophonist Eric Demmer. This foursome also served as the core players on American Music, Texas Style.
The album was recorded in January ’99 at Ultrasonic Studios, one of New Orleans’ busiest and most sophisticated facilities. Studio time is always in demand there, and on this session the scheduling was even tighter because of the specially assembled horn section-a first-call aggregation with many other individual commitments. Players of note included Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Wes Anderson and tenor man Tony Dagradi. Two days were dedicated to rehearsing the charts, written by the renowned New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue, and two more were committed to getting it all on tape.
This meant that the setup had to be quick, too. “About five-and-a-half hours, from positioning mics to setting all the levels,” recalls veteran engineer David Farrell, who has spent the past decade at Ultrasonic following a long tenure at Studio in the Country, in Bogalusa, La. “We cut almost everything live except the horn solos, because all of those guys were playing parts in the section. The bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, fiddle and vocals were separated from the horns. Everything had to be miked individually. Each horn had its own mic and its own track. For the reeds-one bari sax, two tenors, and two altos-I mostly used AKG 414s, and maybe one Neumann U87. All three trumpets played through U87s, and the four ‘bone players went through either U87s or Audio-Technica 4050s, which are great trombone mics. Each horn player stood about 12 to 18 inches back from his mic.
“For room ambience on the horns,” Farrell continues, “I set up two B&K 4006s, and a Neumann SM-69, which is a stereo mic that’s like two U87s stacked together. The 4006s were about six feet apart, in the center of the horn section, and about seven feet above it. The Neumanns were right in front of the reeds, since they don’t project as much as the brass.
“I had two B&K 4012s on the piano. Joe [Krown] also played a Hammond B-3. I put two Neumann KM84s up top, plus an Electro-Voice RE20 on the Leslie cabinet, to get that ‘scoop’ sound that makes it so distinctive. David Peters’ drums were recorded on seven tracks: an Electro-Voice ND-868 on the kick, a Shure SM57 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the rack and floor tom-toms, a Beyer 201 on the hi-hat, and two AKG 414s as overheads.
“Then there was Gate,” Farrell says. “He played his Gibson Firebird guitar on most of the songs, and his Washburn on a few. He used his MusicMan amp, mostly, and also a new one that he had custom-made here in New Orleans. Either way, I ran two mics on the amp-a Shure SM57 and an AKG C-12A-that’s a tube mic that is a predecessor of the 414. I also recorded the guitar direct, as a safety, in case one of the amps distorted or something, but we never had to use it. His fiddle has a pickup that goes into his amp; besides the SM57 and the C-12A, I added a Neumann U87 as an overhead to record it acoustically. Gate’s vocals went through a U87, too. The only person who went direct was Harold Floyd, the bass player.
“I have a lot of outboard microphone preamps that I like to use,” Farrell continues, “including a Neve 1073 and various items by API, Focusrite and Millennia. There are lots of good EQs on our board, too, which is a Sony JH-600 with 52-channel input and 24-channel output. Since we had so many tracks, I recorded 23 of them on analog, on a Studer 827, using Ampex 456 tape at 15 ips, with Dolby SR. The 24th track was dedicated to SMPTE so that I could sync in a Tascam DA-88 with its own synchronizer card to record the other tracks-it came to around 30 tracks in all.”
Final overdubs and mixing for American Music, Texas Style took place at Studio in the Country, some 90 miles northeast of New Orleans. Sharing the helm were Jay Newland-who has worked on Brown’s recent albums for Verve, along with numerous other blues and jazz-related projects-and Gene Foster, an engineer and guiding presence at the studio since the ’70s.
“Gate’s guitar sound isn’t really bright,” Newland explains. “He doesn’t want it to get that way, and he’ll certainly let you know if he’s not happy about something. So we have to make it stand out without pouring on too much high end. Other than that, the idea is to keep it simple and make it sound live. I don’t have to worry about lots of effects, like you might have to with a contemporary rock record. I used some reverb for ambience and a Manley stereo compressor, and some Tube-Tech stuff. My job was easier because I knew that David would give me good tracks. We worked on a Neve V2 board, 48-track, automated, and mixed to half-inch, 2-track analog, using Ampex 456 on a Studer A80. I mastered the album, too, at BMG in New York, and for that I transferred it on to a Sony 1630.”
Producer Jim Bateman, who manages Brown, also subscribes to the “keep it simple and sounding live” theory. “I’ve been with Gate for 23 years, on eight albums,” Bateman says. “The measuring stick for his records has always been the Peacock material, but I think this new one is the best ever because back then he was still learning. With this album, I think he’ll come to be regarded on a par with Basie or Ellington.
“When I produce I don’t try to change the artist,” Bateman continues. “I just want to pull the best out of them. I always consider the artist to be the co-producer.”
As Gatemouth says, his goals are straightforward: “If you’re going to play music, do it right. Use dynamics. Don’t everybody be out there trying to be the front man. Play together, don’t try to overshadow nobody. I used to be a drummer, and I look for timing. Don’t rush, don’t drag, don’t run over yourself, keep it simple. Whatever you play is what you should record, and your album should sound the same as you do when you play live.”