'Gatemouth' refuses to give up

Musician says he's not letting a little cancer slow him down

Chicago Tribune

November 21, 2004

By Steve Knopper

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's insides are a mess, but he doesn't care. And if he does, he certainly won't admit it in public. "I'm all right. I'm not sick," he says. "What can I say?"

But Brown, 80, a singer and violinist who has been jumbling blues, country and big-band swing into his own particular style since the mid-'40s, is not all right. He is sick, and badly so, with lung cancer. After his longtime manager, Jim Bateman, dragged the gruff musician to a routine medical checkup in June, the doctor found a spot on Brown's lung. Worse, the cancer has probably spread to his kidneys and liver.

While getting another opinion in August, Bateman pulled a doctor aside and asked how long Brown had to live. Not more than six months, he was told, although Bateman didn't tell Brown this detail. The skinny musician with the commanding stage presence has defiantly refused all offers of surgery and chemotherapy -- which doctors don't necessarily recommend, anyhow, given Brown's age, weight and emphysema.

"He's just taking the approach that he's not going to worry about it. As long as he's able to play, he's OK," Bateman says. "A reporter in Helena, Ark., wanted to talk to him about his health situation. He said, `You saw the show, didn't you? I look fine. I'm OK.' Somebody asked him how long he thought he had to live, and he said, `A hell of a lot longer than you, if you keep asking those kinds of questions!'"

Bateman, who has managed Brown for 28 years, since they met at a recording studio in Bogalusa, La., talks of these sad developments in a subdued, emotionless voice. Brown is a completely different story. In a phone interview from his Louisiana home, he curtly dismisses the doctors' lung-cancer diagnoses and insists he knows his body better than anybody.

"They thought," says Brown, who is planning a new CD and has shows scheduled in Texas, California and elsewhere through April 2005. "They really didn't know."

Although he owns up to some shortness of breath lately -- "hell, that's because of smoking" -- Brown talks of doctors and health-insurance companies with the same contempt he reserves for past record labels and more-famous blues, rock and pop stars. He takes the perfectly reasonable view that his music, from a string of '50s singles such as "Mary Is Fine" and the instrumental "Okie Dokie Stomp" to his more recent big-band albums, has been so far ahead of its time that music executives haven't known what to do with it.

"They call me a sleeper," Brown says. "My music don't die, but it's not what people jump and be hyped into."

Born in Vinton, La., to a father who played country and bluegrass, Brown grew up in Orange, Texas, and soaked in the Carter Family and gospel songs he heard on 1930s and 1940s radio. Heavily influenced by swing bandleaders such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Brown put together his own bands and substituted for the great jump-blues guitarist T-Bone Walker at a Texas nightclub in 1947. That turned out to be a break; the club's owner, Don Robey, signed Brown to a record deal that lasted through the early '60s.

Brown's characteristic stubbornness has probably prevented him from becoming a bigger star, although he certainly deserves recognition on the level of, say, Chicago bluesmen Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. He has steadfastly refused to make any commercial concessions -- although he once appeared on "Hee Haw" -- and since the '70s has doggedly stuck to playing the violin as an anchor for all kinds of disparate musical styles.

"I've always been a person that would think for myself," he says. "We just try to be consistent with good music. The industry, they tried like hell to hold me back, but I paid it no mind. I just kept going."

But it's unclear how long Brown, who smokes a trademark pipe after a bout of pneumonia forced him to give up cigarettes in the '80s, will be able to keep going. In the phone interview, he contradicts Bateman's interpretation of his health prospects. Does he really have less than six months to live? "No!" he says, and talks about the country-and-bluegrass album he plans to go into the studio and make in the next few months.

"Oh, them liars," he says, and curses, of the six-months-to-live rumors. "Man, I'm going to tell you what -- that was coming from miles of people, the liars out there in the mainstream just lying, that's all. You know, the doctor didn't tell you that. All them liars like that came from outside -- friends wanted to be noticeable and recognized. They had to come up with something so people could listen to them. That's what it was."

Brown seems to be fighting cancer with a mixture of denial and sheer willpower. Bateman, his manager of 28 years, is more desperate for something, anything, that could give his old friend hope. Bateman gets mild reassurance from the story of '60s rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins (famous for fronting the Hawks, who later became the Band), diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2002 and given a short time to live. Hawkins seems to have miraculously overcome the disease; doctors say it has all but disappeared.

Bateman even took the unusual step of contacting a teenager with "strange healing powers" who worked with Hawkins shortly before his unexpected recovery. But the teen is now a college student and, his father told Bateman, "doesn't have the time and can't fit any more clients." He did, however, recommend a visualization technique for Brown in which he's supposed to imagine his lungs filling up with white energy. Brown is trying it, every night as recommended, but, Bateman says, "He was having trouble."

Brown, who earned his nickname when a high school teacher told him he had a "voice like a gate," comes across less defiant and more emotional in the recollections of his manager. He has agreed to tell his life story to a biographer, who's traveling with Brown on the tour bus. Brown has also written out his memoirs, giving access to the biographer, although, Bateman says with a laugh, "He's got his own way of spelling."

"It's tough to deal with. When we were at the hospital, we were walking to an elevator and Gatemouth was telling the medical technician it's the hardest thing he'd ever had to deal with," Bateman says.

"The guy just told him, `Deal with it the way you deal with every other thing in life -- just move forward.'"

The veteran musician may be taking that advice to an extreme. He continues to regularly smoke a pipe, for example, over his manager's objections. But Bateman says Brown's voice has never sounded stronger on stage, and his backup musicians report he's playing better and with more ferocity than he has in a decade.

"If anybody can work miracles . . . I guess, hopefully, it'll happen for him," Bateman says. "But I don't think he's going to worry about it."