Brown, Charles 1922–1999
Charles Brown 1922–1999
The crooner of “Merry Christmas, Baby,” one of the most successful Christmas songs ever recorded, Charles Brown was the pioneer originator of the immensely influential postwar California blues style. His efforts as a vocalist, pianist, and composer helped create the music that would become rhythm and blues, and he thus was one of the principals in bringing about a seismic shift in the mainstream of African-American music—one that would bring vocalists to the fore and largely eclipse the instrumental art of jazz. Brown was a moderately big star in the 1940s and 1950s, influencing a host of later performers including Ray Charles. His career enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s after his rediscovery by the hugely successful white blueswoman Bonnie Raitt.
Brown was born on September 13, 1922 (some sources give the year as 1920), in Texas City, Texas. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was raised by his grandparents, who made him learn to play the piano and the church organ. He stuck to his education, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with the intention of teaching the subject in school. However, after he joined the large migration of Texas blacks to Los Angeles during World War II, he quickly became aware of the vigorous jazz and blues scene taking shape there, and decided that he might to better to put his musical abilities to work.
Broke Into L.A. Blues Scene
Taking a job as an elevator operator in the music-rich Central Avenue area, Brown entered an amateur-hour competition at Los Angeles’s Lincoln Theater, a blues live-performance mecca. On stage, Brown impressed the guitarist Johnny Moore, who was looking for a pianist-vocalist to complete his new group, the Three Blazers. Brown got the job and became the frontman for a new kind of blues act, one that offered music of considerable complexity, and borrowed harmonies and instrumental techniques from the world of jazz without losing the directness and emotional depth of its rural blues roots.
As the composer of the 1945 hit “Driftin’ Blues” Brown accomplished one of the new music’s most innovative steps. In the words of Peter Watrous, writing in the Brown’s New York Times obituary, the song “in its introspective, sophisticated way became a template for
At a Glance…
Born September 13, 1922, in Texas City, Texas; raised by his grandparents; moved to Los Angeles, early 1940s; married singer Mabel Scott, 1949; died January 21, 1999. Education: Earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
Career: Blues vocalist, pianist, and composer; pioneered cool West Coast blues style. Joined Los Angeles group the Three Blazers, ca. 1944; composed Three Blazers’ hit “Drifting Blues,” 1945; with the Three Blazers, appeared at Apollo Theater, 1946; began solo career, 1948; recorded “Black Night,” 1951; recorded “Hard Times,” 1952; recorded classic Christmas song “Merry Christmas, Baby”; suffered career decline during rock and roll and soul eras, late 1950s-1970s; emerged from semi-retirement, late 1980s; toured as opening act for star blues performer Bonnie Raitt, early 1990s; several album releases on Bullseye and Verve labels, 1990s.
Awards: Inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1999.
a new style.” His piano playing animated such Three Blazers numbers as “Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper.” But Brown’s vocals, which were effective on party-type numbers as well as slow ballads, were what made him instantly identifiable. Influenced by the sharp, upbeat vocals of Louis Jordan but also by the super-smooth Nat King Cole, Brown offered a quiet, sincere crooning style that immediately influenced the young Ray Charles, then a struggling Los Angeles musician in his late teens. Charles’s earliest records sound directly derived from Brown’s style.
According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Brown once defined himself as a “blue ballad singer”; others used the term “cool blues.” The laid-back, sophisticated style of blues singing Brown pioneered (at a time when blues musicians from the Mississippi delta were creating a far different high-energy style in Chicago) inspired a host of later performers as well, including blues giants B. B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, both of whom mastered Brown’s knack for infusing music with jazz subtlety without losing the blues feel. Brown and the Three Blazers continued to ride high for several years, at one point appearing at the high temple of African American popular music, the Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
Rock and Roll Hurt Career
In spite of the group’s success, Brown determined to make it as a solo artist, and left the group in 1948. Although he was not well known as a solo performer, Brown had some success in the late 1940s and early 1950s, helped along by his recordings made for the new Los Angeles independent record label Aladdin. Among his hits were “Black Night,” the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller composition “Hard Times,” and, most famously for several generations of holiday-time partygoers, “Merry Christmas, Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Brown’s career went into decline during the rock and roll era, when white singers such as Elvis Presley modeled major elements of their styles on Brown’s own, while black audiences moved on to the more modern sounds of Charles and other pioneers of soul music.
By the late 1960s and 1970s Brown, despite his wide knowledge of musical genres as varied as jazz, gospel, and classical, was reduced to scratching out an existence by playing piano bar dates in venues as far afield as Anchorage, Alaska, and working for a janitorial service; he is said to have appeared in gangster hangouts in Kentucky. An appearance at the 1976 San Francisco Blues Festival did not kickstart his dying career, and by the early 1980s, Brown contemplated retirement. “I figured that at my age, I should give it up because most of the people who knew me and my music were dead and gone,” he told Down Beat. But he was gradually drawn back into the field of active performing in the late 1980s, appearing at a series of dates with guitarist Danny Caron, who became his music director during the second phase of his career.
Brown recorded the All My Life album for the Bullseye label, and appeared at such prestigious jazz venues as New York’s Blue Note and Hollywood’s Vine Street Bar and Grill. At the latter show, blues-rock vocalist and guitarist Bonnie Raitt-about to embark on a major relaunch of her own career-was in attendance. Having idolized Brown for some years, she was thrilled to meet him in person, and the encounter led to an invitation for Brown to open for Raitt on the tour she undertook in connection with her multiplatinum Nick of Time album.
The exposure Brown received nearly equaled that which he had enjoyed in his heyday, and new recording and performing opportunities began to flow the septuagenarian’s way. His albums Just a Lucky So and So, These Blues, Honey Dripper, and 1998’s So Goes Love (the last three recorded for the jazz-oriented Verve label) showcased his nearly undiminished keyboard and vocal skills. In 1999 Brown was scheduled to be inducted (with Raitt at the microphone) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But he had been in declining health for several years, and before he could receive this honor in a life that had received shamefully few of them, Charles Brown died of congestive heart failure in Oakland, California, on January 21, 1999.
Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs, King, 1961.
The Great Charles Brown, King, 1963.
Legend, Bluesway, 1970.
Race Track Blues (with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers), Route 66, 1981.
All My Life, Bullseye/Rounder, 1990.
Driftin’ Blues (The Best of Charles Brown), Capitol, 1992.
Just a Lucky So and So, Bullseye, 1994.
The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Charles Brown, Mosaic, 1994.
Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues, Bullseye, 1994.
These Blues, Verve, 1994.
Honey Dripper, Verve, 1996.
So Goes Love, Verve, 1998.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., The All Music Guide to the Blues, Miller Freeman, 1996.
Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Down Beat, February 1998, p. 32.
Jet, February 22, 1999, p. 18; April 5, 1999, p. 26.
New York Times, January 25, 1999, p. A21.
People, December 5, 1994, p. 25.
Variety, February 1, 1999, p. 74.
—James M. Manheim
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