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Brown, Oscar Jr

Brown, Oscar Jr.

Singer

Oscar Brown Jr. exhibited a broad range of talents and interests throughout his career. He was a playwright, director, actor, singer, and poet, as well as a committed community and political activist. Brown's talent was clear no matter what the endeavor. His singing embraced jazz, popular music, and specialized delivery, to create his own unique style. His lyrics often reflected moods of remorse, anger, and racial pride. He wrote more than seven plays and over 1,000 songs, 125 of which have been published. His best-known works include songs such as "Signifying Monkey" and "Watermelon Man." While he never achieved the popular success his early endeavors promised, Brown was influential and active up until his death in 2005.

Brown began his career early, as a voice for the radio program Secret City. From there he went on to host the show Negro Newsfront, where he wrote the editorial content, sold his own advertising, and fought with the station managers about subject matter. His other radio experience included a recurring role on Destination Freedom from 1948 to 1950. Destination Freedom was part of the Black Radio Days series and focused on African-American history and well-known personalities.

He became involved with the local Communist Party at a young age. He ran for the Illinois state legislature in 1948 as a Progressive Party candidate, and in 1952, as a Republican, he ran for the United States Congress. Neither bid for office was successful. Brown found more success as a program director for the United Packinghouse Workers. He claimed that his work with the Communist Party led to his induction into the Army, where he served for two years. He left the Communist Party in 1956 after ten years of membership, because he felt that issues of race were being pushed aside. He recounted on his website that he was "just too black to be red."

Brown grew up in a solidly middle class household in the Bronzeville area of Chicago. His father was a lawyer and real estate agent and his mother was a social worker before she became a full-time homemaker. Oscar Brown Sr. had hopes that his son would follow in his footsteps. Brown explained to Deardra Shuler of the New York Amsterdam News, "My father wanted me to go into the real estate business, but I was busy flunking out of school. I never got out of my freshman year." However, Brown learned from his father the value of helping others and giving back to the community.

Brown had quite a freshman year—it included attending schools such as the University of Michigan, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia College in Chicago. He flunked out of all the schools he attended, but at the same time received accolades for his writing. Brown, who had been writing songs and plays throughout the year, met Robert Nemiroff, the husband of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Nemiroff admired Brown's songwriting skills, but also took note of his singing ability and recommended him to Columbia Records. Brown originally wanted to be a songwriter, but Columbia stalled on the contract, and after a year Brown agreed to sign as a singer. In 1960 he released the first of four records he made for Columbia. Sin and Soul launched Brown into a short-lived stardom. He toured that year with Aretha Franklin and other well-known artists, performing historically informed and politically charged works like "Work Song," "Bid 'Em In," and "Brown Baby."

Unfortunately, staff shake-ups at Columbia left Brown with little support. After a follow-up album, Between Heaven and Hell, his subsequent recordings were unsupported, and by 1963 Brown was without a label. A surprising turn, considering that he had just returned to the United States from a rousing London performance series that brought widespread praise for his talent.

Brown continued to write plays during this time, and faced the thrills and frustration of attempting to launch a major production. In 1961, Hansberry directed and Nemiroff co-produced the musical called Kicks and Company. The play had so captured Dave Garroway, host of the Today Show, that he gave Brown two hours to plug the production and call for more money. This effort helped raised several hundred thousand dollars more. Unfortunately, the musical closed soon after its debut in Chicago, and Brown then went on the road, touring with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

By 1965 Brown was back in Chicago and working in his own community. He developed plays such as Summer in the City and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow. In 1967 he recruited members of the violent street gang the Blackstone Rangers to perform in his work Opportunity Please Knock. Segments of the play were shown on The Smothers Brothers, a weekly television variety show. Brown was also responsible for talent contests in Gary, Indiana, that discovered the Jackson Five and actor and singer Avery Brooks.

In 1969 Brown made it to Broadway with Big Time Buck White. He adapted the original play by Joseph Dolan Tuotti into a musical, and he starred as Buck White during its successful run in San Francisco. It debuted on Broadway for a short run, with boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the title role.

Throughout his career, Brown made contributions to television. In 1963 he hosted episodes of Jazz Scene USA, based in California. In the mid-1970s he appeared on the Chicago television special Oscar Brown Is Back In Town, and the special won two Emmy Awards. In the early 1980s he hosted the 13-week PBS series From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music, and he later appeared regularly on Oprah Winfrey's Brewster Place.

In 1996 his son, Oscar Brown III, was killed in a car accident at the age of 36. Brown III was a talented bass player and singer. Following in his father's footstep, he, along with his sister Maggie, had collaborated with Brown on performances. Brown III was the inspiration for the song "Brown Baby," first released on Sin and Soul and later recorded by gospel music star Mahalia Jackson.

For the Record . . .

Born on October 10, 1926, in Chicago, IL; died on May 29, 2005, in Chicago, IL; son of a lawyer and real estate agent, and a social worker and homemaker; married Jean Pace-Brown; children: seven. Education: Attended University of Wisconsin; University of Michigan; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; Columbia College in Chicago.

Voice talent for radio shows, including Secret City, Democracy USA, Destination Freedom, Here Comes Tomorrow, 1942-48; host and writer, Negro Newsfront, 1948-52; program coordinator for the United Packing House Workers of America, 1952-56; recorded debut album, Sin and Soul, toured with Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, 1960; wrote musical Kicks and Company, 1961; hosted Jazz Scene USA, 1962; performed in Oscar Brown Jr. Entertains, 1963; wrote and directed Opportunity, Please Knock, 1967; discovered Jackson Five, 1968; wrote music for Big Time Buck White, 1969; hosted PBS series From Jumpstreet, 1980; appeared in TV series Brewster Place, 1990; released album of songs recorded with daughter, We're Live, 2002; performed season-opening act for Jazz at Lincoln Center, 2004.

Awards: Two Emmy Awards for television special Oscar Brown is Back in Town, 1976.

Addresses: Website—Oscar Brown Jr. Official Website: http://www.oscarbrownjr.com.

In 1995, after a recording hiatus of 20 years, Brown released Then and Now. The CD was comprised of both old and new material. The older songs were performed with less orchestration and emphasized the quality of Brown's voice. The following year Columbia reissued Sin and Soul on a CD titled Sin and Soul...AndThen Some. In 2002 Brown released his last album, We're Live, with his daughter Maggie Brown, also an accomplished vocal performer. The album was the product of a live performance at Chicago's Hot House and was released on Maggie's record label, Mag Pie Records.

Brown's artistic contributions were his way of creatively expressing himself while spreading a message. His website stated, "He saw his art as a way to celebrate African-American life and attack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began." His poetic stylings and musical presentations were often cited as precursors to modern hiphop. He was a popular performer on the Def Poetry Jam series that aired on the HBO cable channel.

Brown worked diligently in his last years, continuing to perform onstage and give interviews. In 2002 he revived his 20-year-old play about gang violence, Great Nitty Gritty. In 2004 he was the opening act for the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. Donnie Betts chronicled Brown's life in the documentary Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress, which premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in the spring of 2005. Brown died on May 29, 2005, after a brief illness, leaving behind an enormous legacy of music, words, and performance that embraced the depth of the African-American experience.

Selected discography

Sin and Soul, Columbia, 1960.

Between Heaven and Hell, Columbia, 1962.

In a New Mood, Columbia, 1962.

Oscar Brown Jr. Tells It Like It Is, Columbia, 1963.

Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington, Fontana, 1966.

(With Luiz Henrique) Finding a New Friend, Fontana, 1966.

Joy (original cast recording), RCA, 1967.

Movin' On, Atlantic, 1972.

Brother Where Are You, Atlantic, 1974.

Fresh, Atlantic, 1974.

Then and Now, Weasel Disc, 1995.

We're Live, Mag Pie Records, 2002.

Sources

Periodicals

Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2005.

New York Amsterdam News, August 15-August 21, 2002, p. 21; July 31-August 6, 2003, p. 19; May 26-June 1, 2005, p. 25.

Online

"OBJ Reflections," Oscar Brown Jr. Official Website, http://www.oscarbrownjr.com/WebPagesUS/biography.htm (June 30, 2005).

Additional information was obtained from an interview with Tavis Smiley on National Public Radio in Los Angeles, December 14, 2004.

—Eve M. B. Hermann

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