A Still Voice
Remembering the quiet sophistication of a bluesman
By Michael McCall
FEBRUARY 1, 1999: Few performers could make misery sound as elegant and as sensual as could Charles Brown. The late singer and pianist, who died Jan. 21 at age 76 at his home in Oakland, Calif., excelled at quietly unfolding his melancholy in jazz-tinged blues arrangements. His music went down with all the smoothness and warmth of expensive brandy--and carried a similar wallop.
"Most blues players just play major chords, but I don't," Brown told me in 1986, the same year he released his comeback album, One More for the Road. "I've always liked to mix my chords, going from major to minor and things like that. That's what gives my music its feel. There's more of a jazz thing to it, and that makes it different than what you normally call 'the blues.' "
One of the most important performers of the 1940s, Brown never really received his due later in life. Although he was enormously influential on many of the major R&B singers of the 1950s and early 1960s--and even though he earned a Grammy Award and a higher profile in the '90s--Brown never garnered the acclaim and attention afforded electric blues shouters and acoustic Delta pickers. A likely reason is that his laid-back, refined style didn't influence white rock musicians near as much as the rawer, more aggressive blues players from Chicago, Memphis, and Mississippi.
At one point in time, however, Brown was as imitated in R&B as Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams were in country music. Performers as different as Ray Charles and Little Richard started their careers by openly mimicking Brown and his primary West Coast counterpart, Nat King Cole. Others who cited Brown as a primary influence include Bobby "Blue" Bland, Fats Domino, Amos Milburn, Charlie Rich, Johnny Otis, and Sam Cooke (who modeled his classic hit "Bring it on Home to Me" on Brown's "I Want to Go Home").
Born Sept. 13, 1922, in Texas City, Texas, Brown fell under the tutelage of a musical grandmother at an early age. By age 10, he was taking classical piano lessons, and a few years after that, his grandmother introduced him to the cultured piano work of Art Tatum.
At the same time, an uncle initiated Brown into the music of such boogie woogie piano players as Leroy Carr and Big Maceo. His grandmother forbade him to play songs by these looser, more raucous artists, but Brown often told of how his niece Joyce would stand lookout for him while he practiced his roadhouse piano licks.
In the end, these divergent influences served him well. After getting a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Prairie State A&M, Brown moved to Los Angeles in 1943, giving up a career as a chemist and a high school teacher. The following year, he won a talent contest at Los Angeles' Lincoln Theatre with his performance of a Rachmaninoff concerto. After he joined the theater's pit band, word of his expertise spread. Before long, he was invited to join one of the city's most popular nightclub trios, Johnny Moore's Three Blazers.
Like The Nat King Cole Trio, L.A.'s other popular black nightclub band at the time, the Three Blazers played primarily to white audiences packed with Hollywood insiders. The smoky romanticism of Brown's mellow blues ballads--the original "quiet storm," if you will--perfectly fit the jaded refinement of postwar Hollywood.
Even though the Three Blazers shared Cole's leanings toward jazz and sophisticated pop, they had a musical personality of their own. Brown brought more of a blues influence to his vocals, and his tone had a darker, more anguished edge, as in such classics as "Driftin' Blues," "Black Night," and "Hard Times."
Before Brown embarked on a solo career, one of the last songs he cut with The Three Blazers was his composition "Merry Christmas Baby." In the years following, the tune evolved into a holiday classic that has been recorded hundreds of times, including well-known versions by Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, and Bruce Springsteen. The singer later launched another holiday classic, "Please Come Home for Christmas," which he recorded in 1960.
The latter Christmas song, though, marked the end of Brown's reign as a hit-maker. With the rise of rock 'n' roll, he no longer commanded a large audience. Even R&B, blues, and jazz fans ignored his music in favor of punchier, more dynamic performers. By 1977, he was all but forgotten, relegated to playing Ramada Inn lounges in California. But there were always those who remembered him: Twice in the late 1970s, I saw Muddy Waters call Brown from the audience of a San Francisco nightclub to join him onstage and perform a few solo piano songs.
In 1986, a fledgling independent record company, Upside Records, pulled Brown from retirement to record the delightful One More for the Road (now available on CD on Alligator Records). A 1990 tour opening for Bonnie Raitt, who had just rejuvenated her own career with Nick of Time, added to Brown's following. Through the '90s, the pianist enjoyed a bit of a late-in-life resurgence, issuing well-received albums on Rounder and then on Verve Records.
He made the best of the situation. A dapper man whose close-cropped white hair added to his elegant manner, Brown proved to be that rare performer who flashed as much artistry in his 70s as he had in his youth. Never a shouter, his voice held up well, and as an older man, he was able to perform convincingly the sophisticated, melancholy tunes that had made him famous half a century before.
In 1991, writer Nick Tosches suggested that only two great singers who made records during World War II--Frank Sinatra and Charles Brown--were still touring and making records. Of the two, he said, only Brown "had lost nothing, and perhaps even gained a bit, with the passing of the years."
Charles Brown may not hold the position he deserves in the American music pantheon. But as long as there are lonely midnight hours, the resigned sadness of his music will remain with us. He understood that sometimes there's no use in shouting, that sometimes pain is more effectively expressed in the quietest of voices.
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