Remembering Charles Brown

The Bay Area bluesman's influence was recognized as massive eventually

Charles Brown, the great rhythm-and-blues pianist and vocalist best known today for having penned “Merry Christmas, Baby,” made it through one last Christmas. But he couldn't make it to what probably would have been the biggest celebration of his career: his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month.

As a kind of confirmation of Brown's wide-ranging influence, one of his co-inductees will be Bruce Springsteen, who recorded a famous cover of “Merry Christmas, Baby” (as did Elvis Presley). The celebration will be a eulogy now, but at least Brown — who died in Oakland Jan. 21 of congestive heart failure at age 76 — went out knowing that he was appreciated.

Things were different before he was “rediscovered” by blues-rocker Bonnie Raitt in the late '80s. For all his influence on rock 'n' roll, Brown was virtually forgotten for two decades. Even today, if you mention Charles Brown, most people would probably assume you were making a formal reference to Charles Schulz's most famous Peanuts creation.

And the mild-mannered musician, who always expressed great pride in his college background (he had a degree in education), even had to work as a janitor to make ends meet during the '60s and '70s.

How could that happen? “I could have taught school,” Brown said in a 1996 interview, “but I didn't want to teach school, and I didn't want to be in the music business because I was way down. And I didn't want to go back up unless somebody saw to it to give me a break. You know what I mean?”

Brown was a major headliner in the early days of R&B, and the list of his opening acts reads like a who's who of American soul. “I took out the Clovers, Billy Ward, and the Dominoes. I took out Jackie Wilson. I took out Big Mama Thornton and Johnny Ace. I took out Etta James. I took out Ruth Brown. I took out the young Ray Charles, who was imitating me and Nat Cole, but I wonder if they thought about that … nobody ever gave it back to me.”

That's about as close to petulance or bitterness as Brown ever got. Nonetheless, he was clearly hurt that the music business turned its back on him. After all, the hits dry up for every chart-topper.

And Brown was a career musician — like Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra, who continued to be high-profile players well after they fell from the top of the pops. That was the kind of career he'd wanted, and the kind he deserved. Brown never stopped playing music — his final live performance was an August show with Charlie Musselwhite and John Lee Hooker in Saratoga — but he didn't want back into the music industry until it would show him the respect he felt he'd earned.

When that respect finally came, Brown was proud, but humble. The first thing he said when I interviewed him in 1996 was, “I'm so glad you called me. I'm so glad you chose to do a write-up about me.” Even though his career had been resuscitated years before, he was still grateful to be back.

Talking about nearly every aspect of his life, he displayed the same gentility. For instance, he told the story of a little run-in he had before he became a professional musician. Brown was working as a junior chemist at a government facility in Pine Bluff, Ark., when he requested a transfer to a facility in Berkeley.

When I asked him why, Brown said, “This lieutenant disliked black folk. I decided that I wanted to ….” He paused to consider his words. “Let me see. How will I put that? I want to be nice.”

Fifty years after the fact, Brown still wanted to be “nice” to a buffoon.

Brown was not the cultural juggernaut that Armstrong and Sinatra were, but his influence on musical trends was nearly as great, especially on a young virtuoso named Ray Charles, who would go on to eclipse him. Brown's hits — “Drifting Blues,” “Black Night,” and “Fool's Paradise” — were big on the “race records” (later, “rhythm and blues”) charts from 1945 through 1960.

Although Brown ranks with Nat King Cole as one of the originators of West Coast blues, he was a native Texan. However, unlike some of his peers, he didn't come to the blues through the roadhouse.

“My grandmother had me do classical piano, [with] a teacher,” Brown recalled. “So when I went to college, we listened to great music — classical pianists, Jimmy Dorsey, Helen O'Connell, Tommy Dorsey, Sy Oliver arrangements, Art Tatum, Eddy Duchin, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Claude Thornhill. And you know, that enhanced my music because my classical training went into the blues. Sophisticated blues, I call it, because now I didn't come from Mississippi.”

After working as a teacher and a chemist, Brown volunteered for the Army in 1943, but was disqualified because he had asthma. “And then I told Papa, 'I'm going to California. I want to go back out there to make some records.' “

After a disappointing stint playing music for a little church that had just five members, he “found a job as an elevator operator at the Broadway store at Fourth and Broadway. And then I heard about the Lincoln Theater — it was like the Apollo Theater, had the young-folk auditions, you know what I mean? Then, I auditioned down there, and it was $25 if you won.”

Playing and singing in front of Johnny Otis' house band, Brown won first prize.

“They clapped, applauded and applauded, and I turned around and played 'Warsaw Concerto,' and then I played an excerpt of 'Rhapsody in Blue,' you know, the main theme.”

Brown believed that the applause was deafening because the audience never expected such an encore out of a guy from Texas.

As a result, a restaurant owner who was married to former Duke Ellington vocalist Ivy Anderson told Brown, “I'm going to put a tuxedo on you and I want you to play semiclassics.” Brown took the job.

Brown's win also impressed guitarist Johnny Moore. Moore went door-to-door through Brown's neighborhood to find him and ask him to play in his Three Blazers. Like Nat Cole's trio, the Three Blazers was made up of guitar, bass, and piano; by 1944, they were the toast of Hollywood's night haunts. Then, they began to record. “Drifting Blues,” a song Brown said he wrote when he was 12, was the group's first hit, going to No. 1 on the race-records charts.

Brown quit the Blazers in 1948 and became a major headliner on the nascent R&B scene. As Cole veered increasingly toward pop, Brown seemed to become bluesier, creating rhythm and blues with a sophisticated sheen. Ray Charles was enamored of that West Coast blues sound, and the influence of both Cole and Brown can be heard clearly in Charles' early records. As a result, Brown's influence extended even farther and wider through the work of such a successful disciple.

Some argue that when something is new, as rhythm and blues was in the 1940s, every little twist becomes a major stylistic departure, thus making it easy to be influential. For instance, every rock band has some trace of Bill Haley & the Comets in it, even though that band merely cut two monster singles and then rehashed them for as long as the public would allow.

However, happy accidents of timing don't diminish the value of a real innovator. Brown's ideas didn't fit previous formulas, so he devised his own road map. Although the Three Blazers' instrumentation resembled Cole's, the Blazers had a little less jazz to them and more blues. Because Brown's smooth and sophisticated approach was applied primarily to blues in a format in which he was the key ingredient, his smooth sound differed from both the rawness of Delta and Chicago blues and the jump-blues of Louis Jordan.

Brown left center stage with his biggest-selling hit, “Please Come Home for Christmas,” in 1960. Although he continued to record, a long, dry period had begun. He was lying low when the New York City nightclub Tramps called him to do a showcase gig in 1979. The two-week engagement lasted two months, and Brown's career got a second wind as a heritage performer at jazz and blues festivals through the '80s.

He had nothing but praise for Bonnie Raitt, who, buoyed by her early '90s multiplatinum success, took Brown out on the road with her, introducing him to crowds that dwarfed those he'd played for in his heyday. The applause and good wishes were universal, he said, “because I'm the living legend that's out there. Nat Cole and all of them are dead.”

Until he got sick last year, Brown was as good as he'd ever been in performance, his voice and playing undiminished by age. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, two decades younger, couldn't say the same. Brown was that rarest of music phenomena, an artist whose talent was as enduring as his influence.

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