Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Charles Brown, who died of congestive heart failure in an Oakland hospital on January 21, was an essential force in postwar Los Angeles R&B. Brown was a long, tall study in grace whose demeanor and speech were always gentle, playful and, despite the often mournful nature of his songs, squarely centered on beauty and kindness.
The balladeer aesthetic, deriving from Leroy Carr’s 1928 “How Long How Long Blues,” found its most success ful proponent in Brown, who in turn deeply influenced several generations of R&B performers, from Floyd Dixon and Ray Charles to Sam Cooke; Cooke’s 1960 “Bring It On Home to Me” is a direct extension of Brown’s 1959 “I Want To Go Home.” His impact was far-reaching: Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun cites Brown’s “Drifting Blues” as one of the songs that led him to the business; Lieber and Stoller got their first hit when Brown cut their “Hard Times.”
Born in Texas City, Texas, Brown was always a rarity: He was one of the very few university-educated bluesmen (he earned a chemistry degree at UC Berkeley), and after a long, illustrious career, he achieved what even fewer of his peers did — he actually bested himself, striving for and consistently reaching a higher artistic standard. Beginning with 1986’s One More for the Road up to his most recent Verve titles, he cut a series of stunningly perfect albums that completely outstripped his classic late-’40s–early-’50s recordings. Laden with atmosphere, emotionally charged yet never florid, each was a masterpiece of low-key expression.
That’s no small feat, as Brown’s string of postwar hits — among them “Drifting Blues” (which he had written as a teenager, and which went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, becoming Cashbox’s top R&B record of 1946); “Trouble Blues,” No. 1 in ’49; “Black Night,” No. 1 in ’51 — were some of the day’s most finely wrought rhythm & blues. 1949’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” became a perennial after it went to No. 9 on the R&B charts and was subsequently reissued the following year and again in 1954 — come December, you’ll still find it on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods across the country.
Brown first made his mark in wartime Los Angeles as pianist with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, an outfit that modeled it –
self after the Nat Cole Trio. Brown soon emerged as the driving force and main draw; when he split from Moore it was a rancorous mess, and he had to re-establish himself as a solo performer. His distinctive vocals made that a simple task. As his longtime accompanist Clifford Solomon put it, “Everybody knew who Charles Brown was — every school kid used to romance on his stuff. I think when ‘Drifting Blues’ came out, the birthrate shot up 90 percent!”
As a blues singer, Brown conveyed a sense of abject desolation; he was an inconsolable everyman who cut to the very heart of that most common life experience: misery. Brown’s whispery style was a mix of raw blues and white torch song, characterized by blues scholar Paul Oliver as “the West Coast blues fusion” and better known as “cool blues.” Yet he was uncomfortable wearing the “blues singer” tag: “I consider myself to be a variety artist,” Brown said. “People think a blues singer is someone in overalls and straw hat, but, man, we were sharp — wore silk suits, changed clothes three times a night.”
Riding high through the R&B heyday on national package tours and headlining his own club dates, Brown’s career cooled in the rock & roll era, and by 1960 he found himself trapped in a seemingly endless job at a mob-owned joint in the gambling town of Newport, Kentucky. The management adored Brown, presented him with a brand-new Cadillac, but every time he tried to quit, they offered to park it — and him — at the bottom of the nearby Ohio River. Although 1961’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” was a big seller, he struggled through the ’60s and ’70s, only sporadically recording, and playing, over and over, the same set with the same between-song patter in the same old joints.
By the mid-’80s, however, Brown had rekindled the flame and begun to turn in live shows of amazing power, often performing two-hour-plus sets. In 1990, the great saxophonist Clifford Solomon rejoined him just before Bonnie Raitt took Brown out for a high-profile national tour, considerably raising the pianist’s profile and, better still, his price.
It was a glorious return, yet ultimately, all he really cared about was playing the piano and playing the ponies; up until last year, when his health began to deteriorate, he was able to do both as often as he wished. Charles Brown was one of the very best, and the fact that he’ll be posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next month further underscores the enormity of this loss.