Charles Brown was the pioneer originator of the immensely influential postwar California blues style. Though identified with his classic “Driftin’ Blues,” he was not committed to just the blues, and was comfortable as a popular crooner as well. His efforts as a vocalist, pianist, and composer helped create the music that would become rhythm and blues, and he was one of the principals in bringing about a shift in the mainstream of African-American music, one that would bring vocalists to the forefront and largely eclipse the instrumental art of jazz. Brown was a premier entertainer in the 1940s and 1950s, influencing a host of later performers including Ray Charles.
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 jazz and blues scene taking shape there, and decided that he might do better to put his musical abilities to work.
Brown entered an amateur hour competition at Los Angeles's Lincoln Theater, a blues live performance mecca. Ironically he did not win the contest with a blues song but did a great interpretation of “Claire de Lune.” and for his encore followed with “Rhapsody in Blue.” 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 front man 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.
When in the summer of 1945 Charles Brown recorded “Driftin’Blues,” it immediately expanded the language of the blues, shading it with an air of sophistication. This song was a huge hit running well into 1946. Charles was still in the Three Blazers, and continued with them for several more records then in 1949 he decided to go out on his own, as he realized that it was his songs that were making them popular in the R&B circuit.
He signed with Aladdin Records and put out “Get Yourself Another Fool,” “Trouble Blues,” and in 1950 another Charles Brown classic “Black Night.” He had arrived Big Time! He was constantly at the top of the R&B charts and kept it up through 1952. With such success on the radio and record charts, he was very much in demand as a performer and was popular on tour as well. He continued with Aladdin until 1956, the year he released “Merry Christmas Baby,” the perennial blues Christmas ballad. He followed this with “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
The laid-back, sophisticated style of cool blues singing Brown inspired a host of later performers as well, especially a young Ray Charles who was living out in Los Angeles during the Charles Brown glory years. His only rival on the scene would have been T-Bone Walker, who was a star about the same time, and even T-Bone picked up on some of his style of vocalizing. Blues giants B. B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland, both mastered Brown's knack for infusing music with jazz subtlety without losing the blues feel, and Ivory Joe Hunter who went on to crossover into popular and even the country music with his smooth crooning blues. But Charles Brown was in a class by himself, and has remained as such ever since
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 Ray Charles and other pioneers of soul music.
His activity in the ‘60’s was sporadic at best. He was still able to get some gigs, but it was tough for him. His recordings with labels as Mainstream, Bluesway, and Jewel, went largely unnoticed. He surfaced in Kentucky playing in a gangster operated club, but things were drying up for the one time star. By the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s 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 as Anchorage, Alaska, and working for a janitorial service. An appearance at the 1976 San Francisco Blues Festival did not kick start 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.
His comeback started in 1986 when he recorded “One More for the Road,” for Blueside. This was a well done album that did get some attention with the die hard blues aficionados, and consequently was reissued on Alligator in 1989, promoted properly and put Charles back on the road.
Brown recorded the “All My Life” album for the Bullseye label in 1990, assisted by Dr. John, with a producer and lineup of musicians that were also fans of his music, and gave him and the record the respect merited. He continued with Bullseye into 1994 and was in top form throughout. The records did a respectable showing in sales and he found a new market as well.
He 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 comeback 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. Charles Brown was back!
The exposure Brown received nearly equaled that which he had enjoyed in his heyday, and new recording and performing opportunities began to flow the his 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 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 was one of the best, and original singers in the history of Rhythm and Blues.
Source: James Nadal