Oscar Brown Jr. was a singer, songwriter, playwright, poet, author, performer, Civil Rights activist, television host, political candidate and serviceman, to name but a few of the hats he wore throughout his life.
He also recorded one of the most dazzling debut records that has ever been released, 1960's Sin & Soul
on Columbia Records. It remains a startling and refreshing listen.
There is an enduring mystique about the debut album, that first opportunity accorded an artist or band to put forth a musical vision and engrave it onto wax. Some hint at the sonic revolution to comeBob Dylan
's first immediately comes to mindwhile others make clear that the revolution has arrived fully formedthink The Band's Music from Big Pink
(Capitol, 1968). Others use those first moments of the first song like a jolt of lightningthink of Paul McCartney's count-off to start "I Saw Her Standing There" on the Beatles' "Please, Please Me" or the truly disturbing monologue at the beginning of "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" that kicks off Curtis Mayfield's solo debut. Sin & Soul
starts with a single crack on the snare before Brown Jr. sings about "breaking rocks out here on the chain gang" to begin "Work Song," a jazz line written by cornetist Nat Adderley and one of the signature pieces of Cannonball Adderley
's band for which Brown Jr. added lyrics.
Before we get too deep into the music, let's take a look at the album cover. Brown Jr. is photographed on the left, head turned about 45 degrees, most of the right side of his face obscured in a shadow, eyes half closed, presumably in the act of bringing one of his songs to life. To help drive home the point that the music we are about to hear is by an artist that is esteemed by his peers and worthy of our attention is a series of six endorsements spanning a wide cross-section of the entertainment and media world circa 1960. We have late-night television (Steve Allen), Broadway theatre (Lorraine Hansberry), jazz and music criticism (Nat Hentoff), journalism and the game-show craze (Dorothy Kilgallen) and musical peers (Max Roach
and Nina Simone
). Three males and three females. Three Black people and three white people. Members of the establishment and others pushing society forward from its edges. In other words, Oscar Brown Jr. is for one and for all. He is for me. And for you too.
In Hansberry's blurb, the pioneering playwright states that Brown Jr. has "a startling genius for rendering sense and nonsense into acutely succinct and brilliant summaries of life as we live it."
Likely more than anyone else, it was Hansberry that gave Brown Jr. his break. He met her at the premiere of her landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun
, and she connected him with her husband at the time, the publisher and songwriter Robert Nemiroff, who was able to secure Brown Jr. a record contract with Columbia.
Her quote on the cover of Sin & Soul provides a key to the album's enduring power. Its 12 songs are snapshots of life both serious and lighthearted (sometimes both at the same time) acted out by Brown Jr. The idea of singing as a form of acting was up until Sin & Soul perhaps best exemplified by Harry Belafonte, who used his training as an actor to inform his performances of folk songs, work songs, spirituals, calypsos and ballads and give them a veneer of powerful authenticity. As the legendary Paul Robeson once said to Belafonte, "get them to sing your song and they'll want to know who you are."
Brown Jr. achieves that through the sheer versatility of his voicean instrument of almost inexhaustible expressive power that he employs to brilliant effect on Sin & Soul
Take, for example, "Rags and Old Iron," which opens the second side. A tale of heartbreak over lost love, Brown Jr. is a recently jilted fellow who hears the back-alley echoes of a ragman whose cries are evocatively created by Brown Jr. at the beginning of the song and returned to throughout. He sings of yearning for the ragman to buy his broken heart but in a cruel twist of fate, after relaying his tale to him, the ragman simply nods a wordless no and continues on his way. Brown Jr.'s singing here is intimateit's direct, unadornedyou feel as if he is talking to you, and only you.
His lyrics to "Dat Dere," one of jazz pianist Bobby Timmons' most famous compositions, first recorded while he was with Cannonball Adderley's group, is another prime of example of how Brown Jr. acts through singing. A song about a young boy asking his father a series of inquisitive questions, Brown Jr. makes the startling choice of setting the song's out chorus to a meditation on parenthood: the role of the parent to do his or her best to equip the child for adulthood, and the anxieties associated with that task. He marks this transition through his voice: almost scat-like during the verses, intoning solemnly with a hint of vibrato during the out chorus. A clinic in singing and songwriting.
On Sin & Soul
, Brown Jr. indulges in stand-up comedy (the hilarious "But I Was Cool"), the hippest Aesop Fable you'll ever hear (the swinging, infectious "Signifyin' Monkey") and also introduces us to the characters that make up the neighbourhood (the aforementioned ragman in "Rags and Old Iron," the street calling "Watermelon Man," the wino in "Buy Me a Drink" and the couple with bedroom issues in "Sleepy"). In each, he inhabits the milieu conjured by his lyrics, acting out roles and inviting us into his world of lively characters but also one in which racism is a fact of life.
While he was recording Sin & Soul
, Brown Jr. was collaborating with jazz drummer Max Roach on the urgent We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
, a key artistic work in the movement for Civil Rights. The messages of the suite are ever-present in Brown Jr.'s debut. As "Work Song" grooves along, his lyrics remind us that while the song's protagonist, a prisoner on a chain gang, did rob a supermarket and left the grocer (mortally?) wounded, his hunger and destitution, the result of a society whose very structure is based on depriving Black men like him full participation in it, left him with no choice but to do what he did. "Hum Drum Blues," a breezy lament of the futility of getting ahead, can also be understood through this lens.
"Brown Baby," a lullaby expressing the hope and the optimism that the younger generation will reap the rewards of the struggles and sacrifices of those preceding them is Brown Jr. at his most tenderhear how close he sings into the microphone. It was also the first of his songs to be recorded by another artist when the great Mahalia Jackson included it on her album, Come On Children, Let's Sing.
Brown Jr. dramatizes a slave auction in "Bid 'Em In"90 seconds of slam poetry that lays bare the dehumanization of selling a human body. While he plays the role of the auctioneer, his anger and fury at what he is telling is ever present. He doesn't shy away from hiding his disgust. His final "Bid 'Em In" makes that crystal clear.
The first 11 songs of Sin & Soul
take us on a journey full of characters, places, commentaries on life. It is only fitting that the album concludes with a final benediction, just Brown Jr. and a percussionist playing "Afro-Blue," a Mongo Santamaria
composition with lyrics by the singer. It dares us to "dream of a land my soul is from"the most obvious allusion here is to Africaand proceeds to paint a picture of a boy and girl dancing that may or may not be a dream which slowly fades away into the night. The album is now complete and we have an opportunity to take in all that we have heard and reflect on the genius of Oscar Brown Jr., an extraordinary singer, songwriter and storyteller, and an album that is one of the most finest debut records of them all. It deserves your complete attention.
Work Song; But I Was Cool ; Bid 'Em High; Signifyin' Monkey; Watermelon Man; Somebody By Me A Drink; Rags And Old Iron; Dat Dere; Brown Baby; Humdrum Blues; Sleepy; Afro Blue.
Bass: Frank Carroll, Joe Benjamin;
Drums: Bobbie Rosengarden, George Devens, Osie Johnson;
Guitar: A. Cernett, Don Arnone;
Piano: Alonzo Levister, Bernie Leighton, Floyd Morris;
Saxophone: Joe Solde, Phil Bodner, Walt Levinsky;
Trumpet: Billy Butterfield.