Obituaries: Brother John Sellers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ONE CAN sense desperation in the encyclopaedia entry for Brother John Sellers - "vocal and tambourine". Or is it simply a zealous chronicler? Either way, Sellers won't be remembered for his virtuosity at the tambourine. He won't be remem-bered much for his singing, either, because he was Tranmere Rovers rather than Premiership material.

At the end of the Thirties the Musicians' Union placed a ban on American musicians playing in Britain on the grounds that they would be stealing work from British players. Regardless of the fact that the Americans could create work for the British musicians who accompanied them, the ban remained in force until the late Fifties. Jazz fans pined to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman. They were to be frustrated, but a small loophole was spotted.

The ban applied to instrumentalists, but not to entertainers. Entertainers included people who sang, and people who sang included black American blues singers, a generation of whom, unable to believe their luck, had been patronised by white American liberals during the Forties. Now they were able via the loophole to move their operations to Britain where they were fallen upon with fervour by hungry fans.

The blues singers that came here then were very likeable people, but we did patronise them. One of the nicest, Big Bill Broonzy, made much of his experiences as a sharecropper. It was unlikely that his stories were true, since from the First World War onwards he had lived largely in Chicago. When he died, a Europe-wide collection was taken for his widow. Embarrassingly, it turned out that there was more than one.

Because of his race-sensitive politics Josh White had had trouble with Senator Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee. When he came over here he had his leg broken by white GIs. Blind Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (who was lame), a delightful team, were like the down-trodden of Calcutta. "He does my walking," Brownie told me, "and I do his looking."

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a very astute lady, had given up singing with big bands to become a gospel singer. When we parted one evening she shrugged on her fur coat, put the cap back on the brandy bottle, gave me a smacking kiss on the cheek and bade me farewell. "Don't take any wooden nickels, darling," she said.

All these and more were wonderfully colourful characters. They were grateful to be lionised and most, on their return home, found that the fashion for them had gone and were enveloped by obscurity. In Britain, the skiffle craze took away the need for American performers.

Sellers was late to the European field, arriving here with Big Bill Broonzy in 1957. He had hedged his bets by being both a secular blues singer and a gospel singer. The pairing with Broonzy left Big Bill the cotton and the plough bit while Brother John did the preaching with some urban sex strife thrown in.

To the blues historian, Sellers's background was impeccable. He was born in Mississippi in 1924, where he learned to sing by watching legendary blues figures like Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. By the age of five he was appearing in gospel tent shows, dancing, singing and playing the tambourine. His parents had to abandon him in the aftermath of a disastrous flood when he was a child, and Sellers was brought up for the next four years by his godmother.

Mahalia Jackson, at once one of the finest and most parsimonious gospel singers of them all, discovered him when he was 10 in a bordello. She took him to live with her in Chicago and he sang with her on stage, sometimes filling in for her as she rose to fame. It was then that he first sang with Broonzy and also worked with rhythm and blues bands on the side.

He recorded many times from 1945 onwards, confining himself to gospel until in 1951 he broke out with "Heavyweight Mama". By 1954 he was recording for the highly-thought-of Vanguard label, backed by sophisticated jazz players like Ruby Braff, Sir Charles Thompson and Jo Jones. In London with Broonzy in 1957, Sellers recorded as leader with Al Fairweather, Wally Fawkes (the cartoonist Trog), Tony Kinsey and other jazz musicians accompanying him. During the same trip he recorded with French and American musicians in Paris.

On his return to New York he made more recordings. The fact that they were more sophisticated than those of the rural blues singers who were continuing to emerge meant that Sellers's heyday had passed. But he still earned a living from his music, working regularly at Folk City, a night- club in Greenwich City where singers like Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez had appeared. He sang to illustrate talks given by his friend Studs Terkel in the late Fifties and early Sixties. "He had a light tenor voice that was very strong," said Terkel. "He was no Mahalia, no Big Bill Broonzy, but there was a clarity and a sense of urgency. When Brother John sang `Wade in the Water', for example, you got the feeling of the young preacher inviting the people into the shallow waters, that they had to do it because if they did they'd be found, they'd be saved. Brother John had a way of making things come alive."

In 1958 Sellers's singing at Folk City impressed Alvin Ailey, a young choreographer. The two got together and collaborated on Ailey's Blues Suite (1958) and Revelations (1960), which were scored by Sellers. Sellers stayed as a musician with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company; this association continued until his death, but he continued to work elsewhere, appearing in the poet Langston Hughes's Broadway show Tambourines to Glory and touring sporadically, to Europe and the Far East.

His last performance with Ailey was in 1997. At the time of Sellers's death he was in litigation with the dance company over royalties and copyright in regard to Revelations.

"Brother" John Sellers, gospel and jazz singer: born Clarksdale, Mississippi 27 May 1924; died New York 27 March 1999.