Obituary: Charles Brown

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The Independent Culture
EVERY YEAR the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, acknowledges pioneers of the music and inducts veteran country, blues, folk and gospel performers. This March the blues musician Charles Brown will not be there to accept what would have been the crowning achievement of his life - a public endorsement that the blues he recorded 50 years ago helped shape the music of today.

Brown was born in 1922 in a shack in Texas City, a small town not far from Houston. His mother died when he was six months old. Raised by his grandparents, he was taught the piano and played in church. He wrote what became his classic song, "Driftin' Blues", when he was only 12. He displayed an aptitude for chemistry and mathematics and obtained a degree, then worked in a plastics factory before giving up his job because of asthma.

After winning a talent contest in Los Angeles in 1944, he was approached by the guitarist Johnny Moore and the bass player Eddie Williams. They formed a trio, the Three Blazers, to play a mixture of blues and ballads, usually without a drummer. The obvious comparison was with the Nat "King" Cole Trio, which featured Johnny Moore's brother, Oscar. In 1944, in a then rare example of black and white musicians working together, the Three Blazers recorded "Melancholy Madeleine" with Frankie Laine. They also had some success in 1945 with "You Taught Me How to Love", recorded with Ivory Joe Hunter.

One night the Three Blazers were playing at a local club when Eddie Mesner, a would-be record mogul, brought $800 to their dressing-room. It was theirs, he said, if they would record "Driftin' Blues" and assign the rights to him. Mesner did very well out of its 1945 success on the rhythm and blues charts and he was soon running an impressive independent label, Aladdin.

Feeling that they had been deceived, the Three Blazers refused to work further for Mesner, and they recorded for Modern, Exclusive and Swing Time before splitting in 1948. Their final record, "Merry Christmas Baby", written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, featured a superb vocal from Brown and the song has become a perennial favourite with blues musicians. Cover versions have come from Chuck Berry (who also recorded "Driftin' Blues") and Elvis Presley, and in 1992 Brown re-recorded the song with the singer Bonnie Raitt.

In 1948 Brown began a short-lived marriage with another singer, Mabel Scott, and formed his own group, the Smarties. Ironically, he went back to the Aladdin label, recording 100 titles over the next eight years. He specialised in quiet, introspective blues, often with jazz and pop overtones. It was a successful mix, and he topped the US rhythm and blues charts with "Trouble Blues" (1949) and "Black Night" (1951). Other successes were "It's Nothing" (1949), "Homesick Blues" (1949), "My Baby's Gone" (1950), "Seven Long Days" (1951), "I'll Always Be In Love With You" (1951) and "Hard Times" (1952). "Black Night" boasts a typical blues lyric - everything is going wrong in the singer's life and, to top it all, his brother is fighting in Korea.

Ray Charles's early records owe much to Brown's style. In his autobiography, Brother Ray (1979), Charles writes, "I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown. I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."

Whereas Ray Charles and Nat "King" Cole could adapt to changing tastes, Brown became an anachronism. He lost his following during the rock 'n' roll era when more exciting forms of black music were wanted. In 1964, attempting to reach a wider public, he switched to organ and recorded an album of pop hits, Driftin' Blues. Although purists disliked it and few people bought it, his versions of "Go Away Little Girl" and "The Day of Wine and Roses" work well.

For all that, Brown continued to record, notably for Ace in New Orleans and King in Cincinnati, and he cut "Educated Fool" and "I Want to Go Home" with another blues singer, Amos Milburn. Brown commented, "Amos and I lived in the same apartment. He was out partying every night, acting like the world was coming to an end."

By 1978, Brown was working as a music teacher and was all but forgotten. Then he had some good fortune as the Eagles revived another of his seasonal blues, "Please Come Home for Christmas", which became a hit single in both the United States and the UK. Brown returned to touring and recording and he was popular at blues events in Europe, recording a live album in Stockholm.

A fine collection of his work, Hard Times and Cool Blues, was released in the UK by Sequel in 1990. Also in 1990, Brown recorded a highly acclaimed album, All My Life, featuring guest appearances from Ruth Brown and Dr John. The following year's album, Somebody to Love, included "I Wonder How She Knows", with Elvis Costello. Another album, Just a Lucky So and So, followed in 1993. In 1995, Brown revived "Merry Christmas Baby" for the Virgin album Even Santa Gets the Blues, with Johnny Winter performing "Please Come Home for Christmas" on the same CD.

By opening for Bonnie Raitt, Brown was playing to bigger audiences during the 1990s than he had ever experienced and he was recognised as a blues master. He worked with the UK band King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys and also recorded with John Lee Hooker. He was in the house band with Van Morrison for Hooker's 1997 CD Don't Look Back. By way of tribute to Brown, one of Hooker's new songs, "Travellin' Blues", was effectively "Driftin' Blues" revisited.

Spencer Leigh

Charles Brown, musician: born Texas City 13 September 1922; married 1948 Mabel Scott (marriage dissolved); died Oakland, California 21 January 1999.