Charles Brown: Pioneer
Charles Brown is a unmatched entertainer who has been a consistent attraction for more than a half century. He is one of the most influential artists of our time and his contributions are seemingly endless. This former high school science teacher is one of the true giants of American music.
He was born in Texas City, Texas in 1920. He began his love of music early on as he studied classical piano and was active in the local music scene as a teenager. He attended Prairie View A & M College in Texas and worked in the school band as he earned his degree in education, which led to his hiring as a science teacher at George Washington Carver High School in Baytown, Texas in 1942. His brief tenure there was followed by an equally short stop in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1943. He soon went to California and remained unsure of his future until he entered an amateur show at the Lincoln Theater in 1944 and walked off with the first prize. This convinced him that his future was in music. A number od odd jobs around the L.A. area followed, and soon he was offered a spot in the small combo known as Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, with guitarist Moore and bassist Eddie Williams. They patterned their style after the King Cole Trio, but they presented a sound that had more of a blues sound than a jazz feel. They played a number of small clubs in the Los Angeles area getting recognition, and soon were given the opportunity to record for the local Philo label. The first release was #111 - "Baby Don't You Cry" / "Blazer's Blues". This was quickly followed up by #112 - "Driftin' Blues" / "Groovy".
The recording of "Driftin' Blues" was a landmark in the evolution of American music. It was a huge seller, so much so that it put the Blazers, Brown, and Philo (soon to be renamed Aladdin), at the front of a musical movement that within a decade would transform the entire landscape of American entertainment. "Driftin'" remained on the R & B best sellers charts for an amazing six months, and those that were there recall the dominance of the recording over the Southern California club scene on Central Avenue that year. With the spectacular success of the song, the Three Blazers were now an entertainment phenomenom in Southern California. The records continued - "You Are My First Love" / "Racetrack Blues" on #129 and "Till The Real Thing Comes Along" / "Rocks In My Bed" on #130. Aladdin #183 in early 1947 is a re-release of "Driftin' Blues" coupled with a re-release of "Till The Real Thing Comes Along". "Baby Don't You Cry" and "You Are My First Love" are #184. In 1946 the trio wins awards from the trade publications Cashbox and Billboard as the top R & B trio of the year.
The Blazers now went on to record for Leon Rene's Exclusive label, releasing such tunes as "Sunny Road", "Moonrise", "Lost In The Night", "Be Fair With Me", and "Merry Christmas Baby". The trio also waxed a few sides for the Modern label such as #731 - "I'll Get Along Somehow" and "What Do You Know About Love", and #768 - "Nutmeg". By mid 1948 Charles Brown decides to leave Johnny Moore's Three Blazers after more than three years and go out on his own. Brown is replaced by Billy Valentine, and Charles Brown now returns to the Aladdin label to record. His first release as a solo is #3020 - "Ooh Sugar" and "Get Yourself Another Fool". "Trouble Blues" and "Honey Keep Your Mind On Me" follows on #3024. The next outing is released as by The Charles Brown Trio on #3030 - "Please Be Kind" and "In The Evening When The Sun Goes Down". The last Brown recording of 1949 is #3039 - "Homesick Blues" and "Let's have A Ball".
In January of 1950, his new Aladdin record #3044 - "Tormented" jumps out and becomes a major seller on the West coast. Brown also does well at the box office as he combines with Dizzy Gillespie for an unusual double bill at the newly re-opened paradise Theater in Detroit. In March #3051 is "I Wonder When My Baby's Coming Home" and "My Baby's Gone". Soon after this release Brown goes from a trio to a full eight piece backing combo known as The Smarties. This group features Ronnie Lewis on trumpet, Fred Simon on tenor sax, Clyde Dunn on baritone sax, Earl Wilmont on guitar, Jimmy Bunn piano, Wesley Prince on bass, and Snooky Hall on drums, along with Brown on piano and vocals. Brown has a full schedule as he plays the Pershing Ballroom in Chicago, then to Hollywood to film musical shorts for Universal Studios, and then a Southern tour and on to Brazil and Argentina. In June "Repentance Blues" and "I've Got That Old Feeling" is released on Aladdin #3060. "Blues" turns out to be a good sized hit record, the biggest of the year for the label. That October the Swing Time label buys Charles Brown masters from his days with the Three Blazers on the shuttered Exclusive label. This proves the power of the attraction of Brown. In November Aladdin releases an LP by Brown called "Mood Music". Also on the label is #3066 - "Again" and "I've made Up My Mind". The Club Oasis is home to The Charles Brown band for two weeks in December. Charles, along with Roy Brown and the Joe Morris Blues Cavalcade is a huge draw in Atlanta over the holidays. Swing Time re-releases the holiday perennial "Merry Christmas Baby" on #238.
The first record by Charles Brown in 1951 is #3076 - "Black Night" and " Once There Lived A Fool". The record is an immediate big seller. Two months later "Black Night" is a top three R & B record and completely swamps a later release on #3071 - "Texas Blues" and "How High The Moon" (the Les Paul/Mary Ford pop hit). Aladdin Records signs Billie Holiday and the label mentions the possibility of a duet recording with Holiday and Brown. Swing Time continues to re-release old Exclusive masters as the Aladdin newly recorded sides are issued leading to the inevitable confusion factor. Aladdin #3091 is released in late August. It is "The Message" and "I'll Always Be In Love With You". Brown announces that he plans to open his own night club in Los Angeles. In November #3092 hits the street - "Seven Long days" and "Don't Fool With My Heart". At the end of the year, Charles Brown celebrates his selection as the number one jazz and blues star of the year by Cash Box magazine.
The year 1952 opens with the release of #3116 - "Hard Times" / "Tender Hearts". The recording of "Black Night" is judged to be the biggest selling R & B record of all of 1951. Only the Dominos "Sixty Minute Man" outsold the Charles Brown tune. In April "Still Water" and "My Last Affair" are released on #3120. A big draw in early summer are The Clovers and Charles Brown on a riverboat excursion in Washington D.C. The same lineup appears in Atlantic City and then heads to Ohio to do a few dates with Al "Moondog" Freed. "Without Your Love" and "See" are released in August on #3138. In September Mr. Sad Head with the Billy Ford Orchestra and Shirley Haven join Brown and his new trio for a swing through Texas. The last record of the year is out in Nevember. It is Aladdin #3157 - "Alley batting" and "Rollin' Like A Pebble In The Sand".
In January of 1953 Brown decides to change directions again. He disbands his small combo and decides to reform his larger combo while in Houston. Aladdin #3163 is released late in the month. It is "Moonrise" and "Evening Shadows". In march Brown and his new unit begin an extensive tour of Texas and Oklahoma. "Rising Sun" and "Take Me" are released as Aladdin #3176. This is followed in quick order by #3191 - "I Lost Everything" and "Lonsome Feeling". In September, Brown zig zags again. He feels that the enlarged group did not work out as he planned and so returns to head his old unit Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. In the fall, Brown with The Blazers and vocalist Mari Jones embark on a tour of the Southwest. At the end of the tour the unot goes to the Northeast and finishes up with a week each at The Howard in Washington D.C., and at New York's Apollo Theater. In late October Aladdin #3209 is released - "Crying And Driftin' Blues" and "P/S. I Love You". In December Hollywood Records releases an old master from Swing Tome on #1001 - "Strange Love" and "In The Clay". Charles sets up plans to join Amos Milburn and the Choker Campbell band on tour early the next year.
In January of 1954, Aladdin releases #3220 - "Everybody's Got Troubles" and "I Want To Fool Around With You". At about the same time Hollywood comes out with another purchased master from Swing Time by The Three Blazers - "Pleadin' For Your Love" / "The Best I Can". Most of the month of April will be taken up with a short tour of Texas and Louisiana, but in late April Brown plays a "Moondog Ball" with Alan Freed in Akron, Ohio that is a huge draw. On may 1, Brown is one of the star attractions at the first Alan Freed show in the East, The Moondog Coronation Ball at the Newark Armory in New Jersey. Also on the bill are the Clovers, The harptones, Muddy Waters, and the Buddy Johnson orchestra. The show is a huge success - SRO and then some with thousands turned away. This show gives a glimpse of things to come. At this time the newest recording by Brown is out on #3235 - "Let's Walk" and "Crying Mercy". Brown joins Guitar Slim, Chuck Willis, Margie Day, and the Paul Williams band for a tour of the Midwest. Immediately after the end of this tour, Brown heads for two weeks in North Carolina and Florida. "Let's Walk" continues to sell especially in Louisiana and Texas. Once again Charles decides to end his appearances as a solo artist and reform his combo for stage appearances. In late September Brown hooks up with The Spiders for two weeks in the East. Late that month Aladdin #3254 - "Foolish" and "My Silent Love" with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers is released. The last three months find Brown constantly on the road and ends up the year in Los Angeles paired with The Orioles at the 5-4 Ballroom.
Brown's first release of 1955 is #3272 - "By The End Of The River" and "Honeysipper". Two months later #3284 "Walk With Me" / "Night After Night" is out and soon after #3290 "Fool's Paradise" and "Hot Lips And Seven Kisses". By now the records do not sell as they did in earlier years, but the personal magnetism still brings out the people. In July Charles Brown and The Original Three Blazers complete their third month at L.A.'s Your Room. In October "My Heart Is Mended" and "Trees, Trees" is the latest on #3296. In December Hollywood Records re-releases Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" bw Lloyd Glenn's "Sleighride". By 1956 the recordings are not as prolific although "Trees, Trees" is still selling, and in March #3316 - "Please Don't Drive Me Away" and "One Minute To One" is out on Aladdin. The first LP album on the Aladdin label will be released in September and will feature four tracks by Brown. For some reason in October Aladdin releases two singles by Brown almost simultaneously - #3339 - "I'll Always Be In Love With You" / "Soothe Me", and #3342 - "Trouble Blues" and "Confidential" (Both recordings couple an old hit tune-"Trouble" and "I'll Always", with a new flip side). At year's end Hollywood Records releases an LP of R & B Christmas tunes called "Merry Christmas Baby", and includes the Charles Brown original version of the title tune.
By 1957 the fortunes had turned for Brown and the other pioneer R & B performers, and they eventually faded from the forefront of the music. Even so Brown is signed for the big travelling show called "The Biggest Show of 1957". He also moves to Atlantic Records early in the year. Aladdin Records plans to release an LP of old Brown sides on its new Score label. In May Aladdin releases a side from Charles from off the shelf - "Please Believe Me" and "It's A Sin To Tell A Lie" on #3366. Charles proves he can still draw a crowd as proven by a successful week at Chicago's Crown Propeller in late June. Late in the year Hollywood Records releases single and LP versions of Brown's classic "Merry Christmas Baby". Brown appeared from time to time, such as moving to Atlantic Records new subsidiary label East-West in 1958 for "We've Got A Lot In Common" and his take on an old Guy Lombardo tune "When Did You Leave Heaven?" on #106. In the spring of 1959 Brown was signed by Ace Records in Mississippi, and records "I Want To Go Home" and "Educated Fool" with Amos Milburn on #561. Charles still perseveres and receives a welcomed and much deserved national charting in 1960 for his recording of "Please Come Home For Christmas" on the King label. Nothing else he did in the ensuing years made much of a ripple, but he was a presence in the early 70s with Johnny Otis' R & B revival and the PBS documentary Reunion At The Barrel House, also with Otis. Years passed and then another PBS documentary, this time focusing on Charles Brown and Ruth Brown called "That Rhythm Those Blues" brought him back to the spotlight. With the help and support of Grammy winning performer Bonnie Raitt, Brown was back in the recording studio. The albums "One More For The Road" on Alligator and "All My Life" on Bullseye were critically acclaimed. The set called "So Goes Love" was well received in 1998 and Brown was finally getting his due. Just at the time in early 1999 as he awaited his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Charles Brown passed away. As Bonnie Raitt tearfully recounted in accepting his induction award, Charles finally felt some acceptance from all of those who followed his path. He lived long enough to know that there were people caring enough to acknowledge his contributions to the music he helped invent. Charles Brown-a pioneer extroadinaire.
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