Smooth Blues Brown

R&B pioneer Charles Brown dies, following a golden decade of career rejuvenation

Playing and singing in front of Johnny Otis' house band, Brown won first prize.

"They clapped, applauded and applauded, and I turned around and played 'Warsaw Concerto,' and then I played an excerpt of 'Rhapsody in Blue,' you know, the main theme."

Brown believed that the applause was deafening because the audience never expected such an encore out of a guy from Texas.

As a result, a restaurant owner who was married to former Duke Ellington vocalist Ivy Anderson told Brown, "I'm going to put a tuxedo on you, and I want you to play semiclassics." Brown took the job.

Brown's win also impressed guitarist Johnny Moore. Moore went door to door through Brown's neighborhood to find him and ask him to play in his Three Blazers. Like Nat Cole's trio, the Three Blazers was made up of a guitar, bass and piano. In 1944, the Three Blazers were the toast of Hollywood's night haunts. Then, they began to record. "Drifting Blues," a song Brown said he wrote when he was 12, was the group's first hit, going to number one on the race-records charts.

Brown quit the Blazers in 1948, and became a major headliner on the nascent R&B scene. As Cole increasingly went to pop, Brown seemed to become bluesier, creating rhythm and blues with a sophisticated sheen. Ray Charles was enamored of that West Coast blues sound, and the influence of both Cole and Brown can be heard clearly in Charles' early records. As a result, Brown's influence extended even farther and wider through the work of such a successful disciple.

Some argue that when something is new, as rhythm and blues was in the 1940s, every little twist becomes a major stylistic departure, thus making it easy to be influential. For instance, every rock band has some trace of Bill Haley and the Comets in it, even though they merely cuts two monster singles and then rehashed them for as long as the public would allow.

However, happy accidents of timing don't diminish the value of a real innovator. Brown's ideas didn't fit previous formulas, so he devised his own road map. Although the Three Blazers' instrumentation resembled Cole's, the Blazers had a little less jazz and more blues to them. Because Brown's smooth and sophisticated approach was applied primarily to blues in a format where he was the key ingredient, his smooth sound differed from the jump-blues prototype of Louis Jordan and the rawness of Delta and Chicago blues.

Brown left center stage with his biggest-selling hit, "Please Come Home for Christmas," in 1960. Although he continued to record, the long, dry period had begun. He was laying low when Trammps in New York called him to do a showcase gig in 1979. The two-week engagement lasted two months, and Brown's career got a second wind as a heritage performer at jazz and blues festivals through the '80s.

He had nothing but praise for Bonnie Raitt, who, buoyed by her early-'90s multiplatinum success, took Brown out on the road with her, introducing him to crowds that dwarfed those he played for in his heyday. The applause and good wishes were universal, he said, "because I'm the living legend that's out there. Nat Cole and all of them are dead."

Until he got sick last year, Brown was as good as he'd ever been in performance, his voice and playing undiminished by age. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, two decades younger than he was, can't say the same. Brown was that rarest of music phenomena, an artist whose talent was as enduring as his influence.

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