Charles Brown, blues musician


Charles Brown was born in Texas City, Texas, on Sept. 13 in either 1920 or 1922. His mother died while Brown was still an infant, so Brown was raised by his grandparents, Swanee and Conquest Simpson, also of Texas City. Brown's grandmother had high standards for her grandson, and insisted that he learn to play the piano and attend college, after which she hoped he might become a schoolteacher (Deffaa, 1996). Swanee Simpson began Charles' musical education herself, exposing him to gospel, jazz, and classical music. He also took lessons from a local teacher, Mrs. Wallace, in addition to Janice Felder and Cora Gamble of Galveston (Tosches, 1999). Much of Brown's early performing experience was at the Barbour's Chapel Baptist Church, where he played the piano and sang (Deffaa, 1996). A nearby uncle taught Brown guitar, kazoo, and blues singing. Brown attended Central High School in Galveston. By that time, he was playing the piano in Galveston clubs along with two teachers from Central High, Fleming Huff and Costello James (Tosches, 1999).

After spending a summer as an orderly at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Brown attended Prairie View A&M, where he majored in chemistry and math and minored in education. Upon completing his degree in 1942, Brown briefly taught school at Carver High School in Baytown but then left to join the civil service as a junior chemist in Pine Bluff, Ark. (Tosches, 1999). Unsatisfied with the work environment in Arkansas, Brown decided to move to Los Angeles, Calif., to try his hand as a professional musician. When he first arrived in L.A., Brown worked as an elevator operator in the Broadway Department Store (Deffaa, 1996). He supplemented his income by playing piano in a local church. Brown regularly played piano in various night clubs, and by the end of 1943 he was playing the International House, a popular night spot for blues music, near Chinatown (Deffaa, 1996).

Johnny Moore first heard Brown play at an amateur night contest hosted by LA's Lincoln Theatre (Deffaa, 1996). Impressed by Brown's ability, Moore recruited him as a pianist and vocalist in his group, Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. The Three Blazers signed a contract with Philo Records executives Sammy Goldberg and Eddie Mesner to record Brown's "Driftin' Blues." The record sold more than 350,000 copies, making it the highest-selling album the group ever recorded; unfortunately, the band's contract with Philo Records did not include royalties, so the Blazers only received a total of $800 for their efforts. "Driftin' Blues" appeared on the Billboard Race Charts (which was the precursor to Billboard's R&B charts — the name was changed in 1949) for 23 weeks in 1946 and peaked at #2 (Deffaa, 1996). The record also received a Cash Box award that same year. The band played the Apollo Theatre in New York City and then toured the United States from 1946-1948. During that time the band released the following songs which also appeared on the Billboards Race Chart (Deffaa, 1996):

  • 1946: "Driftin' Blues", "Sunny Road", and "So Long"
  • 1947: "New Orleans Blues" (13 weeks), "Changeable Woman Blues", and "Merry Christmas Baby"
  • 1948: "Groovey Movie Blues", "Jilted Blues", "More than You Know", and "Lonesome Blues"
  • 1949: "Where Can I Find My Baby"

Charles Brown left the Three Blazers in 1949 to pursue a solo career. He released a number of solo recordings including, "Get Yourself Another Fool," "Black Night," "Hard Times" and "Trouble Blues" (Nothing, 1993). Brown's seasonal hit, "Please Come Home for Christmas," released in 1960, remained a holiday favorite for several decades.

Despite Brown's early success in the music industry, the 1960s and 1970s were a difficult period in his professional life; he barely scraped by as a musician (Russell, 2006). Things looked up for Brown in the 1980s when he was rediscovered by blues listeners after participating in a tour orchestrated by Bonnie Raitt, a contemporary blues musician. Brown's earlier material was re-released, and he recorded new records, including All My Life, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1990 (Nothing, 1993). In 1988 he was featured in the PBS documentary "The American Experience: That Rhythm, Those Blues." He received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1997. That same year he also received the W.C. Handy Award, which is now known as the Blues Music Award. In 1999, the same year as his death, Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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