Driftin' Blues, Black Night, Merry Christmas Baby
-these are but
a few of Charles Brown's recordings that topped the R&B charts in the late
1940s and early 1950s. Charles Brown's mellow, sophisticated brand of blues was
tailor-made for postwar Los Angeles nightclub audiences, who found it a
refreshing contrast to the aggressive blues shouters and acoustic guitar pickers
who had dominated the blues scene. And the national audience caught on, too; in
the course of just a couple of years Charles Brown became a national R&B
superstar. His new, urbane approach to the blues was tremendously popular and
extremely influential. Brown's style left a lasting impression on other
legendary performers. He was a crucial influence on three of the greats of
R&B: Ray Charles (whose early piano trios were attempts to imitate the Brown
sound); Bobby "Blue" Bland (who had a huge hit with his version of Driftin'
) and Sam Cooke (whose Bring It On Home To Me
is based on a
Brown composition, I Want To Go Home
Charles Brown was born in Texas City, Texas in 1922 and began studying
classical piano at the age of ten. After hearing jazz great Art Tatum, Charles
committed himself to jazz and blues. Tatum, Brown explained, was the was the
first piano player he had heard combine the breadth and dynamics of classical
music with the blues and jazz that were part of Brown's childhood in Texas. Most
importantly, Tatum brought sophistication to the blues that Charles could relate
to his own musical and personal sensibilities.
After graduating from college with a degree in chemistry, Brown worked as a
chemist and high school teacher. Moving to Los Angeles in 1944, he was hired by
guitarist Johnny Moore, whose brother Oscar Moore was the innovative guitarist
in the Nat "King" Cole Trio. Johnny was forming his own trio, The Three Blazers.
The group, like the "King" Cole Trio, epitomized the cool, relaxed West Coast
piano trio style but brought to the sound a melancholy blues quality that was
distant from Cole's swinging arrangements.
The Three Blazers' hit recording of Brown's Driftin' Blues
first record in years to knock Louis Jordan from the top of the R&B charts.
The Three Blazers with Charles Brown became one of the most recorded R&B
groups in the country, scoring hits with Merry Christmas Baby
classics of the West Coast club blues style. The dapper,
soft-spoken and handsome Charles Brown became an R&B star. But fame in the
R&B world was a double-edged sword for Charles; he scored hit after hit but
rarely had the opportunity to display the full range of his musical
In 1948, Charles left the Blazers. He immediately began recording under his
own name, cutting another series of hits including Please Come Home For
Christmas, Find Yourself Another Fool, Trouble Blues, Black Night, My Baby's
Gone, I'll Always Be In Love With You
and Hard Times.
All told, he
recorded nine top ten R&B hits in a period of six years. During the 1950s,
Charles continued to be a top attraction on the R&B circuit, headlining
national tours with artists like Fats Domino, Bill Doggett, Roy Brown and Amos
The decline of traditional R&B during the early years of rock'n'roll
brought Charles' tenure as a popular artist to an end. Even though his talents
were much broader than those of the majority of R&B artists, Charles never
crossed over like his peers Ray Charles or Nat "King" Cole, and he continued to
perform as a club artist for his loyal fans.
The 1960s and '70s saw several major blues revivals, but none of them quite
caught up with Charles. The harder electric sounds of Chicago and Texas caught
on with the rock fans, while rough-edged Delta sounds caught the attention of
the folk music market. While the jazz crowd found Charles too bluesy, the blues
fans thought he was too urbane and not "authentic" enough. He continued to
record until the mid '70s, but his sales were small. The 1980s finally brought
Charles a new generation of listeners, awakened to his music by the appearance
of several reissues on the Swedish Route 66 label and most notably by Charles'
appearances at Tramps, a New York nightclub. The gigs, with Billy Butler (of
fame) on guitar, earned a new round of press attention for
Charles, including a feature in The New York Times.
In 1986, Charles into the studio with a handpicked New York band featuring
Butler. In two sessions, they cut an album for the Blue Side label entitled
One More For The Road
that won overwhelming critical response
and revitalized Charles Brown's career. He played the San Francisco Blues
Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Long Beach Blues festival and a series
of club dates, and began to find a whole new audience. Unfortunately, Blue Side
and its sister label Up Side didn't survive the struggle that independent labels
face, and they folded in mid-1988.
Ironically, in December of 1988, Charles Brown received his biggest media
exposure in years. He was featured, along with Ruth Brown (no relation) on the
nationally aired PBS special That Rhythm…Those Blues.
The show featured
Charles in a recent club performance, plus loads of interview footage, still
photos from his younger years, and a duet with Ruth.
Alligator reissued One More For The Road
in 1989 with two
new cuts rescued from "the can," created new packaging and re-mastered the
album. It was a departure for Alligator, best known for its "Genuine
Houserockin' Music," but label president Bruce Iglauer thought it was "time that
our fans got turned on to a slightly different kind of blues."
Brown spent much of his time touring and recording. His career received a
boost in the early 1990s when his management was assumed by guitarist Danny
Caron, and Bonnie Raitt started singing his praises. He began touring as
Bonnie's opening act, and that brought him to a new market. In 1997 he was
inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame.
Charles Brown passed away January 21, 1999, at the age of 76.