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A Sophisticated Take On The BluesCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Brown, CharlesCharles Brown was to have been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in March, and if he is best known as the writer of a massive hit for Elvis Presley, "Merry Christmas, Baby", and its equally successful follow-up, "Please Come Home For Christmas", his own career produced a great deal of memorable music.
Brown was unusual amongst post-war blues artists in that his style did not belong to either the Southern delta blues tradition, or the urban blues form emerging from Chicago and the northern cities. Instead, Brown used his smooth voice, urbane delivery and a sophisticated approach to piano to craft his own individual take on the blues in the more relaxed ambiance of California, where he began performing in the mid-Forties.
He was brought up by his grandparents in Texas, and learned to play classical music on his grandmother's piano. He earned a degree in chemistry before uprooting to Los Angeles, where he turned his back on his profession and began to sing in amateur contests and in the clubs which supported the city's thriving jazz and rhythm and blues scene. He was spotted by guitarist Johnny Moore and bass player Eddie Williams, and was invited to join what became a successful trio in the emerging rhythm and blues format, The Three Blazers.
The group used sophisticated jazz-influenced harmonies and swing rhythms as well as blues, much in the manner of the Nat King Cole Trio of the time (Oscar Moore, Cole's guitarist, was Johnny Moore's brother). Their 1945 hit Drifting Blues established a successful template both for the band and for Brown's intimate, laid-back vocal style, which became very influential, and had a profound effect in directing Ray Charles's early path.
Brown's own version of "Merry Christmas, Baby" provided a hit for the trio in 1947, but he chose to go solo in 1948, and married the first of his two wives, singer Mabel Scott, the following year. He scored a number of hits in the early Fifties, including "Black Night" in 1951 and "Hard Times", written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in 1952. He toured with Fats Domino and Ray Charles in rhythm and blues packages which traversed the country, and remained a successful performer well into the decade, but changing musical fashions eventually eclipsed his elegant approach, and he fell from popular favour.
Brown suffered a considerable amount of financial wrong-doing in the business, and became involved with a shady club-owner in Kentucky in the late 1950s, who virtually held him prisoner. According to the singer, each time he would suggest to his employer that it was time he returned to Los Angeles, the gangster would extend the contract by pointing out that "you wouldn't look too good with a bullet in your brain".
His work in the Sixties and Seventies went against the grain of the style of rock and blues popular at that time, and by the end of the 1970s he had given up performing entirely. A European-led revival of interest in his records sparked a new phase in his career, however, and he returned to both touring and recording in the 1980s with his powers largely undiminished, as reflected in the elegant, romantic moods evident on records like For The Road, All My Life and Just A Lucky So And So.
His inclusion on tours with singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt in recent years brought his music to a wide new audience, while Elvis Costello wrote "I Wonder How She Knows" for him, and stars like Raitt, Dr John, and John Lee Hooker sang on his albums. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and a heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997. Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, a number of major artists performed at a benefit concert for him in San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, an occasion he was able to attend, albeit in a wheelchair.