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obsession with Charles Brown has only grown since this article was
written and we're in the process of rewriting and expanding our
We'd been planning this
retrospective on Charles Brown for a few months. Just as we set
fingers to keyboard, we heard the news that Charles Brown was not
in good health and the situation was serious. Unfortunately, we
passed a newsstand and saw the headline that he hadn't made it.
This was very disturbing news. For selfish reasons, life without
Charles Brown around is inconceivable. As a resident of the San
Francisco Bay Area, he was generous with his public appearances
and always was a lively guest on the local radio. Things will not
be the same.
so long ago, we flew home from Amsterdam with some Dutch friends,
took our showers and then drove to San Francisco's Café du Nord
for the supper show. Café
is an atmospheric place, reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy without
being too cute or precious. As we've mentioned before in these very
pages, the food at Du Nord is surprisingly good and they had a nice
beer selection that made our Dutch friends comfortable. The opening
act was a nice modern jazz trio but the real reason we were there
was the headliner, Charles Brown. Well-fed and pleasantly under
the influence, we easily could have succumbed to jetlag, but with
Charles Brown on stage, it seemed impossible. Despite his advancing
years, he played the piano like a demon and sang like an angel.
His distinct "cocktail blues" voice never fails to send us, and
for this reason, it's hard to speak of Charles Brown without putting
"the dreamy" before his name. Our Dutch friends were impressed with
the evening in particular and the U.S.A. in general, but we didn't
have the heart to tell them this was a singular event.
his day, Charles Brown was the rage. He influenced artists like
Ray Charles and sold a huge number of records, first with Johnny
Moore's Three Blazers and later as a solo act. Like many great artists,
he fell into relative obscurity as tastes changed, but his signature
song, Driftin' Blues, always brings recognition to R&B
fans. In the 1980s, he recorded an album called One More for
the Road on the mighty Blues label Alligator and from there
his star was on the rise, with rock singer Bonnie Raitt being his
most visible advocate.
He's always been
referred to as a Blues singer but that's really fair to Charles
Brown or to other "Blues"-ers. Many of his songs follow the standard
Blues form, but there's an undeniable sweetness to his voice, even
when singing the darkest lyrics. We have no idea as to Brown's drinking
habits, but he always sounds slightly drunk. This must be his manner
rather than his habit because his piano-playing is always sure and
steady. In many ways, Charles Brown is like Dinah Washington in
that they both approached a song in their own particular way. We
can pick up a Washington disc and look at the song tracks and know
exactly how she's going to phrase each title. In general, we really
like Dinah but we don't have the urge to be completists like we
do with other artists. If Charles Brown sang standards, we don't
know if we'd have the desire to collect everything he did. Luckily,
Brown sings a happy mixture of originals, obscurities and standards.
Even on his most uneven albums, there are always at least a few
gems. We must quickly add that there are very few mediocre Charles
Brown albums so buying most anything by him would be safe.
His early years
are captured on Driftin' Blues: The Best of Charles Brown
(EMI CDP-7-97989-2). We should warn you right now that it seems
like almost every album he did contained a version of Driftin'
Blues. These tracks are from his Alladin years. The sound quality
goes from fair to dismal, but it's easy to overlook. More completist
collectors will want to spring for the Mosaic box, The Complete
Alladin Recordings of Charles Brown. We did and we're happy
from his "dark years" are Blues N'Brown on Jewel Records
(Jewel JCD 5006), Boss of the Blues (Mainstream JK 53624)
and Driftin' Blues (DCC DJZ-603). These aren't our favorite
recordings. Boss of the Blues is nice, but Blues N'Brown
is only fair and on Driftin' Blues, Brown plays the organ
instead of the piano. There are doubtless other recordings that
will surface that are better, but it's not until his seminal One
More for the Road that Brown really becomes exciting again.
More for the Road (Alligator ALCD 4771) is just short of a perfect
album, pleasing both Blues fans and the Cocktail set. It's one of
those albums that you play over and over and still come back for
Other Love Songs is a small, beautiful recording for the now
defunct Muse label (Muse MCD 5466). It's bound to be re-issued soon
or perhaps available second-hand. The tempos are generally slow
and the instrumentals are jazzier than usual.
Bullseye Blues recordings celebrate his newfound success and treat
him to four-star production values. While from a Classic Popular
music point of view this is fine, we're sure his more hardcore blues
fans found the product a little too slick. All three albums, Someone
to Love (CD BB 9514), All My Life (CD BB 9501) and Just
a Lucky So & So (CD BB 9521), have great moments. For us,
Just a Lucky So & So stands out as the best but all three
His run on Verve
Records included Honey Dripper (314 529 848-2), So Goes
Love (314 539 967 2) and These Blues (314 523 022 2).
All are nice but somewhat simple, almost in response to the big
productions of the Bullseye recordings.
you're intrigued, we suggest One More for the Road and the
EMI Driftin' Blues as a start and go from there. Then see
if you don't start putting "dreamy" in front of his name as we do.