You’ve heard his music in the soundtracks of some of this era’s most successful movies. Now it’s time to meet Charles Brown, the blues singer and pianist responsible for iconic hits like “Merry Christmas Baby.”
Tony Russell "Charles" Brown was a blues singer and pianist whose soft-toned, slow-paced blues-club style influenced blues performance in the 1940s and 1950s. You may not recognize the name, but you’ve heard his music. Trust us on this.
Brown was born in Texas City, Texas in 1922. As a child he loved music and received classical music training on the piano. He also had an affinity for the sciences. After graduating from Prairie View A&M College in 1942 with a degree in chemistry, Brown taught chemistry at George Washington Carver High School in Baytown, Texas.
He moved to Pine Bluff for a job at the Pine Bluff Army Arsenal as a chemist working on the production of mustard gas. Frustrated by the racism he experienced there, he moved to California and found work as an apprentice electrician at a shipyard, before settling in Los Angeles in 1943.
That’s when Brown found his stride. He joined a group called Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, where his gentle piano and vocals set a new standard of cool, putting him at the forefront of a musical evolution that changed American musical performance. Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers signed with Exclusive Records, and their 1945 recording of "Drifting Blues” stayed on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart for six months. Brown led the group in a series of further hits for Aladdin over the next three years, including "New Orleans Blues" and the original version of "Merry Christmas Baby" (both in 1947) and "More Than You Know" in 1948.
Brown left the Three Blazers in 1948, formed his own trio, and signed with Aladdin Records. Success came quickly. "Get Yourself Another Fool" was a hit, followed by “Trouble Blues," which spent 15 weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart in the summer of 1949. He followed with another string of hits, including "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," "Homesick Blues," and "My Baby's Gone," before having another R&B chart-topping hit with "Black Night.” His final hit during this era was "Hard Times" in 1952.
Brown's approach was too mellow to survive the transition to the harsher rhythms of rock and roll and he faded from the national spotlight until the 1980s, when he made a series of appearances at the New York City nightclub Tramps. This led to a recording contract with Blue Side Records and a hit with “One More for the Road,” a song he recorded in just three days. Success came easily again. Brown toured widely as the opening act for blues singer Bonnie Raitt, and several of the records he recorded during this time received Grammy Award nominations.
By the 1990s, Brown’s status as an influencer received widespread recognition. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. In 1997, he was a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States. Between 1987 and 2005, he was nominated for 17 Blues Music Awards in multiple categories, with wins in 1991, 1993, and 1995. Brown’s music appears in the soundtracks for movies like Friday After Next (2002), Cast Away (2000), Home Alone (1990), and many others.
Brown died of congestive heart failure in 1999 in Oakland, California, but his legacy lives on.
Sources: Wikipedia, Delta Music and Film, Jefferson County and the Lowlands
Image Credit: S. Sumori