Oscar Brown Jr.
|Born||October 10, 1926|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||May 29, 2005 (aged 78)|
Oscar Brown Jr. (October 10, 1926 – May 29, 2005) was an American singer, songwriter, playwright, poet, civil rights activist, and actor. Aside from his career, Brown ran unsuccessfully for office in both the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Congress. Brown wrote many songs (125 have been published), 12 albums, and more than a dozen musical plays.
Early life and education
Brown was born in Chicago, Illinois, United States, to Oscar Brown Sr. and Helen (née Clark). Brown's father was an attorney and real estate broker. Brown's first acting debut was on the radio show Secret City at the age of 15. For high school, Brown attended Englewood Technical Prep Academy (then known as Englewood High School). After high school, Brown attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Lincoln University but later dropped out.
During Brown's twenties, he worked as the "world's first Black newscaster" for Negro Newsfront, a Chicago radio program that he coproduced with Vernon Jarrett. He worked briefly in real estate and public relations before running for political offices: for the Illinois Legislature in 1948 through the Progressive Party, and for the U. S. House of Representatives as a Republican in 1952. During this period, 1946 to 1956, he was a member of the Communist Party USA; he quit when he decided that he was "just too black to be red." Later he served two years in the U. S. Army.
Brown's father intended for him to follow in his footsteps and become a practicing lawyer.
While he did help his father at his practice, he ventured off into other careers such as advertising and served in the army in the mid-1950s. He also wrote songs.
In the early 1950s, Brown was hired as a copy-writer by a small Chicago advertising company on Rush Street, Gershuny and Associates, owned by Sam Gershuny and Sheldon Sosna. At that time, Rush Street was totally segregated and Sam and Shelly took him to Adolf's, a high class Italian restaurant. As soon as they walked in, the owner sent the busboy over to say that the boss “did not want to serve Negroes in his restaurant.” So they just sat there and refused to leave until he finally decided to serve them. They did that in a number of restaurants up and down Rush Street in those days. A fraternity brother of Gershuny and Sosna owned a string of hotels and approached them about advertising his hotels, by sponsoring two hours of the news in the morning on a black radio station. They decided to make Oscar Brown Jr. the disc jockey for the segment, starting at 5:30 until 7:30 in the morning. Unfortunately, they discovered Oscar was never making it at 5:30 as he was supposed to and they were lucky if he got there by 6:00. Also, Brown would make politically controversial comments about the on-going Korean War. As a result, he did not last long as the DJ.
When Mahalia Jackson recorded one of his songs, "Brown Baby", he began to focus on a career as a songwriter. His first major contribution to a recorded work was a collaboration with Max Roach, We Insist!, which was an early record celebrating the black freedom movement in the United States. Columbia Records signed Brown as a solo artist, who was by now in his mid-thirties and married with five children.
In 1960, Brown released his first LP, Sin & Soul, recorded from June 20 to October 23, 1960. Printed on the cover of the album were personal reviews by well-known celebrities and jazz musicians of the time, including Steve Allen, Lorraine Hansberry, Nat Hentoff, Dorothy Killgallen, Max Roach and Nina Simone (Simone would later cover his "Work Song" and Steve Allen would later hire him for his Jazz Scene USA television program). The album is regarded as a "true classic" for openly tackling the experiences of African Americans with songs such as "Bid 'Em In" and "Afro Blue". Sin & Soul is also significant because Brown took several popular jazz instrumentals and combined them with self-penned lyrics on songs such as "Dat Dere", "Afro Blue" and "Work Song". This began a trend that would continue with several other major jazz vocalists. Several of the tracks from Sin & Soul were embraced by the 1960s Mod movement, such as "Humdrum Blues", "Work Song" and Herbie Hancock's, "Watermelon Man". Sin & Soul was followed by Between Heaven and Hell (1962). The success of Sin & Soul meant that much more money was spent on production and Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns were bought in to handle the arrangements.
However, Brown was soon to fall down the pecking order at Columbia following a rearrangement of the management at the company. His third album was notable for the lack of any self-composed songs, and Columbia was having a hard time packaging him as an artist. They were unsure whether Brown was suited to middle-of-the-road/easy listening nightclubs or alternatively should be presented as a jazz artist. Brown was given much more creative freedom for his fourth album, Tells It Like It Is (1963), and he was back to his creative best, composing songs such as "The Snake", which became a Northern soul classic when it was covered by Al Wilson, and has featured on several adverts. Despite this return to form, and having been told by the new head of Columbia, that he was high on the company's priorities, his contract at Columbia was not renewed.
Stage and television
He attempted to mount a major musical stage show in New York City called Kicks & Co. in 1961. Host Dave Garroway turned over an entire broadcast of the Today show to Brown to perform numbers from the show and try to raise the necessary funds to launch it on the stage. Kicks & Co. is set on an all-African-American college campus in the American South during the early days of attempted desegregation. The character Mr. Kicks is an emissary of Satan, sent to try to derail these efforts in which the play's protagonist, Ernest Black, has become involved. This was the first of several theatrical endeavors by Brown, and like all of them, the public was not won over sufficiently to allow financial success, despite acclaim by some critics. His longest-running relative success, thanks to the participation of Muhammad Ali, was Buck White. Another notable musical show, Joy, saw two incarnations (in 1966 and 1969) and again addressed social issues. Appearing with Brown were his wife, Jean Pace, and the Brazilian singer/accordionist Sivuca. RCA released the original cast recording around 1970; it is long out of print. In 1962, he worked on the Westinghouse syndicated television program Jazz Scene USA, produced by Steve Allen. Brown was the show's presenter and it featured a new musical guest each week.
Brown was married to Jean Pace, the older sister of actress Judy Pace. He was the father of seven children. His son, Oscar "BoBo" Brown III was a bassist and musical arranger who died in a car crash in August 1996. His daughter, Maggie, is a singer. A Chicago musical review referred to the trio as "The First Family of Swing." They were joined by the youngest daughter, Africa Pace Brown, in an effort to popularize his music. Brown's first son, Napoleon "David" Brown, inspired the song "Brown Baby" and helped his father promotional appearances and business. The remaining family members consist of Donna Brown Kane, Joan Olivia Brown, and Iantha Brown Casen, who participated in some of her father's production.
Brown founded the Oscar Brown Jr. H.I.P. Legacy Foundation to continue his humanitarian work. He participated in an anti-apartheid protest rally in Compton College in 1976.
Brown wrote the vocalese lyrics to the Duke Pearson melody "Jeannine" as sung by Eddie Jefferson on the album The Main Man recorded in October 1974 and covered by The Manhattan Transfer on their 1984 album Bop Doo-Wopp. "Somebody Buy Me a Drink", a track from Sin & Soul, was covered by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths on their eponymous first album. "Hymn to Friday" from Between Heaven and Hell is played on jazz radio stations such as WDCB. Pianist Wynton Kelly recorded "Strongman" with his trio in the late 1950s. Nina Simone popularized Brown's lyrics to "Work Song", "Afro Blue", and "Bid 'Em In."
Brown's lyrics to "Afro Blue" have been performed by Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Lizz Wright. Vocalist Karrin Allyson cited Brown as an inspiration and has performed his compositions on several of her albums. Brown was scheduled to contribute lyrics to Allyson's 2006 album Footprints before his death; instead she recorded his songs "A Tree and Me" and "But I Was Cool" as a tribute.
Brown was the subject of a tribute album by cabaret singer Linda Kosut.
- What It Is: Poems and Opinions of Oscar Brown Jr. This book includes lyrics to some of Brown's better-known songs, as well as lyrics to songs he never got to record.
- Sin & Soul (Columbia, 1960)
- In a New Mood (Columbia, 1962)
- Between Heaven and Hell (Columbia, 1962)
- Tells It Like It Is! (Columbia, 1963)
- Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington (Fontana, 1965)
- Finding a New Friend with Luiz Henrique (Fontana, 1966)
- Joy with Jean Pace, Sivuca (RCA Victor, 1970)
- Movin' On (Atlantic, 1972)
- Fresh (Atlantic, 1974)
- Brother Where Are You (Atlantic, 1974)
- Live Every Minute (Minor Music, 1998)
- Kicks & Co.
- Oscar Brown Jr. Entertains (one-man show in London, UK)
- Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow
- Summer in the City
- Opportunity Please Knock
- Joy '66; Joy '69
- Big-Time Buck White
- Slave Song
- Oscar Brown Jr.'s Back in Town
- bad boys '
- "The Snake"
- "Work Song" (lyrics to Nat Adderley's music)
- "All Blues" (lyrics to Miles Davis' music)
- "Dat Dere" (lyrics to Bobby Timmons' music)
- "Afro Blue" (lyrics to Mongo Santamaría's music, sometimes recorded by others without crediting the lyricist)
- "The Lone Ranger" (Billboard, #69 - peaked on June 15, 1974)
- "Signifyin’ Monkey" (recorded on Sin & Soul)
- "Forty Acres and a Mule"
- "Brother Where Are You"
- "Brown Baby"
- "World Full of Gray"
- "But I Was Cool"
- "The Tree and Me"
- "A Ladiesman"
- "A Young Girl" (lyrics to French song "Une Enfant", by Charles Aznavour)
- "Long As You're Living" (lyrics to Julian Priester & Tommy Turrentine's music)
- Negro Newsfront (1940s), radio show
- Tonight Starring Steve Allen (c. 1960)
- The Today Show with Dave Garroway (c. 1960)
- Jazz Scene USA (1962), television show – host
- The Dick Cavett Show (1970), with Jean Pace and Sivuca from the Broadway show Joy
- Stony Island (1978 film) – actor
- From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music (early 1980s) – 13-part public TV series, USA [host]
- Def Poetry Season 2 (2002) [poet]
- Colin Larkin, ed. (1993). The Guinness Who's Who of Soul Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 29/30. ISBN 0-85112-733-9.
- Jamie Francisco (May 30, 2005). "Oscar Brown Jr., 78 – Jazzman gave back to community". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 1, 2011.
- "Vernon Jarrett Biography". Thehistorymakers.com. Archived from the original on July 6, 2004.
- "Oscar Brown Jr., born". African American Registry. Retrieved December 2, 2020.
- Liner Notes for Sin & Soul, by Robert Barron Nemiroff.
- "Sin & Soul – Oscar Brown, Jr. | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved August 15, 2019.
- The track is included in the Ace Records series The Return Of Mod Jazz (Mod Jazz Series), and is described as a "mod anthem".
- Langer, Adam (November 28, 2019). "Muhammad Ali in a Broadway Musical? It Happened". The New York Times. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
- Harrod, James A. "JAZZ SCENE U.S.A. #1: THE JAZZ CRUSADERS". Jazzsceneusa.blogspot.ca. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
- "Oscar Brown Jr., 78, Singer Songwriter Dies". Johnson Publishing Company. June 20, 2005. p. 15. Retrieved September 10, 2019.
- Ed Hamilton, "Brown, Brando and Mandela" Archived April 7, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, JazzTimes, December 16, 2013.
- Cunniffe, Thomas. "Eddie Jefferson: "The Main Man" (Inner City 1033)". Jazz History Online. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
- "Oscar Brown Jr. recognized as one of Chicago’s top artistic creators" Archived July 21, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, Chicago Defender, June 30, 2010.
- Jazz, All About. "All About Jazz". All About Jazz. Retrieved September 26, 2018.
- Jerry D'Souza, "Linda Kosut: Long As You're Living (2007)", All About Jazz, September 7, 2007.
- Edited by Arthur Ade Amaker and Oscar Brown Jr, Chicago, Illinois: Oyster Knife Publishing, 2005, 102 pp.
- on YouTube
- Oscar Brown, Jr. web site produced by his daughters
- Donnie L. Betts' documentary on Oscar Brown
- Oscar Brown Jr's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Oscar Brown photographs, essays, poems, curated by his daughters at The University of Chicago Press Journals