76, Blues Pianist and Singer
By PETER WATROUS
Charles Brown, the singer of the hit "Merry Christmas Baby" and a member
of Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, died on Thursday in Oakland, Calif.
Brown, who was 76 and lived in Oakland, was to have been inducted into
the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in March.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a spokesman at his management
Brown, toward the end of his career, had benefited from a revived interest
in his art, partly helped by support from singer Bonnie Raitt. But in the
1940s and 1950s, Brown, as part of the Three Blazers and on his own, was
a star in the new black music that was coming out of postwar Los Angeles.
Though in the last part of his career Brown played the role of the blues
pianist and singer, he was, as so many of the musicians in the rhythm-and-blues
scene, well versed in jazz, gospel and classical music.
Brown also had a bachelor's degree in chemistry, which led him to seek
work in California during World War II. He landed in Los Angeles, abandoned
chemistry and took work as an elevator man near Central Avenue, Los Angeles'
center of jazz and rhythm-and-blues. He won a spot at the amateur hour
at the Lincoln Theater, much like the Apollo's in Harlem, and in the audience
were Moore, a guitarist, and his friend Eddie Williams, a bassist. They
needed a pianist and singer, and hired Brown. The group became the Three
The group became one of the premier examples of the new, sophisticated
rhythm-and-blues that was replacing jazz as popular music among blacks.
Like Nat (King) Cole's trio (which featured Moore's brother Oscar
on guitar), the group mixed swing, blues and often-advanced harmony, and
placed Brown's voice out in front. In 1945 they recorded Brown's composition
"Drifting Blues," which became a hit, and in its introspective, sophisticated
way became a template for a new style.
Brown's singing, casual and with a drawl, was intimate and in the jazz
crooning tradition, even if the group's sound was deeply based in blues.
One sign of the influence of Brown is that Ray Charles' early recordings
are a direct imitation of his style; others are that Frankie Laine and
Kay Starr were regulars at Brown's recording sessions, and scores of rhythm-and-blues
singers based their careers on his style.
In 1948, Brown went on his own and began recording under his name; a year
later he married rhythm-and-blues singer Mabel Scott. In 1951, he had a
hit performing "Black Night," and in 1952 he had another with a tune written
by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "Hard Times."
For the next several decades, Brown's style, replaced by more modern black
music, fell out of favor, and by the 1970s Brown was working as a teacher
and janitor. By the end of the '70s, European record companies were interested
in him, and his career flourished. Until recently, Brown spent much of
his time touring and recording. In the early 1990s, he toured as Ms. Raitt's
opening act, and that brought him to a new market.
There are no survivors.