Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory 
Brother John Sellers
Brother John Sellers
 March 27, 1999
Age 74

 The Independent, London
John Sellers, gospel and jazz singer, born Clarksdale, MS
27 May 1924, died Manhattan, 27 March 1999 
                          One can sense desperation in the qualification of the name in the 
                    encyclopaedia “vocal and tambourine”. Or is it simply a zealous chronicler? 
                    Either way, Brother John Sellers won’t be remembered for his virtuosity at the 
                    tambourine. He won’t be remembered much for his singing, either, because he 
                    was Tranmere Rovers rather than Premiership material. 

                    At the end of the Thirties the Musicians’ Union placed a ban on American 
                    musicians playing in this country on the grounds that they would be stealing 
                    work from British players. Regardless of the fact that the Americans could 
                    create work for the British musicians who accompanied them, the ban 
                    remained in force until the late Fifties. Jazz fans pined to see Ellington, Basie 
                    and Herman. They were to be frustrated but a small loophole was spotted. The 
                    ban applied to instrumentalists, but not to entertainers. Entertainers included 
                    people who sang, and people who sang included black American blues 
                    singers, a generation of whom, unable to believe their luck, had been 
                    patronised by white American liberals during the Forties. Now they were able 
                    via the loophole to move their operations to Britain where they were fallen upon 
                    with fervour by hungry fans. 

                    The blues singers that came here then were very likeable people, but we did 
                    patronise them. One of the nicest, Big Bill Broonzy, made much of his 
                    experiences as a sharecropper. Unlikely in reality, since from World War One 
                    onwards he spent most of his life in Chicago. When he died a Europe-wide 
                    collection was taken up for his widow. Embarrassingly, it then turned out that 
                    there was more than one. Because of his race-sensitive politics Josh White 
                    had had trouble with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities 
                    Committee. When he came over here he had his leg broken by white GIs. 
                    Blind Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, a delightful team, were more like the 
                    down-trodden of Calcutta. Brownie was lame, and Sonny was almost 
                    completely sightless. “He does my walking,” Brownie told me, “and I do his 
                    looking.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a very astute lady, had given up singing with 
                    big bands to become a gospel singer. When we parted one evening she 
                    shrugged on her fur coat, put the cap back on the brandy bottle, gave me a 
                    smacking kiss on the cheek and bade me farewell. “Don’t take any wooden 
                    nickels, darling,” she said. 

                    All these and more were wonderfully colourful characters that we patronised. 
                    They on the other hand were grateful to be lionised and most of them when 
                    they returned home, found that the fashion for them had gone and they were 
                    enveloped once more by obscurity. Tea chests and broom handles allowed 
                    enthusiastic Britons to start the skiffle craze, a movement that took away the 
                    need for American performers. 

                    Brother John was late to the European field, arriving here with Big Bill Broonzy 
                    in 1957. Brother John had hedged his bet by being both a secular blues singer 
                    and a gospel singer. The pairing with Broonzy left Big Bill the cotton and the 
                    plough bit while Brother John did the preaching with a bit of urban sex strife 
                    thrown in. 

                    To the blues historian Brother John’s background was impeccable. He was 
                    born in Mississippi where he learned to sing by watching legendary blues 
                    figures like Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. 
                    By the age of five he was appearing in gospel tent shows, dancing, singing and 
                    playing the tambourine. His parents had to abandon him in the aftermath of a 
                    disastrous flood when he was a child, and Sellers was brought for the next four 
                    years by his godmother. 

                    Mahalia Jackson, at once one of the finest and parsimonious gospel singers of 
                    them all, discovered him when he was ten in a bordello. She took the boy to 
                    live with her in Chicago and he sang with her on stage, sometimes filling in for 
                    her as she rose to fame. It was then that he first sang together with Broonzy 
                    and also worked with rhythm and blues bands on the side. He recorded many 
                    times from 1945 onwards, confining himself to gospel until in 1951 he broke 
                    out with “Heavyweight Mama”. By 1954 he was recording for the highly thought 
                    of Vanguard label, backed by sophisticated jazz players like Ruby Braff, Sir 
                    Charles Thompson and Jo Jones. 

                    In London with Broonzy in 1957, Sellers recorded as leader with Al 
                    Fairweather, Wally Fawkes (the cartoonist Trog), Tony Kinsey and other jazz 
                    musicians accompanying him. During the same trip he recorded with French 
                    and American musicians in Paris. 

                    On his return to New York he made more recordings. The fact that they were 
                    more sophisticated than those of the rural blues singers who were continuing 
                    to emerge meant that Sellers’s heyday had passed. 

                    But he still earned a living from his music, working regularly at Folk City, a 
                    nightclub in Greenwich City where singers like Bob Dylan, Simon and 
                    Garfunkel and Joan Baez had appeared. 

                    He sang to illustrate talks given by his friend Studs Terkel in the late Fifties 
                    and early Sixties. 

                    “He had a light tenor voice that was very strong,” said Terkel. “He was no 
                    Mahalia, no Big Bill Broonzy, but there was a clarity and a sense of urgency. 
                    When Brother John sang ‘Wade In The Water’, for example, you got the feeling 
                    of the young preacher inviting the people into the shallow waters, that they had 
                    to do it because if they did they’d be found, they’d be saved. Brother John had 
                    a way of making things come alive.” 

                    In 1961 Sellers’s singing at Folk City impressed Alvin Ailey, a young 
                    choreographer. The two got together and collaborated on Ailey’s “Blues Suite” 
                    and “Revelations”, scored by Sellers and then incorporated into his music. 
                    Sellers stayed as a musician with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. The 
                    association continued until Sellers’ death. 

                    While with Ailey he continued to work elsewhere, appearing in the poet 
                    Langston Hughes’s “Tambourines to Glory” and touring sporadically, returning 
                    to Europe and the Far East. 

                    His last performance with Ailey was in 1997 and at the time of his death he 
                    was in litigation with the dance company over royalties and copyright in regard 
                    to “Revelations”. 



Somewhat in the mold of Josh White and (to a lesser degree) Leadbelly, Brother John Sellers was an African-American all-around folk entertainer, singing blues, folk, gospel, and bits of jazz. Born in Clarksdale, MS, he joined the mass migration to Chicago at the age of 11. In the mid-'50s, he recorded one of the earlier long-playing albums aimed at the folk audience, which included accompaniment by Sonny Terry and the original Count Basie rhythm section. -- Richie Unterberger, All-Music Guide