Sellers, gospel and jazz singer, born Clarksdale, MS
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
tambourine. He won’t be remembered much for his singing, either, because
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,
and Herman. They were to be frustrated but a small loophole was spotted.
ban applied to instrumentalists, but not to entertainers. Entertainers
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
via the loophole to move their operations to Britain where they were fallen
with fervour by hungry fans.
The blues singers that came here then were very likeable people, but we
patronise them. One of the nicest, Big Bill Broonzy, made much of his
experiences as a sharecropper. Unlikely in reality, since from World War
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
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
down-trodden of Calcutta. Brownie was lame, and Sonny was almost
completely sightless. “He does my walking,” Brownie told me, “and I do
looking.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a very astute lady, had given up singing
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
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
need for American performers.
Brother John was late to the European field, arriving here with Big Bill
in 1957. Brother John had hedged his bet by being both a secular blues
and a gospel singer. The pairing with Broonzy left Big Bill the cotton
plough bit while Brother John did the preaching with a bit of urban sex
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
playing the tambourine. His parents had to abandon him in the aftermath
disastrous flood when he was a child, and Sellers was brought for the next
years by his godmother.
Mahalia Jackson, at once one of the finest and parsimonious gospel singers
them all, discovered him when he was ten in a bordello. She took the boy
live with her in Chicago and he sang with her on stage, sometimes filling
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,
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
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
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
and early Sixties.
“He had a light tenor voice that was very strong,” said Terkel. “He was
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
to do it because if they did they’d be found, they’d be saved. Brother
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
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
was in litigation with the dance company over royalties and copyright in