Charles Brown is a survivor--and a pretty good one, at that. Forty-plus years after he cranked out a string of hit R&B; recordings with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, the tall, amiable singer and pianist is experiencing a remarkable revival.
“I haven’t gone nowhere,” he said last weekend at his suite in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. “There have been up times and down times, but I’m still here, doing what I do.”
Brown opened a two-week run Tuesday at the Roosevelt’s Cinegrill. The booking follows a definite “up” couple of years, during which he toured with Bonnie Raitt, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and released a new record, “All My Life” (Rounder), which included such special guests as Ruth Brown and Dr. John.
Brown is “the most extraordinary piano player I’ve ever heard,” said Raitt last week. “During that entire tour last summer, I don’t think he ever played any of the songs the same way. Everything just kept getting more and more soulful.”
Brown, 68, has never had any doubts about his skills. A born raconteur and storyteller, he described the downs of his career with the same colorful enthusiasm he brought to his numerous successes.
“I always kept my spirits up,” he said, “even when life wasn’t what I was used to, just so long as I could get by.
“Back in the late ‘70s, I went out to help a friend of mine who had a janitorial service. We went out to some of those big houses out there. . . .”
Brown gestured in the direction of Beverly Hills.
“And she wouldn’t let me do anything except clean windows because she was worried about me hurting my hands. We’d do a few houses a day and I’d make $300. Well, that was enough to keep me going for some of those lean years.”
Brown said his first big hit, “Driftin’ Blues,” recorded in 1946 with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, was “something we’d been playing for quite a while. We just had no idea how fast it would show up on all the jukeboxes right after we recorded it.”
But when Brown was offered $10,000 to leave Moore for a solo record deal, he turned it down. “And that,” he said with a rare expression of discontent, “was probably the worse mistake I ever made in my life.”
As it turned out, the Moore connection ended soon thereafter in a cloud of financial disagreements, and Brown continued with a successful solo career that carried over well into the ‘50s.
Many of the period’s emerging R&B; acts were indebted to Brown. “When I was being booked by Billy Shaw,” he said, “he told me, ‘You’re my No. 1 act, Charles, and you’ve got to help me with these other acts.’ So when the places asked for me, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to take an opening act too.’ And so I took out the Dominoes, the Clovers, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. But this was enhancing to me, too, because these were all wonderful performers.”
Still, during his sparse years, Brown rarely heard from the many performers he aided.
“Except for Ruth Brown,” he said, “there were people I helped who never reached back to say, ‘Oh, Charles Brown is still here and he’s still got the fire.’ They’re so scared that it might wipe off some of their own glory.
“It finally took a young lady like Bonnie Raitt to see that I was still active, and to bring me in front of her audience--which wasn’t 2,000 people, it was 16,000 to 20,000 people. I’ll always be grateful to her, and to Ruth Brown, too, for what they’ve done for me.”
Brown’s influence, nonetheless, continued to be pervasive, even during his inactive years. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry--to name only a few--were all touched by the smoky, after-hours blues images conjured up by Brown. Cooke’s big 1962 hit, “Bring It on Home to Me,” was closely based on Brown’s “I Want to Go Home,” and, more recently, the Eagles have recorded his “Please Come Home for Christmas” and Bruce Springsteen has covered “Merry Christmas, Baby.”
Still vital, still actively creative, Brown is playing and singing, according to Raitt, as well as he ever has. “Hearing him work on that tour was like watching Picasso paint,” she said.