Charles Brown has been around longer than Charlie Brown. The senior Brown, a smooth piano player, had his first hit, “Driftin’ Blues” right after World War II. Now, at 72, Brown has just released a new album, “Just a Lucky So and So,” his third since his re-emergence in 1990.
He and his tight band will be at SOhO--that place in Santa Barbara still searching for a capital H--on Saturday night. Brown has plenty of stories to tell.
“Yeah, one big-time critic gave my new one four stars,” Brown said from a New Orleans hotel room. “Most everyone else, too, gave it four stars except for one guy who gave it 3 1/2 stars. He said, ‘Charles Brown don’t need no band.’ ”
Brown is keeping busier than most seniors. He has just returned from Spain, France, Italy and Germany. And next month, he is scheduled to play with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.
“And you know, they don’t select no one that would disgrace that symphony,” he said. “Right now, I have more work than I can hardly do, and that’s a good thing. I’m in good health. I can’t complain--no pain. Everything has been wonderful, and I’m glad to have my voice and my piano.”
Brown came to the Golden State in 1946 after studying chemistry at a college in Texas. Brown joined one of the hot L. A. bands, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.
“We were down around 1st Street and San Pedro in L. A., which used to be a Japanese area, but they were moved away during the war, and it became a colored area. Back then, it was colored, not black. This fortuneteller told us that we were gonna sign a contract within 24 hours; but Johnny didn’t care about that--he wanted to know about the racehorses. She told Johnny to play No. 7 in the fourth race. I’ll never forget; it was Lovely Millie and she was like a 99-to-1 shot. We put our money on this horse and sure enough, it won! We won 175 bucks for six bucks.”
Later that night, he said, the president of Philo records showed up at the show and offered the trio a contract.
“He offered us 400 bucks to do that song and four more numbers besides,” Brown said. “I was mesmerized just to make a record, but the company couldn’t make the records fast enough, and “Driftin’ Blues” was selling for $10 Back East. It got to be the No. 1 record of the year in 1946, and we got the Cashbox Award--there were no Grammys then. I don’t know where that trophy went. I used to move around a lot.”
The next step for the trio was to conquer New York City.
“The place to play in New York was the Apollo Theatre. The big bands were out. Nat Cole was setting the pace for trios by making about as much money as the big bands did. Our first night was at the Renaissance Theatre. Nat Cole showed up that night because he was from California like we were.
Next came the inevitable creative differences. “Everyone began to get money eyes,” according to Brown. He left and signed as a solo artist with Columbia, then Aladdin Records. With the latter label, Brown had six songs on the charts in 1949. Then came union troubles, and Brown ended up playing little dives and was “forgotten in a year.” Around 1960, Brown was playing a club in Newport, Ky., run by some shady types.
“One night, Dinah Washington was playing and she noticed me and said, ‘Charles Brown, what are you doing here? I’m taking you with me back to Chicago to open up for me.’ At the time, I had this ’55 Cadillac El Dorado, great car. So I told these people I worked for that I was going to Chicago. And they said, ‘Fine, Charles. But you like that car, don’t you? How’d you like to be found in it with a bullet in your head?’ I decided to stay where I was.”
By 1962, Brown had given up playing.
“But I never gave up practicing,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing until Bonnie Raitt found me.”
Enter Mike Kauffer, Ojai local, who is to blame for Blue Monday and the Ojai Bowlful of Blues Festival.
“It was 1988 or 1989, and Michael Kauffer was the one that said I should be seen again,” Brown said. “He booked me in at the Vine Street Grill in Hollywood. The owner said, ‘So who is this Charles Brown?’ Michael Kauffer asked who was playing then and the guy said ‘Mose Allison.’ ‘Well, just ask Mose,’ said Kauffer.”
The recommendation by Allison was enough to land Brown a gig on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, two of the slowest nights of the week. Raitt was one of the many patrons who came to see him perform.
Soon after, Raitt and Brown met again, this time in Washington, where she presented Brown with a lifetime achievement award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Charles Brown, you are Mr. Rhythm & Blues. I could marry you, musically.’ And I said, ‘You don’t want to marry me--you’d be smelling liniment all night,’ ” Brown said.
Since then, Brown has been on a roll, even receiving a Grammy nomination in 1992. But is Brown a blues guy, a jazz guy or do they need to invent a new category?
“I’m not just a blues artist,” he said. “Nat Cole and I used to be called variety artists, and we made race records. A variety artist is a person that could do anything--we did what made money--if it was blues, we could do that.”
And, according to Brown, what Raitt did for him, he has done for others.
“I took other artists with me on the road. I took the Clovers and Ruth Brown. I took Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Floyd Dixon. I took Ray Charles on the road when he was young,” he said.
“Here I am, still vital and energetic. People knew that I could still work and be good, but Bonnie Raitt was the one that saw fit to bring me back.”
Not only is he back, but Brown seems in no danger of going away.
* WHAT: Charles Brown.
* WHERE: SOhO, 1221 State St., Santa Barbara.
* WHEN: Saturday night.
* COST: $45 dinner and show, 6:30 p.m. $20 show only, 8 p.m.
* PHONE: 962-7776.