A funny thing happened to Charles Brown in the late '80s. The sleek R & B pianist-singer, a peer of Nat King Cole's and a seminal influence on Ray Charles and countless others, was lurking in relative obscurity.
Then in 1986, his prospects suddenly brightened after fan and guitarist Danny Caron took charge of his career. Bonnie Raitt gave him a helping hand by hiring him to open her tour.
"Going out on tour with Bonnie Raitt really helped me," Brown noted, "because she saw the goodness in me, in what I was about. Before she was born, I was out there, being a No. 1 artist across the country."
The Raitt connection led to Brown's acclaimed comeback album, "All My Life," in 1990. Recently, Brown released "These Blues," an even more refined package.
The album surveys the range of his velveteen blues instincts, his warm, smart way with a song, whether it's Duke Ellington's "I've Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" or the version of "Amazing Grace" that serves as a bluesy benediction to the album.
Charles Brown, down but not out, is back in the ring, not long after reaching retirement age. He's catching the wave of late-blooming attention, touring the world from his Bay Area home base--he plays tonight at the Coach House--and recording as often as possible.
If you want to catch Brown while he's off the road, you're wise to either seek him out at home or at his second home--at the race track. It seems to be his only vice.
"I go a lot in my spare time," he said. "That's the only thing I like. You know, you can't beat that game. Sometimes, you do win. It helps with my exercise. I walk a lot. I guess if I was up in a (retirement) home, like I see these old people do, I never would do anything.
"I have that energy. It's amazing, at my age of 72, but I've kept good health all of my life. All of the musicians I knew in the early days, they're all dead. And they were much younger than I am. I don't care so much about material things, because if I have my health, I have a million dollars right here. You can always make money if you're healthy. If you've got a craft that you do, you just keep it up. I've kept mine up. Even when I wasn't doing anything, I was amused by just being able to play and sing."
Brown was born in 1922 in Texas City, Tex., and after his mother died while he was an infant, he was raised and musically weaned by his grandmother. She had him study classical piano, with a bit of Fats Waller's stride style jazz on the side.
"My goal was to be a schoolteacher, which my grandmother wanted me to be--a schoolteacher and to play for church. I took classical piano, and she said it would help my technique. She said 'You can't go up there playing the piano with those flat hands.' "
After he was passed over for induction during World War II because of asthma, Brown moved to Los Angeles and soon joined a trio with guitarist Johnny Moore called the Three Blazers. The group circulated in some plush circles, entertaining in cabarets for show folks and a predominantly white, well-heeled audience. Theirs was part of the smooth California blues sound, made mostly by transplanted Texans who lined bluesy grit with elements of cool elegance.
Brown's string of hits, which included "Merry Christmas, Baby," "Trouble Blues" and "Black Night," began in 1945 with a landmark record, "Drifting Blues."
"At that time," Brown explained, "no blues had been documented except the 'St. Louis Blues' that W.C. Handy wrote, which defined the 12-bar structure of the blues. When we came out with 'Drifting Blues,' we didn't know it would be the hit it was, but it was different. It satisfied what was happening in World War II, with guys out there thinking that nobody cared.
"At that time you had a lot of risque blues, what you would call from down home. This was a little more sophisticated than those other blues. When we did that and it became a jukebox favorite, we were the new thing. When we won the Cash Box (magazine) award in 1946, that started the ball rolling for us, because Louis Jordan had all the positions on those charts. We moved him out of first place."
The group worked at the same time as Nat King Cole's trio, whose guitarist, Oscar Moore, was the brother of Johnny. But Brown's star began to fall in 1959, when he canceled a number of live shows to care for his ailing grandfather.
"I got in trouble with the musician's union. They had dates for me to play and had deposits. . . . They put a claim against me for $40,000. They put me on the blacklist so I couldn't play anywhere unless I paid into the union," he said. "I stayed that way until around '62."
For the better part of a quarter-century, Brown's work schedule crept to a crawl, and his recordings and live dates were few and erratic--until recently. Brown, stoically, seems to harbor no excessive resentment about the lean years.
"I'm stronger now than I was even then. My craft is better. I'm playing better. My fingers don't have any rheumatism. It's just amazing I'm not sick. I feel just like I did when I was young. To be in good health and be able to go overseas and have people craving for your type of music, it just makes me feel very good."
Brown, ever connected to his grandparents, related a story about when his grandfather died in 1962.
"On his dying bed, he said 'For your being so good to me, down the road you'll see something happen. I can't tell you when it's coming, but you'll see it.' So when people talk to me about my quick resurgence these days, I think that maybe this is what my grandfather was talking about."
* Charles Brown sings tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $16.50. (714) 496-8930.