Oscar Brown Jr.
“Liberating the slaves is not popular.”
It’s a mystery: What killed Oscar Brown Jr.’s career?
Rule out drugs, booze, out of control ego or any of the usual suspects in tales of show biz ruination. The cause of Brown’s baffling fade remains unclear, but undoubtedly had to do with his race, politics and social activism.
“I’ve been shut out,” Brown told me. “The reason is that I’m dangerous.”
While nearly unknown today, in the early ‘60s Oscar Brown Jr. was a star on the rise: a singer, songwriter, actor, director and poet of enormous warmth, wit and intelligence. His verbal agility and social consciousness had a direct effect on Bob Dylan (who reputedly wrote “Bob Dylan’s Dream” after an all-night hang with Brown) and later Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets, which makes Brown a seminal figure of both protest music and rap. He should be a legend. Yet by the ‘70s he was fading fast. By the ‘80s he was a mere footnote. What went wrong?
Why and how his music had disappeared was a mystery that confounded me when Brown resurfaced in 1995 with his first album in 20 years, “Then and Now.” We spoke in advance of a tour which included a November 8, 1995 performance at Johnny D’s in Somerville, where Brown demonstrated that his voice and charisma were intact. It was something of a dream come true for me, not having seized the chance when I was a teenager growing up in New York City to see him at the Village Vanguard or elsewhere performing on bills with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson and Dizzy Gillespie.
Brown talked about how his artistic efforts were thwarted, never sounding bitter. He seemed more philosophical than angry about his setbacks. And he was looking forward to returning to the studio to record some of his hundreds of unrecorded songs. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. “Then and Now” was his last studio release. Oscar Brown Jr. died at age 79 in 2005 from a blood infection.
October 19, 1995
By phone from his home in Chicago
How long has it been since the last time you played in Boston? I’m guessing it’s been a while.
Is Paul’s Mall still there?
I think it closed about a year before I moved to Boston, which was in 1979.
Well, it’s since then. Paul’s Mall is where I used to play. I remember Muddy Waters was playing next door in the Jazz Workshop. I haven’t been back since.
Back in the ‘60s, you enjoyed a good deal of popularity. But not that many people are familiar with your name any more. Whatever happened to Oscar Brown Jr.? You’re almost an unknown these days.
I’m not sure it was my fault, but that’s the case. As far as recording is concerned, 20 years ago the record industry went one way and I didn’t. It started being populated by people I didn’t know, who didn’t know me and whose taste was different. I was eager to do it if I could do it right, but there weren’t that many people to even talk to. There weren’t people in the record industry I knew to pursue. [San Francisco-based sculptor] Cork Marcheschi, who finally signed me to Weasel Disc finally found me. That, essentially, was the person I was looking for. The person I was looking for was looking for me. Because otherwise you wind up with someone who wants you to do something other than what you do.
How does someone as good as you just disappear?
I don’t think that was exactly an accident. I would have thought that with the level of performance I was giving and with the response that was happening it should have been an ongoing career. But there were aspects of what I was doing that were just not popular with the powers that be in the record business and in show business in general. I’m talking in particular about a play I did on Broadway with Muhammad Ali [“Big Time Buck White,” which closed four days after opening]. From that point on in the early ‘70s things began to get difficult. All kinds of stuff. Lawyers, agents, they all turned on me. And I attribute that to going on Broadway with Ali.
And other things. I went into public housing projects to work with kids in gangs. I discovered there’s an enormous amount of talent in the community. Liberating the slaves is not popular. Last time I did that was about 10 years ago, in 1983. Do you recall when the mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, moved into a public housing project, Cabrini Green? At that point I began to apply to the city for access to the public housing development and for some support. I did a show called “Great Nitty Gritty” that was presented down in the big convention center here, the McCormick Center, for several months. It ran from February to June. It would have been quite a success except that it was politically indebted to Jane Byrne and then she lost the election and Harold Washington wasn’t going to touch anything that Jane Byrne invented because he could see her coming for a return engagement, which she did in the next election. So we sorta fell between two stools with that one.
Prior to that, about 10 years earlier with a gang called the Blackstone Rangers, we put on a show with them called “Opportunity Please Knock,” which created a great deal of attention here in Chicago and even got them on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour nationally. And there was a TV special on the local CBS outlet. You think that building a better mousetrap is going to cause the world to beat a path to your door, but in fact the people who are raising mice, they don’t want that to happen. I found that there is very little support from the agencies of government that are supposed to take care of not only cultural but economic things. Because our aim was to use the kids’ talent to rescue them from their poverty. There was tremendous talent. The people who wrote about the show reflected that in their reviews. But the theater owners, the Shuberts and Nederlanders, they didn’t care.
[Oscar Brown Jr. sings his song “Opportunity Knocks.”]
Do you think the lack of support was because you were espousing radical black power rhetoric?
Did you ever hear a song I did called “Brown Baby”? A lullaby. Well, that’s considered controversial. [Sample verse: “As years go by I want you to go with you head up high, I want you to live by the justice code, and I want you to walk down freedom’s road, you little brown baby.”] The problem was not so much that I was saying “off the pig,” but I was singing a lullaby saying the person they were afraid of was not the one who was trying to have a showdown at the OK Corral, it was the one who painted a picture of a loving husband or a devoted wife or a cute kid, something that would prompt sympathy and friendship. For example, the first time I ever appeared on national TV was the “Today” show back in 1960. This was the height of things like the bombing that killed those little children at a church in Birmingham. I sang “Brown Baby” and “Dat Dere” and “Rags and Old Iron.” They received more cards and letters than they had ever received in the nine years they had been on at that point. Every one of them was positive. There was no negative comment at all. Subsequently I was on the “Today” show for a whole two hours to raise money for a [Brown-written theatrical] show called “Kicks and Co.” We succeeded in getting the money. But the New York state legislature passed a law to make sure that nothing like that ever happened again. Because there is a cultural conspiracy in this country against intelligence and positive images in general. I think that’s easy to see if you take a look at what’s on. HBO seems to have a bottomless pit of explosives and the deepest pool of blood from which to draw. It goes on and on. Anything that’s to the contrary is pushed down and then the public is blamed for having poor taste. But I think the public has poor opportunities to develop taste.
[“Brown Baby” was covered by Nina Simone, above, Mahalia Jackson, Diana Ross and Toni Braxton]
I’m still amazed that someone so talented could vanish so completely. How does that happen?
It amazes me too.
Has it angered and frustrated you?
From time to time. There have been days when I haven’t felt too pleased about things. But generally, I can find something else to do. I was always writing. I’ve never stopped writing, even when I wasn’t recording. And I never really stopped performing. Cork and I were talking about this the other day. He said you can be writing and performing in your field, but if you’re not in the spotlight of what’s being publicized then you might as well not exist. I was jumping up and down and doing things that Jet magazine should have said something about, but they didn’t. We had kids coming down from the projects for months to McCormick Place, doing an excellent show, but nothing happened. It’s a part of what that Million Man March was about the other day [Oct. 16, 1995, three days before this interview]. I’m really encouraged by that. I think there can be a turnaround. Some of the efforts in the past that didn’t receive the response they should have, this can change. We’re going to try. I’m going over this afternoon to one of the big night clubs here and talk to the owner about doing a production with some of the thousands of talented kids who come to a skating rink he has there.
Do you think there was there a specific incident that made people afraid of you?
Well, I’ll tell you. If you go to Broadway with Muhammad Ali singing stuff like, “We came in chains” and “It’s all over now, mighty whitey,” that is a put-off. I think that was a big part of the problem. And then again, though it seems like going in and putting gang members in a show and turning them away from gangbanging would be seen as something positive, it is met with the opposite response. It was amazing to me. You talk about disappointed. I was deeply disappointed. I had friends that had to encourage me to keep on keeping on. Because I said if there’s no will there’s no way. It’s not that hard to go in and talk to young people, to find talented young people, to organize it. And the result is they fall in love with the project and with each other. When I start one of these projects you better get ready for pregnancy because everybody falls in love with the whole situation [laughs]. There is nobody really doing this in the community. None of the organizations and agencies, including the schools. They are not about that really. So the kids are dropping out of school. And school becomes irrelevant. If you are a member of the permanent black underclass, why the hell are you going to school? You oughta be out stealing and dealing. School doesn’t have a single course called “How to Get Out.” School doesn’t rescue you. You might be lucky, but then you just might as well play Lotto.
So what work did you do when your music career dried up?
I started doing artist-in-residence work at Chicago State University for a couple of years, and I also did that at Hunter College in New York and Howard University. And I started doing more theatrical things, though I was always interested in that. When I started singing in nightclubs in New York in 1960, at that time I was auditioning at the same time to raise money for “Kicks and Co.” From the outset I was interested in theater as well as cabaret and nightclub performing.
Was it tough financially for you in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
Hell yes. Especially during the ‘70s, it was quite difficult. Just about the whole decade, although from time to time things would pick up. In the early ‘80s I hosted a television series called “From Jump Street.” That was a nice pick-me-up. That lasted for the better part of a year in Washington. It was called “The Story of Black Music.” It was a PBS program. We had quite an array of talent on there, African artists like Olatunji, popular jazz artists like Al Jarreau and Carmen McRae, blues with Willie Dixon, tap dance with Honi Cole. There was a whole spectrum of black music, or as much as you could do in 13 weeks. It should have been much longer. It was quite well received and repeated extensively.
Did it lead to other opportunities you had on TV like “Brewster Place” [with Oprah Winfrey] and “Roc”?
No. It was a long time between drinks [laughs]. “Brewster Place, I just happened to know Earl Hamner Jr., the producer from Hollywood. “Roc,” I just auditioned and got the part.
[“Brewster Place” opening credits]
Did you move to L.A. then?
I relocated to a lot of places. A lot of the time I could just be somewhere writing. Washington, L.A.. But I was away from L.A. for 17 years, much to my astonishment. I used to be there all the time and then all of a sudden I wasn’t there any more and had no occasion to go. “Brewster Place” was a Chicago production. “Roc,” I just happened to be there. I had gotten a job as a kind of artist-in-residence at Drew University of Medicine and Science and they were located in Watts. I was very interested in working with the Crips and the Bloods in the same way I’d worked with the Blackstone Rangers. There again, I was hired, but once they found out what I wanted to do they didn’t give me a desk or a telephone or introduce me to one student. They were not really interested in that kind of approach to young people. But I’m still at it. I’m going to do it again.
Were you ever forced to find work outside of music and performing?
No. Except for my work at universities. But that wasn’t really teaching, It was still theater, basically directing shows.
You were relatively old, around 30, when you started performing. What did you do before that?
I was a politician. When I was 22, I ran for the state legislature. And in 1952, when I was 25, I ran for congress. I lost both times, but I was very much interested in politics and the labor movement. I was involved with the United Packinghouse Workers as a program coordinator for several years.
I’m guessing you were you a Democrat.
Actually I was a Progressive party candidate with Henry Wallace. In 1952, I ran in the Republican primary. Actually I was a Communist, but I couldn’t get on the ballot as anything except a Republican because of the enormous number of signatures required to get on the ballot as an independent. But everyone knew damn well I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican. Because I used to be on a radio program called Negro Newsfront that started in 1947 and lasted until 1952. That pretty well told the public my attitude toward things. I was always getting kicked off the air for saying something radical. And then they’d have a big fight to get me back and it went on like that for several years. So my public persona was not that of a Republican by any means.
On your new album, you wrote lyrics to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Are the lyrics about you, too? [“…for a little bit he was a pretty big hit, but it was just a passing phase….was there anyone who truly knew what made the black entertainer so blue?”]
So with release of your first new album in 20 years, do you feel like you’re starting over?
Yeah, it’s reminiscent. This wasn’t happening all along for me as far as the attention of the press, for example, people calling me up wanting to know what I think, where I’ve been, what I’m doing. That’s like it was in the early days, only it’s better in that now I have all that much experience behind me. Another thing that has happened, although I have not been in the public that much, I have a big following. Not a superstar following by any means, but a very strong following. There are still a lot of people who still remember. Certainly in Chicago, but in places like L.A., San Francisco, where I can still pull an audience even though I haven’t been put on the air. Put under a blanket, I would say.
When I tell people I’m going to be interviewing Oscar Brown Jr., your name either brings a big smile or a blank look.
I had a cult following I guess. They haven’t died out yet. And I’m always running into their children, too, and hearing, “Oh, I grew up listening to you.” I hear that all the time.
I know that you perform with your son [bassist Beau, who would die in an auto accident in 1996] and daughter [singer Maggie, who recorded a 2001 live album, “We’re Live,” with her father]. Will they be with you in Boston?
I’m sure Beau will be with me. Whether Maggie will have time, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how many musicians will be with me. I might have a trio. My son, a pianist, and perhaps a drummer. It will depend on the finances.
I was shocked that none of your old albums have been released on CD. Any chance Columbia will re-release them?
Cork has talked to them and all he got was doubletalk. I don’t know what the situation is. I’ve been on RCA, Atlantic, Columbia and Fontana, a subsidiary of Mercury, and not one of them has put out a CD of my music. I’ve been expunged. There was a guy named Jon Alpert, he used to do documentaries for the “Today” show. He thought that James Brown and I had been blacklisted. He wanted to do a special. I wanted to find out, but there’s no way to find out if you’ve been blacklisted.
Well, I did notice while I was preparing to talk to you that your name is not in most music reference books.
I don’t think that’s an accident. I couldn’t prove it and there’s no point going around bellyaching about it too tough because it just sounds like sour grapes. But look at what you’ve seen. I’ve been shut out. The reason is that I’m dangerous. And I know that. The nature of what I want to do, the people who I want to do it with, is antithetical to certain interests. Look at the music business now. There’s hardly any music in it. They’ve taken harmony out of it. The tonality is gone. It’s not just me. It’s a conspiracy against those things that are beneficial in music, all the things that were happening with Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, some of the stuff the Temptations were doing, “Cloud Nine” and all this stuff. The impact was so strong that there seems to be a determination in the record industry and by the powers-that-be that that doesn’t happen again. Everything that relates to getting music to people has been arrayed against the people in such a way that somebody who is non-musical controls the record company. Somebody who is non-musical controls the radio station. They determine what you hear. And over the course of a year, you won’t hear that many songs on radio. An enormous amount of music is just shut out.
[Inset above: A 1964 Columbia Records ad in Ebony magazine touting rising stars Aretha Franklin and Oscar Brown Jr.]
Artists that came after you like Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets are credited as the forefathers of rap. You could be included as a forefather too. But is rap something you enjoy? Do you get rap?
That which I can understand [laughs]. To a large extent it’s a linguistic miracle. They can say stuff so fast I have trouble keeping up with it. But I welcome rap. Prior to that, they’d say kids aren’t interested in anything but the beat, they aren’t interested in words. Well, you don’t hear that anymore. They are definitely interested in words. That pleases me mightily. It’s like Poetry 101, but it will lead to more sophisticated things, I believe. Let me give you an example. When I was working with the Blackstone Rangers, it was rather difficult to find boys who would dance. We could find a few, but generally speaking, boys would not dance. It was not manly. Until breakdancing came in. That broke the barrier. I think that’s the case with poetry. Once you get into words, imagery, you’re going to get sucked into something marvelous, which is the English language. It’s about communication. There are a lot of words to work with there, a lot of images to be painted. I really enjoy that. That’s one of the things I want to do, interest youngsters in poetry, imagery, more sophisticated stuff. That shouldn’t be hard. They can do a lot of stuff I can’t do.
It’s somewhat ironic that your music made jazz accessible with lyrics that told stories and the use of humor, but your categorization as a jazz singer probably made you a tough sell. Do you think that getting put into the jazz category hurt you as far as record sales and popularity?
That might have contributed. I have no way of measuring. But it could have been blues or rock and roll, it didn’t matter. But see, when you have lyrics clarifying and popularizing jazz and carrying it further, that’s the problem. Who wants that to happen? Who wants that to happen who’s in power? How did they start grabbing their crotches on TV? All that stuff was going on when I was a kid, but it didn’t get encouraged. You didn’t get rich doing vulgar stuff. When you start talking about lewd conduct and praising that, then there’s very little room for the kind of stuff I do there. There’s not much interest in my career, they just want me to get the hell out of the way.
Are you saying an intelligent black person is considered a threat?
Absolutely. Absolutely. The most dangerous. Particularly if that intelligence does not advocate some sort of violent response.
Do you plan to do more albums for Weasel?
I’d like to do an album a month. I was 69 last Wednesday. I’m not interested in any long career. But I’ve got tons of stuff I’ve written. [Lyrics set to] Charlie Parker songs for examples. Thelonious Monk stuff. Lester Young. Duke Ellington. I’d love to put all this out. I’ve worked a lot with Brazilians and I’ve got a ton of sambas I’d love to put out. I’ve got a couple of dozen blues songs I’d love to do. What you’ve heard is a good measure of what I do, but there’s a lot more to it that you’ve never heard. [Brown did not release any more albums on the short-lived Weasel label; “Then and Now” was his last studio album.]
And there are plays. I took “Oedipus Rex” and reset that in reconstruction times and told that story from the standpoint of a mulatto preacher/politician, Reverend Rex, who discovers he has married his mother and killed his father, the plantation owner. I’ve got a musical about New York called “Sliced Apple.” And when they had the earthquake in L.A., that shook the shit out of me. I wrote about 20 songs in a month. That’s normally my year’s quota. So I’ve been writing. As Al Jolson said, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Now that Weasel Disc has opened the door, I’d love to go in the studio and put out albums I could have as annuities. I don’t know who would be interested, but that’s not my primary concern. My primary concern is music. Music is the voice that is needed to melt some of that harsh, violent, corrosive influence everywhere. Tenderness, beauty, nobility, dignity, gentility, some of the things that made me love my parents, that I admired in their relationship with each other and the world, that is being driven out in favor of something that is so ugly there is nothing to say to it except to make a beautiful statement. It is so loud you have to say something soft. It’s so ugly, you have to treat it with beauty. It’s a lie that can only be treated with truth. I just believe that’s what has to happen. I don’t know what else to do at this stage of the game. I’m not going to be running up any more hills, but I am an old soldier.
[Oscar Brown Jr. performs “I Apologize,” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, 2003]