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True to the Blues

[whitespace] Charles Brown
Carol Friedman

Brown Eyes the Blues: The legendary pianist is a genuine honey dripper.

Charles Brown stays his musical course

By Nicky Baxter

YOU CAN COUNT on one hand those musicians who are still professing the blues a half-century after first receiving their calling. Charles Brown is almost as popular today as he was when his hit "Driftin' Blues" hogged the R&B charts in the mid-'40s. At 75, the blues pianist and singer can still warm up the chilliest of evenings. What's more, Brown does everything with the kind of class you thought was extinguished when black-and-white movies became obsolete.

Brown virtually invented what is mnow known as "West Coast blues," a style characterized by mellow vocals and sparse, laid-back musical accompaniment. Influenced heavily by Nat "King" Cole, Brown in turn smoothed the path for Ray Charles--listen to Charles' "Confession Blues" for proof. However, where Charles took up funk and lashed it to jazz, Brown has remained true to his cool, bluesy roots.

In the end, only time distinguishes, say, 1946's "Sunny Road" from "News All Over Town," recorded 50 years later. Both feature slightly melancholy vocals, a simpatico rhythm section and a piano style that has one foot in the church and the other in a neighborhood speakeasy. Honey Dripper (Gitanes/Verve), released two years ago, is easy to track down and well worth the effort. Brown penned only two of the 14 tunes here; he is not as prolific a writer as he once was. No matter, because Brown is a masterful interpreter of other songwriters' material. "Gee," a song that did respectable chart business when first released some 40 years ago, is as snappy here as the original, showcasing longtime associate Clifford Solomon's prancing tenor saxophone, while Ruth Davies' stand-up bass struts with the spring and precision of a dancer.

The album also features a guest appearance by blues diva Etta James. "If I Had You" finds the two trading verses like would-be lovers confessing their hearts' desires. James is in particularly excellent form, answering Brown's smooth husk with blue-jazz declamations of her own.

Blessed with a self-effacing sense of humor, Brown often regales audiences with stories concerning past triumphs and tragedies. He is an entertainer in the best sense of the word. While Brown tours infrequently, he does manage to slip into the studio with clockwork consistency. Unhappily, his most recent outing, Charles Brown: 1946, is difficult to come by. Lucky for us, Charles Brown isn't; and, judging from his last visit, a stellar SRO performance, he'll be around for a while.

Charles Brown plays Saturday at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara; 9pm; $15 at the door/$12 adv; 408/243-6441.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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