HE WAS ONE of the most influential blues and jazz performers of all time and the originator of cool jazz, a style that revolutionized the rhythm and blues genre at a time when it ruled the radio waves. But Tony Russell “Charles” Brown, born in Texas City on Sept. 13, 1922 (though some accounts say 1920), was introduced to music early and through tragedy.
His mother died when he was 6 months old, and his father was killed by a train in 1928, so Brown was reared by his grandmother, Swanee Simpson, in Galveston. Mrs. Simpson was a musician and choir director, and when Brown turned 10 she encouraged him to begin training in classical piano. He excelled at music; during high school at Galveston Central High, he formed a musical trio with two teachers who played after school and on weekends.
Brown was well-educated, a rarity among R&B singers. After graduating high school, he worked for a summer as a hospital orderly before attending Prairie View A&M. There, Brown was voted the most popular boy on campus and played in the band with the popular Prairie View Collegians until his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and minor degrees in math and science in 1942.
After college, Brown briefly worked as a chemistry teacher at Carver High in Baytown before leaving in late 1942 to work at a factory in Arkansas making mustard gas for the war effort. Shortly after, unhappy with the racial climate in Arkansas, Brown lit out for Los Angeles.
It was in L.A., while working a stint as an elevator operator, that Brown won an amateur music contest and began his professional music career. He sang in a light, easy-going Texas blues style, tinged with jazz but laid back and mellow. Though similar in style to Nat King Cole, frontman of the famous King Cole Trio, Brown was more bluesy while Cole leaned toward popular Tin Pan Alley music. Soon, Brown would develop and usher in a new style of R&B singing punctuated by a soft, tinkling piano.
Brothers Johnny and Oscar Moore were both guitarists from Texas trying to score big in L.A. during the early 1940s. Oscar was playing guitar with the King Cole Trio, and he urged Johnny to form a similar trio, but the group needed a singer. Johnny found the voice he needed at an amateur music contest. Moore was in the audience and heard Brown perform when he won. Moore would sign Brown to join his trio, Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers, in 1944.
Moore, whose guitar playing influenced B.B. King and Chuck Berry, was from Austin. Brown was from Texas City, and the final member of the Three Blazers, Eddie Williams, was from San Augustine, Texas.
Influenced by the incomparable blind jazz pianist Art Tatum and playing with the Three Blazers, Brown developed a new style of jazz, “cool jazz.” His smooth vocal style would be copied by everyone from Amos Milburn, Johnny Ace, Percy Mayfield and Ivory Joe Hunter to Ray Charles, who idolized Brown as his major influence.
In 1945, Brown’s recording of “Driftin’ Blues” (with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers) revolutionized music. It was a major milestone in rhythm and blues and a huge hit. Two years later, Brown would sing lead vocals and play piano with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers on “Merry Christmas Baby,” one of the first R&B Christmas songs and a hit that sold a million records. The song quickly became a Christmas standard.
Unfortunately, by the time “Merry Christmas Baby” made it big, Brown was totally discouraged by Johnny Moore’s less-than-scrupulous business practices. Brown had written “Driftin’ Blues,” but Moore took a writing credit on the song and sold it for $800. Adding insult to injury, Moore refused to give Brown recognition or credit, and he continually changed record labels, costing the group royalties.
Eventually Brown decided to leave Moore and form his own group. The choice paid off: between 1948 and 1952, Charles Brown landed 10 straight songs in the Top 10 of the R&B charts, including the influential song “Trouble Blues” (it was No. 1 for 15 weeks in 1949 on the R&B charts). During this period, Brown would mentor Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and the Clovers, and he’d influence Fats Domino.
But things began to change in the mid-1950s as the rock ’n’ roll revolution blended R&B, gospel and country music into dance tunes for teenagers, and radio playlists transformed overnight. It was a cruel period for many established stars as musical tastes changed. Brown’s style of mellow R&B fell out of vogue, and, in addition to losing popularity, a dispute with the musicians’ union left Brown owing back dues and unable to tour.
By 1959, Charles Brown was nearly forgotten. Working as a janitor and electrician at a casino in Newport, Ky., Brown was broke and alone when he recalled the success of “Merry Christmas Baby.” With little to lose, Brown decided he’d write a new song for Christmas that wasn’t a traditional Christmas song but a blues song based on feelings of loss during the holidays.
The song portrayed a different kind of Christmas. With a righteous, pleading vocal begging a loved one for forgiveness, “Please Come Home for Christmas” transcended most lighthearted holiday music by reflecting an often sad truth: for many people, the holiday season is painful and lonely.
Even so, “Please Come Home for Christmas” is clearly a holiday song. With his classic tinkling of the ivories, Charles Brown used his piano to mimic Christmas bells. The song’s opening line, “Bells will be ringing,” is so powerful, many people believe it’s the title of the record.
King Records in Cincinnati was a small record company specializing in “race” music in the ’50s that recorded and pressed its own records. King released “Please Come Home for Christmas” in September 1960. Since Brown didn’t have a second song, an Amos Milburn Christmas song was used on the B-side of the record. The record gained steam in its second year, and “Please Come Home for Christmas” topped out at No. 76 on the Hot 100 chart in December 1961.
But as the 1960s progressed and Brown was being forgotten for a second time, fate intervened. “Please Come Home for Christmas” was picked up by radio stations nine straight holiday seasons, eventually earning a gold record in 1968.
In 1972, “Please Come Home for Christmas” reached the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Christmas singles chart. In 1978, the hottest group in the nation, the Eagles, covered and released “Please Come Home for Christmas” as a Christmas single, with Texan Don Henley delivering a smooth, Brown-type vocal. The Eagles’ version of the song peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the first holiday song to hit the Top 20 since Roy Orbison’s version of “Pretty Paper” in 1963.
The Eagles’ record would revitalize the career of Brown, who at one time was washing windows in Beverly Hills. Dozens of artists recorded the song, and it solidified its status as a Christmas staple, rarely off the holiday charts. Jon Bon Jovi recorded a version that reached the Top 10 on the charts in the UK and Ireland, and the song has been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to James Brown and from B.B. King to Lady Antebellum. In 2013, Texan Kelly Clarkson recorded a version that hit No. 6 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart and No. 14 on the Billboard holiday singles chart. Just this past holiday season, “Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles reached No. 18 and spent over 24 weeks on the Billboard holiday singles chart.
Brown began an acclaimed comeback by accompanying Bonnie Raitt as the opening act during her 1987 tour. After touring with Raitt, Brown recorded several new albums, including 1994’s Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues, all successful.
Brown was nominated for a Grammy several times and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1989. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him its Heritage Award in 1997, and he also received the prestigious W.C. Handy award from the Blues Foundation.
During the last three years of his life, Brown suffered from poor health and spent his last months in an Oakland, Calif., nursing home. Several of his friends — Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Charlie Musselwhite, Dr. John and John Lee Hooker — played a benefit concert in early 1999 to help Brown cover his medical bills.
Brown died on Jan. 21, 1999, only two months before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Raitt said “Charles Brown was the most extraordinary piano player I’ve ever heard. You hear nuances of Brown’s singing in everyone from Ray Charles to Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye.”
Today, Brown continues to influence young singers such as Norah Jones and Leon Bridges, and if you want to hear his magnificent voice and piano, it’s a given it will be played during the holidays when he’ll again implore his lost love, “Please Come Home for Christmas.”