Texas-Johnny-Brown-3
January 3, 2014 | by Texas Music Magazine
There Goes the Blues

THE HOUSTON BLUES COMMUNITY was shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Texas Johnny (John Riley) Brown on July 1. Brown, 85, succumbed to lung and liver cancer complications.

The always dapper Brown, who moved to Houston from Ackerman, Miss., when he was 10, was best known for writing Bobby “Blue” Bland’s epic single, “Two Steps From the Blues,” one of the finest examples of urban blues ever recorded and a precursor to what would become known as soul music. Known for his smooth guitar, sophisticated lyrics and deep musicality that bordered on jazz, Brown also wrote what became another of his most requested and respected pieces, the soulful “There Goes the Blues.”

As a youngster, Brown busked on the mean streets of Houston with his blind father and eventually came to the attention of rock ’n’ roll piano boogie pioneer Amos Milburn. Brown played lead guitar in Milburn’s famous ensemble, the legendary Aladdin Chickenshackers, for a number of years. He went on to either tour or record with Lavelle White, Ruth Brown, Buddy Ace, Joe Hinton, Junior Parker and Bland. From time to time, Brown also worked on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ recording sessions but wasn’t credited.

Brown had been in the business over 50 years before he released his first solo album, Nothin’ But the Truth, in 1998. He followed up with Blues Defender in 2002. Earlier, he recorded some sides for Atlantic Records in 1949, backed by Milburn and the Aladdin Chickenshackers. After his Atlantic Records work with Ruth Brown, Brown joined Junior Walker’s band and stayed with the popular sax player and singer through most of the ’50s.

He dropped almost entirely out of the blues scene during the ‘80s but revived his career in the mid-’90s, playing mostly in the Houston area with occasional forays abroad or to festivals.

Like many electric bluesmen, Brown’s style can be traced back to T-Bone Walker, who was a frequent performer at Don Robey’s Bronze Peacock, where Brown undoubtedly watched and learned from the acknowledged master of Texas electric guitar.

The first indications of Brown’s illness came in April, when he was unable to make his once-a-month gig at the Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, where he and his Quality Blues Band had been one of the spotlight acts for 15-plus years. A benefit was held in his honor in mid-June, and though Brown was able to attend, his condition deteriorated quickly and he passed in his sleep late on the afternoon of July 1.

In September 2011, a monument honoring Brown was erected in Ackerman as part of the Mississippi Blues Trail. In 2012, Brown was a headliner at the Chicago Blues Festival. He was recently inducted into the Houston Press Music Hall of Fame Ring of Honor and was named Local Musician of the Year at this year’s Houston Press Music Awards.

After a memorial service in Houston, Brown was buried in Ackerman. 

– WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

Originally published in Fall 2013, No. 56.
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