For Leonard Brown, it starts with a beat.
“The first thing I’ll do is get a beat or tempo in my head,” Brown explains. “Then I’ll hear something else, like maybe the baseline will come to me. Next I’m hearing the organ, now I’m hearing the horns” — the cadence in his voice picks up — “and I just layer ’em. They come in layers, and usually the lyrics come at the point when I’m finishing it. As the song builds, it just kind of becomes itself.”
The momentum doesn’t stop at one song. In fact, Brown says he usually puts together 10 songs at a time. While his process seems like an intense sprint, Brown’s music career has been a cross-country, decades-spanning marathon. At 70 years old, he’s finally releasing his debut, Blues is Calling Me, June 23 with Music Maker Foundation.
With a lifetime to draw from, the 10 tracks in Blues is Calling Me are layers themselves of experiences and influences in Brown’s life. “Songs on there,” Brown says, “span from maybe back in the late ’80s and then morphing into the present.”
Brown comes from a large family (five brothers and four sisters, to be exact) full of musicians. His mother was a pianist and his father played guitar. While some of his siblings have stayed within the gospel realm, he’s dabbled in different genres, from pop to funk and R&B.
Brown’s versatility led to opportunities to work with B.B. King’s former band director and Houston legend Calvin Owens and other musicians from King’s band. He’s also opened for artists like Bobby Bland, Zizi Hill and disco’s favorite family, Sister Sledge.
But Brown takes it all the way back and honors his gospel roots by including on his debut a smooth take on the hurch traditional “You Gotta Move.”
There’s even more nostalgia on “Juke Joint,” an homage to the people in Brown’s neighborhood back when he was a teen, and some reflection in “Find A Bridge,” partly inspired by the years of hurricanes and floods he’s seen and experienced since moving from Chicago to Houston in 1981.
Brown fondly recalls how Houston was a “blues mecca” when he first moved there. “I’ve played with so many different musicians in this town,” he says, “I can’t even name ‘em all!”
However, he acknowledges the city has evolved just as much as he has. “It’s not really what it was back in the day,” he allows. “You have to really know where to go if you want to hear some real blues in Houston, because everybody will say, ‘Yeah, we’ll play blues.’ But then you get there” — Brown chuckles — “and it might be acid rock or something.”
Sure, Brown could stick to singing about the past or even a time well before him, especially when it comes to the blues. But he finds the present more alluring.
“I try to keep up with the times and be realistic. A lot of people can sing blues about the Mississippi River or catfish jumping in the boat — things that don’t necessarily apply to today, like maybe, ‘I’m out in the field chopping cotton,’” Brown says. “I try to stay focused on the present.”
How modern? In “Take A Friend,” Brown mentions cellphones, something rather unexpected for even a casual blues listener.
But considering the layers of his work and experience, the unexpected is expected from Brown. Even though he’s set to promote and play his debut album in new places and festival spaces, he’s already got the 10 songs marking his next chapter on deck, layered with glimpses from the past and modern-day surprises.
“The blues is really just telling a story in an expressive, spiritualistic way,” he says. “What’s going on inside of me is being transmitted into my instrument and then out to you.”
Cover promo photo by Tim Duffy