Preparing to do a series of The Origins of HIP HOP Music my research lead me to Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Indeed a Master of RAP, JIVE, syncopation and R&B Music: WCN Transmedia Group Research: Celebrates The Origins of HIP HOP Music Featuring Oscar Brown Jr.
You may wonder what HIP HOP has to do with this Master. Listen and leave your comments.
Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, he was named after his father Oscar Brown, Sr., who was a successful attorney and real estate broker. His singing debut was on the radio show Secret City at age 15. Brown attended Englewood High School in Chicago, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) but did not obtain a degree. He also served a stint in the U.S. Army.
Brown’s father had intended for him to follow in his footsteps and become a practicing lawyer. While he did help his father at his practice, he ventured off into other careers, such as advertising and serving in the army in the mid-1950s. When Mahalia Jackson recorded one of his songs, he began to focus on a career in music. His first major contribution to a recorded work was a collaboration with Max Roach, We Insist! – Freedom Now, which was an early record celebrating the black freedom movement in the United States. Columbia Records signed Brown, who was already in his mid-30’s and married with five children, as a solo artist. In 1960, he released his first LP, Sin and Soul, recorded from June 20 to October 23, 1960. The cover to the album included personal reviews by well-known celebrities and jazz musicians of the time, including Steve Allen, Lorraine Hansberry, Nat Hentoff, Dorothy Killgallen, Max Roach and Nina Simone (Simone would later cover his “Work Song”) The album is regarded as a ‘true classic’ for openly tackling the experiences of African-Americans with songs such as “Bid ‘Em In” and “Afro-Blue”. The album is also significant because Brown’s took several popular jazz instrumentals and combined them with self-penned lyrics on songs like “Dat Dere“, “Afro-Blue” and “Work Song”. This began a trend that would continue with several other major jazz vocalists. Jon Hendricks, for example, three years later composed lyrics for the Mongo Santamaría song “Yeh Yeh” (later a hit for Georgie Fame) Bob Dorough similarly composed lyrics for Mel Tormé‘s version of “Comin’ Home Baby!” and musicians Larry Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson would also go on to compose lyrics for Cannonball Adderley‘s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” for Marlena Shaw. Several of the tracks from Sin and Soul were embraced by the 60’s Mod movement, such as “Humdrum Blues”, “Work Song” and “Watermelon Man“.
The Sin and Soul album was followed by Between Heaven and Hell. The success of Sin and Soul meant that much more money was spent on production and Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns were bought in to handle the arrangements. To this day, it is the only Oscar Brown LP from his time at Columbia that has not been released on CD.
However, Brown was soon to fall down the pecking order at Columbia following a rearrangement of the management at the company. His third album was notable for the lack of any self-composed songs, and Columbia was having a hard time how to package Brown as an artist. They were unsure whether he was more suited to the more middle of the road/easy listening nightclubs rather than being presented as a jazz artist.
He was given much more creative freedom for his fourth album, and he was back to his creative best, composing songs such as “The Snake”, which became a Northern Soul classic when it was covered by Al Wilson, and has featured on several adverts. Despite this return to form, and having been told by the new head of Columbia that he was high on the companies’ priorities, his contract at Columbia was not renewed.
He founded The Oscar Brown, Jr. H.I.P. Legacy Foundation to carry on his work. But his first attempt at mounting a major musical stage show in New York City was Kicks & Co. (c. 1960). Host Dave Garroway turned over an entire broadcast of the Today show to Brown to perform numbers from the show and try to raise the necessary funds to launch it on the stage. As with virtually all of Brown’s theatrical endeavors, the public was not won over sufficiently to allow financial breakeven despite acclaim by some critics. (His longest-running relative success, thanks to participation by Muhammad Ali, was Big-Time Buck White.)
Kicks & Co. is set on an all-African-American college campus in the south, during the early days of attempted desegregation. The character Mr. Kicks is an emissary of Satan sent to try to derail these efforts, in which the play’s protagonist, Ernest Black, has become involved. Another notable musical show, Joy, saw two incarnations (in 1966 and 1969) and again addressed social issues of the time. Appearing with Brown were his wife, Jean Pace, and the Brazilian singer/accordionist Sivuca. RCA released the original cast recording around 1970; it is long out of print.
Brown’s lyrics and original compositions have been performed by a variety of other artists. “Somebody Buy Me a Drink”, a track from Sin and Soul, was covered by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths on their eponymous first album. Nina Simone popularized Brown’s lyrics to “Work Song” and “Afro Blue,” as well as his song “Bid ‘Em In.” Brown’s “Afro Blue” lyrics have since been performed by numerous contemporary jazz vocalists, including Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Lizz Wright. Vocalist Karrin Allyson has cited Brown as a particular inspiration, and has performed his compositions on several of her albums. Brown was scheduled to contribute new lyrics to Allyson’s 2006 album, Footprints, but died before the project was complete; Allyson instead recorded Brown’s songs “A Tree and Me” and “But I Was Cool” as a tribute. Brown’s work has also been the focus of full-length tribute albums by lesser-known jazz artists, including cabaret singer Linda Kosut and Brown’s own daughter, Maggie Brown.
Brown wrote at least 1,000 songs (only 125 have been published), twelve albums, and over a dozen musical plays.
The book WHAT IT IS—POEMS AND OPINIONS OF OSCAR BROWN JR. from Oyster Knife Publishing  includes lyrics to some of his better-known songs, as well as lyrics to songs Brown never got to record.
- Max Roach: Freedom Now Suite (c. 1959)–lyricist for songs performed by Abbey Lincoln
- Sin and Soul… and Then Some (1960)–available on CD
- Between Heaven and Hell (1962)–out of print LP [alternate takes of some tunes appear on Sin and Soul CD]
- Oscar Brown, Jr. Tells It Like It Is/In a New Mood (1962/63)–two original LP releases combined on single CD
- Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington (1965) [live nightclub recording]–available on CD
- “Finding A New Friend” (w/Luiz Henrique) (1966)– out of print LP
- “Joy” (1970)–long out of print LP
- “Movin’ On” (early 1970s)–available on CD
- “Fresh” (1973)–previously available on CD, apparently out of print
- “Brother Where Are You” (mid-1970s)–as above for availability
- “Then & Now” (1995)–released on CD, may be available
- “Live Every Minute” (1998) (backed by German NDR Big Band) –available on import CD
- “Kicks & Co.”
- “Oscar Brown, Jr. Entertains” (one-man show in London, UK)
- “Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow”
- “Summer in the City”
- “Opportunity Please Knock”
- “Joy ’66”; “Joy ’69”
- “Big-Time Buck White“
- “Slave Song”
- “Oscar Brown, Jr.’s Back in Town” (won two local Emmys for Chicago TV)
- “Great Nitty Gritty”
- “The Snake”
- “Work Song” (lyrics to Nat Adderley‘s music)
- “All Blues” (lyrics to Miles Davis‘ music)
- “Dat Dere” (lyrics to Bobby Timmons‘ music)
- “Afro Blue” (lyrics to Mongo Santamaría‘s music, sometimes recorded by others without crediting the lyricist)
- “Signifyin’ Monkey”
- “Forty Acres and a Mule”
- “Brother Where Are You”
- “Brown Baby”
- “World Full of Gray”
- “But I Was Cool”
- “The Tree and Me”
- Negro Newsfront (1940s), radio show
- The Tonight Show with Steve Allen (c. 1960)
- The Today Show with Dave Garroway (c. 1960)
- Jazz Scene U.S.A. (1960s), television show–Host
- From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music (early 1980s)–13-part public TV series, USA [host]
- Def Poetry Season 2 (2002) [poet]