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A Singer Who Played It Cool & Kept the Heat On

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. spun actor's magic on Washington stages in the early '60s, transforming himself into the phantasmagoria of characters who inhabited his exquisite creations: the inquisitive child of "Dat Dere" and the tired junkman of "Rags and Old Iron"; the coldhearted slave auctioneer of "Bid 'Em In" and the black man demanding reparations in the proto-rap tune "Forty Acres and a Mule."

He was the proud, loving father of "Brown Baby" and "Maggie," written for the son and daughter who'd grow up to perform with him; the sly sensualist who could conjure a waitress's charms in "Hazel's Hips" and hilariously celebrate having two girlfriends in "Living Double in a World of Trouble."

Brown's astonishing 1960 debut, "Sin & Soul," and his 1964 live disc, "Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington," are monuments to socially conscious songwriting on a par with the best work of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron, who also wrote about the full panoply of black life -- joy, anger, love, frustration, humor -- and helped define Afrocentrism. Brown did it first, in a way that managed to be both entertaining and serious, melding soul, jazz and musical theater into a body of work that always deserved far more recognition than it got.

"I started out to be an Open Negro in the late '50s," Brown told me in 1992. "That meant that I wanted to reflect -- in my presentation and in what I wrote -- the things that I'd experienced, to be black, not incidentally but deliberately , culturally . I'd like to think I was in the wave [of Afrocentric artists]; which drop of water I turned out to be, I don't know."

Brown, who died in his home town of Chicago on Sunday at age 78, was an optimist -- and a realist, knowing that any social progress was hard-won. The first of his songs to be recorded, by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, was "Brown Baby." Jackson sang it with quiet majesty, but when Brown recorded it later, it was a soft-spun lullaby of aspiration, not only for Oscar Brown III but for all black babies: "I want you to live by the justice code, I want you to walk down freedom's road / Brown baby, it makes me glad that you will have things I have never had / When out of men's hearts all the hate is hurled, you're gonna live in a better world."

He also captured the wondrous energy of childhood in "Maggie," gleefully recounting that "to bounce my baby on my knee / To see her smiling back at me / Makes living sweet as it can be." Brown ended the song insisting, "Who's Who may never know my name / And not much money can I claim / But I'm important just the same to Little Maggie."

In truth, Oscar Brown Jr. was important to a lot of people. An upcoming documentary about him is titled "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress," and truth is, there was no division in the best of his work, including the horrifying "Bid 'Em In," in which Brown evoked the singsong call of an auctioneer selling off a female slave, often embodied onstage by Brown's wife and frequent singing partner, Jean Pace.

I'm looking for four. And $400, she's a bargain for sure

Four is the bid, 450, five; $500 now look alive

Bid 'em in; get 'em in. Don't mind them tears, that's one of her tricks

Five-fifty's the bid, and who'll say six?

She's healthy and strong and well-equipped

Make a fine lady's maid when she's properly whipped

The search for social justice that proved a continuing thread in Brown's work was hardly surprising -- his father was a lawyer and political activist. But in college, Brown immersed himself in poetry -- British bards Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley and the great black poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen -- as well as musical theater, from classic Broadway composers to the political cabaret of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. He'd also be influenced by the left-leaning folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s.

Brown was a family friend of fellow South Side resident Lorraine Hansberry, whose "Raisin in the Sun" had a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago; Hansberry's husband owned a music publishing firm and was the one who brought "Brown Baby" to Jackson. A composer's demo for those sessions led to Brown being signed by Columbia, and early on he made a name for himself adding lyrics to jazz hits like Nat Adderley's "Work Song," Miles Davis's "All Blues," Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer."

The writer drew from black culture for narratives like "Signifyin' Monkey" and "The Snake," crafted such civil rights anthems as "Opportunity Please Knock" and "We Insist! Freedom Now," a 1960 jazz suite written with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and voiced compassion for his community in "Brother, Where Are You?" and "Children Having Children." Brown's songs were recorded by the likes of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett and Ricki Lee Jones, but no one ever did them better than their author.

One particular audience favorite found Brown wryly reporting on a series of romantic and financial setbacks, all the while insisting he maintained the upper hand:

I've always lived by this golden rule: Whatever happens, don't blow your cool

You've got to have nerves of steel, and never show folks how you honestly feel

I've lived my whole life this way. For example, take yesterday

I breezed home happy, bringing her my pay

Her note read, "So long, Sappy, I have run away"

I threw myself down across our empty bed, and this is what I said --

And here, Oscar Brown Jr. would break into the most pitiful dramatic sobbing, before delivering his coda:

But I was cool.

That he was.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company