When Oscar Brown Jr. hit the scene more than 30 years ago, he hit it poised for stardom. A London newspaper hailed the Chicago resident as the heir apparent to Sammy Davis Jr. During the 60s he frequently appeared on TV talk shows–The Steve Allen Show, the Today show. His musicals appeared on Broadway. Kicks & Company, starring Burgess Meredith, ran on the Great White Way, as did his musical adaptation of Big Time Buck White starring Muhammad Ali.
Then something happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. This multitalented singer-songwriter-poet-showman never quite achieved the fame his gifts would have seemed to dictate. Many of his albums went out of print. A number of his musicals, despite positive reviews from the local press, never made it out of Chicago. Some have never even received productions here.
Nearly 67, Brown is still hoping for that big break. He’s now in Los Angeles working on a new musical called Sanctifism and making a living doing nightclub gigs and TV jingles. Meanwhile, his daughter Maggie Brown is in Chicago working as a one-woman publicity machine to get her father the recognition she feels he merits and trying to secure publishing deals for his songs. She has logged all 600 of them into a computer and is getting his scripts into shape for publication and then submission to theater companies across the country. On occasion she also books her father into local nightclubs.
But Maggie Brown, an accomplished performer in her own right, has her own career to worry about. She sings in nightclubs and tours high schools with her one-woman show about the history of African American music, Legacy. She hopes to finish her first album in the winter, after which she intends to shop it around to major labels and secure a recording deal. But in the back of her mind is the struggle her father has had with the record business, and she acknowledges that what happened to her father might just happen to her.
“He was really big,” she says. “Miles Davis said, ‘Whoa! Following him was like following World War II.’ Just great praise and critical acclaim. And I’m not exactly sure what stopped it all. There are things that he wanted to sing about and write about that got him blackballed from the recording industry.” She says recording execs weren’t willing to get behind an artist who chose subjects such as slave auctioneers and mocked the country’s history of prejudice in numbers such as “40 Acres and a Mule.”
There were other reasons her father didn’t stay in the public eye. “I’m sure some of it has to do with him and how he handled his business. Oftentimes the need to make a buck predominated, and he couldn’t take all the steps in his career he needed to. There wasn’t time for that. The rent was due and the kids needed shoes and sometimes the career seemed hully-gully. He always says, ‘I have a lot of film, but not a lot of focus.'”
She also blames a lot of her father’s failure to become a full-fledged star on racism. “Of course it comes down to racism,” she says, pointing to the limited types of music recording executives still offer black audiences. “Black folks need to be uplifted by music, versus what’s happening out there right now, which is leading totally to our degradation. Ninety-nine percent of the songs out there talk about ‘Let me lick you up and down’ and ‘I just want to get freaky with you.’ That is just pervasive. Sometimes I don’t think young audiences have been exposed enough to what music can be. What’s popular is kind of sending us down the tubes, if you ask me. Oh my goodness, have you seen the shows that make it to places like Arie Crown and the Regal? These shows are supposedly the best black musicals around? They’re like Amos ‘n’ Andy revisited. I saw one that had a midget strip dancer. It was almost grotesque. And we come out, and we suck it up, and we think that’s how we’re supposed to act–always playing the dozens and talking about each other. When I was younger and I would see plays of my dad’s it was so much more uplifting.”
Brown began her career in show business by watching her dad in nightclubs and working the lights for his shows. She’d wander around places like the Happy Medium on Rush Street and mouth all the words to her father’s songs. “I would cry when he sang ‘But I Was Cool,’ because he was crying. He’d cry when he did ‘Rags and Old Iron,’ and I’d cry right with him, because I hated to see him looking like that.” She was also an understudy for one of the roles in her dad’s musical In de Beginnin’ at the Body Politic Theatre. But it wasn’t until she was at Columbia College studying music and theater that she decided to pursue show business as a career. Most parents would probably encourage their children to remain in school, but Oscar Brown asked her to leave it and join him in a show he was doing in Greenwich Village called Sliced Apple. “It probably would’ve been cool if I’d stayed in school and finished up, but I’ve been getting a real-life experience ever since,” she says.
As she embarks on her own solo career, Brown is attempting to do something that few children get the chance to do–let a parent ride the coattails of their success. Many of the songs on her album were written by her father, and she hopes that her interpretations will lead new audiences to appreciate his talent. When he’s in town, she often appears with him onstage, along with her brother Oscar Brown III, a bass player and musical director for the eclectic local group Funky Wordsmyths, singing the elder Brown’s songs at times and cheerleading from the sidelines at others.
One of Oscar Brown Jr.’s shows that has never been produced is a biography of Scott Joplin called Maple Leaf, in which he put words to some of Joplin’s most famous tunes. He has always seen parallels between his own life and the ragtime master’s. “In ways, he’s just like Joplin,” Maggie says. “It’ll probably be after he’s gone that they’ll realize what a great writer he was and what a fabulous poet he is. They’ll wait until then. People call him a living legend. Well yeah, but he’s a legend trying to make a living. I hope I can generate interest, spotlight, and money while he’s still living, and that it won’t come to the point where there’s no money left.”
Then she adds, “Too much of how I envision stuff is influenced by what happened to him. I’ve got to clear that stuff out of my mind. I have to go out and make my shit undeniable. Make it undeniable, and don’t worry about what happened before. But it’s hard to separate. My dad’s stuff is undeniable, and sometimes I feel afraid to put my work in the hands of this industry which has been denying him all this time.”
Oscar Brown Jr. will celebrate his 67th birthday in concert with Maggie Brown and Oscar Brown III at Spices Jazz Bar, 812 N. Franklin, Sunday, October 10, at 7:30 and 10. Tickets are $15; call 664-6222 for reservations.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.