The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Charles Brown
The Early Years
The Nat “King” Cole Trio profoundly altered the course of urban American music. Formed in 1937 by vocalist and pianist Cole, guitarist Oscar Moore, and bassist Wesley Prince, the King Cole Trio, as they were originally known, shook things up in countless ways, from Cole’s suave trademark vocals to the group’s daring minimal instrumentation at the height of the big band era to their casual hopping from pop to jazz to R & B. Long before Cole scored heavily orchestrated hits like “Unforgettable,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Mona Lisa,” he was known as a jazz pianist, predominantly as a fast-fingered admirer of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. During the trio’s heyday in the early 40s, Cole’s singing was yet another line in an astonishing weave of sophisticated harmony, springy drummerless rhythms, and dazzling melodic filigree. While the group’s novel instrumentation influenced like-minded combos led by important jazzers like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner, Cole’s urbane singing–too cool and calm to be jazz but too hep to be pop–walloped plenty of blues and R & B singers. Charles Brown and Ray Charles were but two bitten by the Cole bug, as revealed by a pair of recently reissued recordings.
Texas-born Charles Brown is a college-educated bluesman who, while looking for work as a chemist in Los Angeles, hooked up with bassist Eddie Williams and guitarist Johnny Moore, the brother of the Cole Trio’s Oscar (both of whom were also native Texans). In 1942 they formed Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, which they clearly modeled after the Nat “King” Cole Trio from their instrumentation to Brown’s rough but elegant croon (Brown frequently cited as his main influence singer Pha Terrell of Andy Kirk’s big band, but Cole undeniably shines through). In 1945, after a few foundered singles, Brown’s sublime “Drifting Blues,” a striking evocation of the numbing effect of heartbreak and loneliness–“Well I’m drifting and drifting / Like a ship out on the sea”–impressed Ed and Leo Mesner of Philo (later Aladdin) Records, who’d come to see the group’s regular gig at a club called Talk of the Town. The tune’s gently lilting melody, its finesse, and Brown’s restrained ache refashioned blues, lifting it from the domain of down-and-out raunch to one of elegance. As writer Nick Tosches bluntly put it in his Unsung Heroes’ of Rock ‘n’ Roll, “Never again would the blues be associated with a bunch of tore-down shines too drunk to piss standing up.”
“Drifting Blues” peaked at number two on the R & B charts and quickly established Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers as a major act. However, the rigors of touring, success, and sloppy contracts brought strife, which was exacerbated in 1947 when Oscar Moore joined the group (pop was edging him out of the now strings-heavy Cole Trio). With tensions running high due to Johnny Moore’s contractual control and one more band member partaking in the profits, the group broke up in 1948. Johnny Moore took the group’s name, but Williams stuck with Brown for a few more years, long enough to score a number one hit with 1949’s remarkable “Trouble Blues.” While their instrumental attack remained the same, Brown’s vocals had truly come into their own. The hurt in his voice exuded a depth the earlier stuff lacked–at times it was like a cry of melancholy gods. Brown’s last number one hit of the era was 1951’s “Black Night,” which, complemented by the spare and languorous tenor saxophone of Maxwell Davis, provided an equally powerful dose of concentrated pain–the sound of a broken man struggling to maintain dignity.
Brown never stopped performing, but his popularity waned. He became a victim of the rock ‘n’ roll music he unwittingly helped create. Recording offers ceased in the mid-70s, forcing Brown to take manual labor jobs. In the mid-80s, however, Brown returned better than ever with One More for the Road (Blue Side, reissued by Alligator). Singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt, a big Brown fan, later took him on tour–he’ll open for her at the Arie Crown this summer–and he began a fruitful association with Bullseye Blues Records. His latest album was recorded for Verve. Brown’s striking return revealed terrific piano playing and a tensile voice undiminished by age.
The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Charles Brown, a stunning five-CD box set with several detailed essays and extensive discographical data, compiles nearly all of Brown’s output between 1945 and 1955. He recorded for a number of other small labels concurrently, but the bulk of his music was released by the label that discovered “Drifting Blues.” There’s certainly some garbage amid the 99 tracks, but mixed into Brown’s signature sound is a fascinating thumbnail sketch of shifting trends. Jump blues, doo-wop, pop tunes, boogie-woogie, and other styles flavor his unshakable voice. For every hokey production trick–the ghostlike female response on “So Mistreated”–there’s a tune like “Rising Sun,” so perfect it makes Brown’s failures insignificant. Appallingly, a more manageable single-disc best of Aladdin (issued on EMI) was deleted only a few years after its release, which makes this somewhat extravagant set the sole way to obtain these crucial recordings. (It’s available via mail order only from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Pl., Stamford, CT 06902.)
Ray Charles has admitted that he was influenced by Charles Brown– which is highly apparent on a tune like “Baby Tell Me What I Have Done,” recently reissued on The Early Years, a double-CD collection of his pre-Atlantic material (most of it made for the Swingtime label) covering 1949 through 1952. The shadow of Nat “King” Cole loomed larger, though, and the alchemy Charles worked creating soul music in the 50s is foreshadowed by this music. The most striking element of this set compared to the landmark work he did for Atlantic is the restraint in Charles’s voice.
Charles, who revolutionized music by fusing frenzied gospel shouts into hard swinging R & B on later Atlantic recordings, was finding his voice during this period. He had no problem traversing blues, R & B, and jazz, hopping unhindered from one to another, whereas Cole’s sound was rooted in jazz and Brown’s in the blues. Despite such remarkable flexibility, there’s not much originality or distinctiveness found in this phase of his career. The 30 songs collected here, while pleasant and mildly enjoyable, are notable primarily for their historical value–an effective trace of his roots. Pete Welding’s liner notes are informative and interesting, but there’s no discography. Without any chronological arrangement, it’s hard to contextualize this music. Anyone interested in early Charles would do better seeking out The Birth of a Legend, a terrific British import set on the Ebony label that offers 41 Swingtime recordings with comprehensive notes. Some of Charles’s brilliant Atlantic work, particularly the stuff collected on The Birth of Soul, makes The Early Years seem little more than run-of-the-mill R & B.