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Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Seattle Times: Nation & World: Songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. dies

The Seattle Times: Nation & World: Songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. diesSongwriter Oscar Brown Jr. dies

By Jon Thurber
Los Angeles Times

Oscar Brown Jr., a singer and songwriter whose work reflected the humor and hard truths of the black experience in America, has died. He was 78.

Mr. Brown died last Sunday of respiratory failure at a Chicago hospital, according to his daughter, Maggie Brown. She said her father was admitted to the hospital May 5 with a bacterial infection and underwent extensive surgery May 16 to try to stem the infection, but his condition deteriorated rapidly.

The multitalented Mr. Brown was a poet, actor and activist as well as a musician. In a New York Times interview years ago, he said he set out to "deliberately present the culture in which I'd grown up. I wanted to present a picture of black culture to anyone who could hear it."

And he did just that in his songs, plays and musicals, which all offered a strong sociopolitical point of view.

Released in 1960, his first album, "Sin & Soul and Then Some," was a hit. A mosaic of poetic and musical images, the album included his lyrical renditions to such popular jazz instrumentals as Nat Adderley's "Work Song," Bobby Timmons' soul-jazz tune "Dat Dere," and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro-Blue."

It also included the "Bid 'Em In," a vivid re-creation of an auctioneer's call at a female slave sale. The album is considered a classic by critics and aficionados

In his hometown of Chicago, Mr. Brown was known in the 1960s for theatrical works that offered vivid impressions of urban life. In one instance, he helped quell gang violence by employing members of the notorious Mighty Blackstone Rangers in the revue "Opportunity Please Knock." He also created the musical version of "Big Time Buck White," which starred Muhammad Ali and had a brief run on Broadway.

Other theatrical works created during that time period included "Kicks & Co.," which was featured by host Dave Garroway on an entire segment of the "Today" show in what was in effect a backers' audition. The musical had a short run on Broadway.

Mr. Brown worked as an actor on such television shows as "Brewster Place," featuring Oprah Winfrey, and "Roc," starring Charles Dutton. Widely knowledgeable about jazz and blues, he hosted two programs on music: "Jazz Scene USA" in 1962 and "From Jumpstreet: The Story of Black Music" on PBS in the 1980s.

His songwriting brought acclaim from critics and leading artists of the day.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry said Mr. Brown had "... a startling genius for rendering sense and nonsense into acutely succinct and brilliant summaries of life as we live it."

But Mr. Brown's work may have been too hip and authoritative for the music business. His albums never found a broad crossover audience and, by the mid-1970s, he was without a music contract. His career had gained new interest in the 1990s after Rickie Lee Jones covered his song "Dat Dere." In 1994, he recorded his first album in almost 20 years, "Then and Now," for Weasel Disc records.

For much of Mr. Brown's career, critics lauded his work and lamented his lack of popular recognition.

"He was a very riveting performer who could write about contemporary issues with a lot of bite and wit," Hentoff said. "I was always surprised that he never got the acclaim he deserved."

The son of a lawyer and one-time head of the local NAACP, Mr. Brown was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1926. From the early 1940s to the early '50s, he attended several colleges and worked in a variety of jobs, including advertising copywriter, real-estate agent and publicist.

He ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois Legislature on the Progressive ticket in 1948 and hosted one of Chicago's first televised newscasts aimed at a black audience. He ran for Congress in 1952 and lost.

After all that, he spent two years in the Army. Although he had written poetry and songs over the years, he turned to professional songwriting only after his discharge in 1956.

His first recorded composition was "Brown Baby," written after the birth of his son, and recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Lena Horne.

In 1960, he collaborated with drummer Max Roach on "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite." That same year, he was signed to a recording contract with Columbia.

He wrote more than 500 songs and added lyrics to such jazz favorites as the Miles Davis composition "All Blues."

For much of his performing career, Mr. Brown worked with his wife, singer Jean Pace Brown, who survives him. In addition to his daughter, Maggie, who also performed with her father, Mr. Brown is survived by daughters Africa Pace Brown, Iantha Brown Case and Donna Brown Cane.

He also is survived by 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His son, Oscar Brown III, a bassist who performed with his father in the 1980s, died in 1996.

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