Tuesday, May 31, 2005


The death has been announced of Oscar Brown Jr, who combined social activism with a successful singer-songwriting career.

Born in Chicago in 1926, the son of an attorney and estate agent , Brown was a pioneer in the black media - his Negro Newsfront was one of the very first radio news programmes to concentrate on the reality of life for black Americans. During unsuccessful attempts to enter politics both locally and nationally, Brown started to develop his songwriting hobby into something more serious. With the help of impressario Robert Nemiroff, he won a contract with Columbia in 1958 and recorded his first album, Sin and Soul while silmultaneously producing his musical Kicks & Compnay. A busy man, he was also supposed to be selling houses for his Dad, too; it was the release of Sin and Soul in 1960 which finally allowed him to concentrate purely on music. With Al Ham acting as his first manager, Brown relocated to New York where he quickly built a massive following.

Amongst his new fans was NBC's Dave Garroway, then hosting the Today programme. Garroway secured a two-hour special for Brown which, along with the buzz around Kicks & Company, secured his place in the popular mind and saw Brown regularly appearing on the same bill as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Drawing muscially from jazz, gospel, blues and even folk, Brown's reputation as a lyricist was secured when he added lyrics to Miles Davis' All Blues; he combined his political stance with his day job when he colaborated with Max Roach on the We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.

Social justice would be a theme to which he would return again and again - in his 1967 musical Opportunity, Please Knock; even in his last work, a 2002 revival of Great Nitty Gritty. The original version had been done with residents of the notorious Cabrini Green housing estate.

In 1969, Muhammad Ali appeared in Brown's first Broadway musical, Buck White, and in a long career Brown also worked with Mahalia Jackson and Mongo Santamaria. He presented Jazz Scene USA and From Jumpstreet, and even managed to fit in some time on the soap Brewster Place (with a young Oprah Winfrey) and the sitcom Roc.

Oscar Brown Jr was 78; he died in a Chicago hospital from complications following a blood infection.