Oscar Brown, Jr. (October 10, 1926–May 29, 2005) was a writer, poet, great thinker and civil rights activist. His music was a meld of soul, jazz and musical theater that dealt with such black life subjects as joy, anger, love, frustration and humor. His 1960 debut album Sin & Soul and his 1964 disc Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington demonstrated his skill at socially conscious songwriting.
Born in 1926 in Chicago, Oscar Brown, Jr. was talented singer, songwriter, poet, playwright, director as well as a committed community and political activist. His singing embraced jazz, popular music and specialized delivery, that helped to create his own unique style. His poetic stylings and musical presentations were often cited as precursors to modern hip-hop.
Brown’s artistic contributions were his way of creatively expressing himself while spreading a message. He stated he saw his art as, “a way to celebrate African-American life and attack racism.” His lyrics often reflected moods of remorse, anger and racial pride. He wrote more than seven plays and over 1,000 songs, 125 of which have been published. His best-known works include songs such as Signifying Monkey and Watermelon Man.
While flunking out of four universities his freshman year, Oscar’s songs and playwriting came to the attention of Robert Nemiroff, the husband of playwright Lorranine Hansberry. He admired Brown’s songwriting skills and singing ability and recommended him to Columbia Records. Oscar wanted to be a songwriter, but Columbia would not sign him on until he agreed to be a singer. In 1960 he released the first of four records he made for Columbia. His first album, Sin and Soul launched him into a short-lived stardom.
Oscar toured with Aretha Franklin and other well-known artists, preforming historically informed and politically charged works like Work Song, Bid’Em In, and Brown Baby. Unfortunately, staff shake-ups at Columbia left Brown with little support for his politically charged songs. After a follow-up album, Between Heaven and Hell, his subsequent recordings were unsupported and by 1963 Brown was without a label. A surprising turn, considering that he had just returned to the United States from a rousing London Performance series that brought widespread praise for his talent.
Brown continued to write plays during this time. In 1961, Hansberry directed and Nemiroff co-produced the musical called Kicks and Company. While performing parts of the play on The Today Show, Dave Garroway, the show’s host became so enamored that he turned over the remaining two hours of the program to help plug the production and call for more money. Unfortunately, the musical closed soon after its debut in Chicago and Brown then went on the road, touring with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
By 1965 he was back in Chicago and working in his own community. In 1967 he recruited members of the violent street gang the Blackstone Rangers to perform in his work Opportunity Please Knock. Segments of the play were shown on The Smothers Brothers, a weekly television variety show. Brown is also responsible for talent contests in Gary, Indiana, that discovered the Jackson Five and actor and singer Avery Brooks.
In 1969, Brown made it to Broadway with Big Time Buck White. He adapted the original play by Joseph Dolan Tuotti into a musical, and he starred as Buck White during its successful run in San Francisco. It debuted on Broadway for a short run, with boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the title role.
In the mid-seventies, Oscar appeared on the Chicago television special Oscar Brown Is Back In Town, and the special won two Emmy Awards. In the early 1980s he hosted the 13-week PBS series From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music. He later appeared regularly on Oprah Winfrey’s Brewster Place.
In 1995, after a recording hiatus of 20 years, Brown released Then and Now. The CD was comprised of both old and new material. The older songs were performed with less orchestration and emphasized the quality of Brown’s voice. The following year Columbia reissued Sin and Soul on CD titled Sin and Soul . . . And Then Some. In 2002 Brown released his last album, We’re Live, with his daughter Maggie Brown, also an accomplished vocal performer, from a live performance at Chicago’s Hot House.
Oscar worked diligently in his last years, continuing to perform onstage and giving interviews. In 2002 he revived his 20-year old play about gang violence, Great Nitty Gritty. He was a popular performer on Def Poetry Jam series that aired on the HBO Cable Channel. In 2004 he was the opening act for the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. Donnie Betts chronicled Brown’s life in the documentary Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress, which premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in the spring of 2005. After a brief illness, Oscar died on May 29, 2005.