Charles Brown (1922-1999)

Charles Brown at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1996
Charles Brown at the Long Beach Blues Festival in 1996
Photo by Sumori (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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In addition to composer, balladeer, and R&B singer, Charles Brown was also a classically trained pianist. He was born Tony Russell Charles Brown on September 13, 1922, in Texas City, Texas, to John Mose Brown and Mattie Evelyn Simpson Brown. Brown graduated from Central High School in Galveston in 1939 and then enrolled in Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University), in Prairie View, Texas, as a chemistry major. He earned a bachelor of science degree in 1942.

Brown briefly taught the natural sciences at George Washington Carver High School in Baytown, Texas, while also performing locally as a singer. In 1943 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked in the local shipyards during World War II while still pursuing a musical career. In 1947, Brown released his first single, “Merry Christmas Baby” where he was the featured pianist and singer. The song peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard R&B chart.

In 1948, Brown formed a trio with bassist Eddie Williams and guitarist Charles Norris. They performed in Bay Area nightclubs with only modest success until 1960 when Brown released “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a song he composed with Gene Redd.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” occasionally called “Bells Will Be Ringing,” slowly grew in popularity. Twelve years after its initial release the song peaked at no. 1 on Billboard’s Christmas singles chart. Over that time “Please Come Home for Christmas” sold over 1 million copies, making it the first million-selling R&B Christmas song and to thousands of fans, a magnificent, soulful Christmas classic.

Brown’s musical career, however, progressed slowly. In 1991, Brown’s album All My Life was nominated for “Best Traditional Blues Album” at the 34th Annual Grammy Awards. In 1995, he was once again nominated for the same award at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards for his album released earlier that year, Cool Christmas Blues.

Brown was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996 and three years later in 1999 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influences category.

Charles Brown died of cardiac complications on January 21, 1999, in Oakland, California. He was 76.