Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Brown, Cleo

Cleo Brown was the first of the black female performers who cast themselves in the mold of Fats Waller in the 1930s. While the most important phase of Brown's career lasted a mere two years, and her major output is essentially only 18 songs - she was rewarded near the end of her life when she was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of The Arts.

Brown's success opened a path which was followed by Julia Lee, Lillian Armstrong, Nellie Lutcher, Rose Murphy, Una Mae Carlisle, and Hadda Brooks, and her recordings later inspired a number of younger performers, including Marian McPartland and Bobby Short.

In 1935, Decca Records recorded Cleo Brown with a rhythm section, on a series of discs which were designed to compete with Victor's wildly popular records by Fats Waller and his Rhythm group. Decca had already launched several similar lines to no great success, such as discs by trumpeter-singer Scat Davis, singer and pianist Bob Howard, and band vocalist Dick Robertson. But unlike these somewhat lackluster males, Brown was, at the time, a hot and entirely new commodity in the record business.

While these sessions marked the first time Brown had been in a recording studio, she was already known to radio audiences. She had, in fact, come to New York expressly to fill in for Fats Waller on his CBS radio broadcasts when the portly pianist was summoned to Hollywood to make his first film.

Brown was born in Mississippi on December 8, 1909, where her father was a Baptist minister. At the age of ten, she moved to Chicago. As she later told Whitney Balliett, she studied piano from an early age, but her parents forbade her to play jazz and blues and other species of what they considered to be the Devil’s music.

Much to her chagrin, her brother was already making $25 a week playing piano, and consorting with such musical stars as boogie woogie pianist Pinetop Smith. Unable to pursue music as she wished, Brown left home at a very young age to get married, and shortly thereafter, gave birth to a son, LaVern.

Brown worked as a solo act and in a band called the Nine Blackbirds, which took her as far afield as Canada, but she was back in Chicago when she got the call to come to New York and replace Fats Waller on his radio show, which apparently brought her to the attention of Decca.

Brown’s first date for Decca produced five classics, three Tin Pan Alley numbers and two pieces out of a musician’s experience. Brown was an immediate hit with a genuinely swinging version of a popular novelty called “(Lookie! Lookie! Lookie!) Here Comes Cookie” and a cheery love song called “You’re A Heavenly Thing,” as well as “I’ll Take The South,” an ode to Dixie’s charms (cotton fields and Mammy’s arms) by a pair of songwriters who had probably never been south of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then there was one of publisher-composer Clarence Williams’s many odes to getting high, “The Stuff Is Here And It’s Mellow.”

Although Brown's immediate inspiration on these cuts was obviously Fats Waller, there was one key difference: Waller’s sessions always featured two or three heavy-duty saxophone or trumpet soloists, but Brown’s dates utilized rhythm sections only.

The newcomer on her 1935 date by a highly accomplished rhythm section of white players: drummer Gene Krupa was already famous for his work with Benny Goodman, and bassist Artie Bernstein would also join Goodman a few years hence. Guitarist Perry Botkin went on to spend many years accompanying Bing Crosby.

Between the absence of horns and the singer’s higher-pitched voice, the Brown series was, on the whole, much lighter than the Waller “Rhythm” discs. Everything feels faster and lighter on Brown’s sides, even though Brown uses the same kind of vocal coloration in her singing, having developed a wide vocabulary of growls and purrs and devices to animate her vocals.

As a kind of bonus track, Brown recorded a fifth side on the first session. After the rhythm section had packed up, she cut a solo treatment of Pinetop Smith's basic “Boogie Woogie,” reprising the late pianist’s iconic narration, which itself would later morph into half a dozen semi-spoken hits by Ray Charles. Brown was indeed ahead of the curve, as boogie-woogie didn't become a national phenomenon for at least two years. Later – in no small part thanks to her influence - nearly all the major female pianists specialized in boogie woogie.

Brown recorded another piano solo, “Pelican Stomp,” at the end of a date in May, and she appeared as the only black performer in a line-up billed as “The Decca All Star Revue.” Along with Bob Crosby, Scat Davis, Ella Logan, and The Tune Twisters, a vocal group, she sang part of “Way ‘Back Home,” a much-plugged tune of 1935 that didn’t quite become a standard.

Brown did her own second date in June of 1935, followed by two more sessions by April of 1936, which produced a total of 18 titles, not counting the two-sided “Way ‘Back Home." Nearly every title is a gem: “Mama Don't Want No Peas an' Rice an' Coconut Oil” is one of several pieces which combines an endearing ,childlike quality with an adult sensibility – that is, a yearning to get high. The song was later rerecorded for Decca by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing.

“Breakin' In A Pair Of Shoes” brings a distinctly feminine angle to a catchy early swing hit, which had been done as an instrumental by Benny Goodman. “Slow Poke” is an ingenious lyric variation on Johnny Mercer’s “Lazy Bones,” while “Love in the First Degree,” transforms courtroom banter - which most people, hopefully, knew only from the movies - into a love song in the manner of Waller’s “Where Were You on the Night of June the Third?”

“My Girl Mezzanine” is the most Walleresque of all, an infectious ode to a “red hot mama from Bahama with a red-hot hootchy koo!” who happens to have a grandiosely absurd first name. “When Hollywood Goes Black And Tan” paraphrases the hi-de-ho’s of Cab Calloway (and Harold Arlen’s “Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day”) to make for a delightful period piece praising Afro-American entertainers in cinema, from Armstrong and Calloway even to Decca’s own Bob Howard.

All these sides are collected on the CD anthology Here Comes Cleo, the single most essential collection of Brown's work, on the Scottish Hep label. The Hep CD also includes four lovely tunes, very much in the Decca mold, done for a transcription service around the same time, among them “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb.” The latter tune was also recorded by Waller and his Rhythm in 1937 and Brown’s version by no means suffers in comparison.

Here Comes Cleo concludes with five somewhat risqué “party” records made for the under-the-counter Hollywood Hot Shots operation around 1937. The highlight of these cuts is “Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone,” which Brown, with her girly style, makes the song into something more silly than sexual - “who’ll clam your chowder?” “Who’ll tutti your frutti?” Her treatment is also different from the way publisher Clarence Williams had recorded it with the more traditional classic blues singer Margaret Johnson in 1925.

The evident virtues of Brown's Decca sides raise an obvious question: for all her apparent success, why did the label stop recording her in the middle of 1936? Why was she relegated to a semi-anonymous West-Coast label which manufactured "dirty" records aimed at house-party drunks?

In her only major published interview, with Whitney Balliett, Brown doesn’t mention the fact that that her initial recording career lasted only 18 sides, and less than that many months. She did however apparently continue to broadcast and play major club dates, even after she had stopped recording.

We may never know why Decca abruptly discontinued their relationship, nor why none of the other labels picked her up at this point. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a few months after Brown’s last session, Decca launched a new series of small group dates built around a black female singer-pianist - Lil Hardin Armstrong.

Hardin’s Decca sides, which use well-known horn players, are much more boisterous and noisy than Brown’s, with her intimate though energetic vocals and piano solos. Yet because of the timing, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Decca dropped Brown in favor of Hardin. Brown didn’t record again until 13 years later, when she did a pleasant date of four titles for Capitol Records in 1949. Since Capitol was actively recording both Nellie Lutcher and Julia Lee, they were obviously cornering the market on brilliant, blues-y, Fats Waller-inspired female pianist-singers.

Brown’s four Capitols are a nice-enough follow up to the (now) classic Deccas, starting with a fast “Cleo’s Boogie,” a b&w piano solo with occasional blues vocal interjections (including a paraphrase of a territory blues standard recorded as “The Duck’s Yas-Yas”); then there’s an amiable, cheery update of the ‘20s standard “I’d Climb The Highest Mountain,” and two rather more risqué blues novelties, “Cook That Stuff” and “Don’t Overdo It.” Assuming that the date was produced by Dave Dexter, who was supervising the output of Lee and Lutcher, the producer obviously appreciated Brown’s classic sides enough to maintain what was good about them, such as the accompanying rhythm section, using two famous New Orleanians guitarist Nappy Lamare and drummer Zutty Singleton. The Capitol session failed to make any impact; when Billboard reviewed it, they even dismissed Brown as a Julia Lee imitator, describing “Cook That Stuff” as a “novelty reminiscent of Julia Lee’s ‘Snatch And Grab It’ but much bluer.”

In 1950, Brown did two syrupy children’s songs (“Two Toy Twains” and the lachrymose “Coffee Colored Child”) for Albert Marx’s Discovery Records, and then cut her two final singles, a pair of nondescript blues titles, for the independent Blue Records, a year later. It could be that her career was then in decline, but in her interview with Balliett, Brown states that she got religion, felt the spirit coming on, and sensed the need to get out of showbiz altogether; in 1953 she became a Seventh Day Adventist. Now calling herself “Cleo Patra Brown,” she spent roughly 20 years helping to cure people’s bodies and souls, laboring as a hospital worker and praying fiercely at every opportunity.

Despite her small output, Cleo Brown’s music was enormously influential: obviously both Nellie Lutcher and Julia Lee (who was older) were inspired by her work, Lutcher credited Brown’s disc of “You’re A Heavenly Thing” with launching the trend for female pianists.

Pianist and singer Bobby Short was one of Brown's most avowed fans. As Short told Balliett, “We were attracted to her sweet, sexy voice and her brilliant left hand – and her time, which was fantastic.” Short also noted that a minister in his hometown, Danville Illinois, was so moved by Brown’s theme song, “The Stuff Is Here And It’s Mellow,” that he transformed it into a sermon. That news might have been encouraging to Brown, since she wanted to get away from those salacious songs about sex and substances and errant lovers who chop each other’s suey.

It was Marian McPartland who made it a personal mission to find Cleo Brown, and eventually she tracked her down in Denver. In 1984, McPartland brought Brown to New York from Colorado so she could appear on her radio show Piano Jazz, which was a dream come true for The Queen Mum of Jazz. Three years later, Brown participated in an Atlanta session that was released on CD by Audiophile Records as Living In The Afterglow. Even after the show and the album, as well as a profile of her in The New Yorker by Balliett, there was never a full-fledged Cleo Brown revival or even a real return to performing.

Cleo Brown died on April 15, 1995, and the big event of her later life was being named as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. Cleo may have been the most obscure of the award's recipients, but she is far from its least worthy.

Contributor: Will Friedwald