10 Questions With … Blues icon Piney Brown

An unsung R&B legend, Piney Brown is the real deal. Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Brown honed his chops in the 1940s and ?50s playing tent shows, clubs and theaters from Baltimore to New York City to Chicago. Best known for penning songs recorded by the likes of James Brown (?Popcorn?), Little Milton, Magic Sam and others, at age 84, Piney is still beltin? out the blues. He?s just released an impressive new CD, One Of These Days, which presents raucous renditions of many blues classics, including ?Just A Little Bit,? ?Talkin? ?Bout You,? ?Ain?t It A Shame,? ?Cream In My Coffee (Sugar In My Tea)? and ?Strange Things Are Happening.?

Goldmine: At what point did you recognize that you wanted to pursue a musical career?

Piney Brown: I used to work in a steel mill in Birmingham. I used to sing in church with my sisters and cousins. We were called The Young Blue Jays. When I was about 18 years old I met a talent scout from Apollo Records in Baltimore, Maryland. I was playing the Royal Theater in Baltimore. He heard me sing and asked me if I ever thought about recording. So I told him, ?Yeah, I?ve thought about it and I?d like to.? I started recording for Apollo Records and my first record came out in 1951. It was called ?Talkin? ?Bout You.? Bess Berman owned Apollo Records. They got about four or five songs out on me.

Goldmine: Do you think you have more of an idea many years later of how you want your music to sound?

Piney Brown: I?ve definitely got an idea of how I want my songs to go. I sit down with the band and tell them how I want my arrangements to go. I hum some stuff to them and they take it from there. My music is bringing back the big band sound. You ain?t gonna hear nothing that sounds like my CD. It?s a different sound altogether. All those people playing hip-hop, they don?t know how to play blues. A lot of people are still playing the old records.

Goldmine: Characterize the essence of blues music.

Piney Brown: Blues is the thing that?s from the roots of my hometown in Birmingham and from everywhere else in the South. Most of the blues comes from the South. That?s why they got so many different kind of blues. They got the Delta blues, the New Orleans blues, Alabama blues. Everybody got a different kind of sound. Like Chicago has [its] own sound. You won?t catch a band from New Orleans sounding like a band out of Birmingham.
I used to work picking cotton and people used to sing all day long. I also would hear people singing when they were laying down tracks on the railroad. They?d be singing songs like ?John Henry.? You have to know what you?re doing to play blues. You can?t just jump up onstage and use some kind of chord that doesn?t fit with what you?re doin.? Most blues are written with the 9th and 7th chord changes. That?s real blues. Blues and gospel are almost in the same category. There?s people that sang in my hometown in church and it sounded like they were singing the blues. Jazz is a spin-off from blues. You use different changes in that music.

Goldmine: Didn?t you know Michael Jackson in his early days?

Piney Brown: Yeah, I knew Michael Jackson when he was nothing but a kid from Gary, Indiana. I was there when he won his first contest on a show in Gary. I was working on this show and they had a lot of kids perform on that show. I always thought he was talented. He was the shortest one in the group but I could tell he had something special.

Goldmine: How would you describe ?jump? blues?

Piney Brown: Well, ?jump? blues is the kind of stuff Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Chick Webb used to play. Chick Webb was a drummer and Ella Fitzgerald used to sing with his band. So ?jump? blues is an extension of the big band sound with a rawer sound. In the ?40s and ?50s they had 18? and 19?piece bands; you didn?t see no small

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