By Mike Greenblatt
When Elvis Presley sang “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” you heard Roy Brown. When Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin sang “Rockin’ At Midnight” with The Honeydrippers, you heard Roy Brown. When Fats Domino sang “Let The Four Winds Blow,” you heard Roy Brown. In fact, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Montrose, Pat Boone and Wynonie Harris all have found their way to the music of the great Roy Brown.
Brown did more to change the course of rhythm and blues between 1948 and 1951 than any other artist at that time. It was Brown — with his 15-straight charting hits — who steered the ship of late ’40s gospel-soul toward what would later become rock and roll. In fact, before Ray Charles turned “call-and-response” church music into “What’d I Say,” it was Brown who incurred the wrath of preachers nationwide for taking that holy feeling and first using it to write songs about sex.
Born Sept. 10, 1925, in New Orleans, Brown, like many black entertainers of his generation, started singing in church. He formed the gospel quartet The Rookie Four, which performed in local churches before Brown moved on to Los Angeles in 1942, according to “The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.”
Brown took a variety of jobs to pay the bills, including working in the sugar cane fields, singing Bing Crosby tunes in amateur talent contests and spending two years in the boxing ring. Although he was moving up in the welterweight division, Brown left boxing behind to move to Texas and sing with The Mellodeers, a club band with a residency in Galveston. He drove the club’s patrons wild with his pleading, beseeching, dramatic vocal delivery to connect with his audience. It was a voice that wound up having a profound influence over artists including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Little Richard.
In 1947, Brown returned to Louisiana. Strapped for cash, he tried to sell a song he had written to Wynonie Harris, but the bluesman turned him down. Brown sang “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with Harris’ band — a performance that reportedly brought down the house — and later recorded it for the DeLuxe label. (Harris also covered it for King Records.)
Along with his backing band, The Mighty Mighty Men, Brown enjoyed a solid run in the late 1940s to early 1950s with songs including “Hard Luck Blues,” “Boogie At Midnight” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”
In 1952, Brown became the first singer to successfully sue a label for back royalties. Author Nick Tosches, in his book “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ’n’ Roll,” posits the theory that not only did Brown’s pioneering courtroom win over King Records fail to help other artists who regularly were cheated, it likely got him blacklisted. That, and IRS charges for tax evasion — which resulted in a brief prison sentence — effectively stifled his career. By the start of the 1960s, Brown was selling encyclopedias door to door.
Brown’s comeback came in 1970, when he was a featured performer in The Johnny Otis Show at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Brown put out a pair of singles on the Mercury label — 1970’s “It’s My Fault Darling”/“Love For Sale (73166) and 1971’s “Mail Man Blues”/“Hunky Funky Woman” (73219) — and toured throughout the rest of the decade.
In 1981, Brown headlined the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — just weeks before his May 25 death from a heart attack at age 55. GM