The drum cracks and the voice enters. "Breaking up big rocks on the chain gang breaking rocks and serving my time" It's an electrifying start to an album, never mind a career. Here's Oscar!
OSCAR BROWN JR would never be the international pop star that he perhaps could have become in an earlier age-.-he arrived too late to fit into the clean-cut shoes of a Billy Eckstine or even a Johnny Mathis. But equally he arrived a little too early to be a soul singer. His music has always been a distillation of jazz and blues given a theatrical touch, and through this unique blend it has survived and flourished and given him a career that continues to thrive 40 years after that dramatic entrance to his debut album "Sin And Soul". Oscar acknowledges that this album was special-.-its songs still form a large part of his set today. It also provided Oscar with the platform for a career that included not just recording and live concerts, but stage reviews-.-the writing of plays and musicals-.-acting-.-as well as a little bit of UK political intrigue.
Oscar recorded three further albums for Columbia Records between 1960 and 1963. All but his debut LP have been out of print since the 60s. This compilation is designed to throw the spotlight on them all once more. It reveals them to be a truly unique body of work.
"Sin And Soul" was recorded in New York between June and October 1960 with some of the best session players in New York, but even with the support of his A&R man, money was not unlimited. By the last session on 23 October the budget had been so far eaten into that the last track was recorded with just Oscar's voice and a conga player. Out of this restriction we are given the stark beauty of Afro Blue, a lyric that Oscar had written to a Mongo Santamaria melody.
The album appeared out of nowhere. Although there were plenty of jazz albums in the racks they were nothing like this. According to Oscar it "created quite a stir." From the opening drum crack of Work Song through to the reflective ending of Afro Blue, this was the black American experience rapped up into some very catchy songs. Oscar explained "I was always trying to put a social context ... give [my songs] some meaning. Raise them above drivel." In doing this Oscar was giving others a window onto the whole American experience, from the bum on the street of Somebody Buy Me A Drink, to the inquisitive child of Dat Dere. And there was never a starker reflection on slavery than Bid 'Em In.
"Sin And Soul" was quite some start and was a genuine success. It made Oscar something of a celebrity, with appearances on national television. There was a real hope that the next album could raise things up a step. "Between Heaven And Hell" (Columbia CL 1774 / CS 8574) was certainly the full budget affair. The arrangements on two tracks were by Quincy Jones and the rest were handled by Ralph Burns. They worked with five trumpets, four trombones, piano, guitar, bass and drums. The results were as you would expect from such master arrangers. Quincy Jones scored the incendiary Mr Kicks - taken from Oscar's musical "Kicks and Co", also recorded first in a different arrangement for "Sin and Soul". It is on the other side of the album though, that the exquisite arrangements really sets "Between Heaven And Hell" apart from his debut.
At this point, when Oscar should have been moving forward, record company politics started to intrude. His A&R man, Al Hamm left the company - although he would become for a while Oscar's manager, so did the head of A&R Mitch Murray, and those who were looking after Oscar had been around for less time and had less power within the Columbia hierarchy. Robert Morgan, who had produced his second LP, could still round up a big band, and the arranging skills of Ralph Burns and Al Cohn, but the next album "In A New Mood" (Columbia CL 1873 / CS 8673) was markedly different. Apart from a remake of Work Song, there were no self-penned songs by Oscar. It seemed to be a determined attempt to make Oscar into a supper club entertainer that Columbia could understand.
Nevertheless, the results were spectacular, owing to Oscar's determination to control his material: "I sang songs that I thought I could sing well". His third album still felt like an Oscar Brown Jr album artistically, although the choice of songs was limited to cover versions. In choosing the songs for this album Oscar appears to have looked for songs that he was not only able to sing, but which had lyrics that he could empathise with. As to that version of Work Song, well suffice to say it's not on here just to make up numbers.
Oscar's fourth LP, "Tell It Like It Is" (Columbia CL 2025 / CS 8825) was made as he fell further from favour from the record company's high command. Robert Morgan, his producer for the previous two albums had gone, as had the big band-.-it was a stripped-down sound on this Mike Berniker-produced set. But the original songs are back and the album stretches from the raucous groove of Tall Like Pine to the delicate almost ruminative take on Miles Davis' classic All Blues. However good, "Tell It Like It Is" was destined to be Oscar's final LP on Columbia. He remembers returning from a triumphant tour of the UK, where he had garnered spectacular reviews, and going for a meeting with the new head of Columbia, Clive Davis. Davis told Oscar how much of a priority his career was to be to the company-.-within a couple of weeks his contract had failed to be renewed.
It was not all gloom. From then until today Oscar has always kept busy, performing and recording. He has recorded albums for Fontana, Atlantic, RCA and Minor Music. His musical "Joy" became something of a hit-.-Work Song was covered by a whole host of people including both Tommy Hunt and Paul Butterfield-.-whilst Al Wilson's version of The Snake became a top 30 US Pop hit and an all-time Northern Soul classic. Oscar's music has resonated down through the years. But it is his four albums for Columbia that are the touchstones of his music, building blocks of pure jazzy soul that were perfectly in tune with the time they were recorded, but yet sound so utterly relevant today.
By Dean Rudland