Brown had an early start in the entertainment business by acting in radio plays such as Secret City at the age of 15. He briefly studied at the University of Wisconsin after graduating 2 years early from high school, but he left before graduating after getting an opportunity to host a local radio program called “Negro Newsfront”- the US’s first black news radio broadcast at the age of 18. He was nicknamed “America’s first Negro newscaster.” Four years later, he quit his job and turned to politics to run unsuccessfully for the Illinois state legislature on the Progressive Party ticket. After realizing this might not be the right move for him at the time, Brown returned to radio to work on Richard Durham’s production Black Radio Days series: Destination Freedom.
Around this time, he also served in the U.S. Army for a couple of years all before getting into the music business. Before his successful music career took off by signing with Columbia Records in 1960, Brown had achieved fame as a songwriter when Mahalia Jackson recorded his song “Brown Baby” (a lullaby for his infant son and a racial pride anthem) which has since become a jazz standard. Brown also collaborated with bop drummer Max Roach on his legendary album, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. The Roach album was one of the first jazz albums to address the civil rights movement. Brown’s first solo album released by Columbia Records, Sin and Soul, contains such classics as “Work Song,” “Watermelon Man,” “Afro-Blue,” “Dat Dere”, “But I Was Cool,” “Bid ‘Em In,” and also launched his extended residency at the famed Village Vanguard.
Once his solo career took off and not one to stay in one medium of the entertainment industry, Brown also hosted the TV series Jazz Scene USA, where he met his future wife, Jean Pace, a talented singer and dancer. They began working together on various stage shows including Brown’s musicals (some which were penned by him years earlier) such as Kicks & Co. and Summer in the City. “Opportunity, Please Knock,” produced by Brown and Pace in alliance with a youth gang known as the Blackstone Rangers, opened the door for them to work with disadvantaged teens and pre-teens in the ‘60s to minimize the growing gang violence. This effort captivated the attention of Mayor Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana who was encouraged to start a summer talent show that was organized by Brown and Pace and made way for the introduction of the Jackson 5 and Avery Brooks to America. One other very notable musical Brown created, “Buck White” which was previously a staged comedy, touched on the African-American politically and socially conscious issues of the day. The musical went on to Broadway starring none other than Muhammad Ali in the title role.
Perhaps Brown’s favorite medium was creating musicals which enabled him to utilize his many talents: songwriting, storytelling, and acting. But he didn’t stop there. Brown’s love for lyrics and poems gave him the idea to create socially charged lyrics for many well known instrumental works. Works such as Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” With Brown’s penchant for theatrics and dramatics he excelled at creating songs with stories of black folklore such as Signifying Monkey and The Snake.
Brown was very prolific over the course of his life. He wrote at least 1,000 poems of which hundreds of those poems he created musical settings of or songs. He recorded 11 albums, created several musicals and acted in numerous television shows such as Brewster Place and Roc.
Oscar Brown Jr. will be best remembered for weaving together his unique storytelling and socially conscious themes into his music and performances before it was popular to do so. He created a pathway, especially in the music industry, for many to follow and build on. Without Oscar Brown planting the seeds, creating profound thought and amusement through his music, many of our youth might have ended up going in a direction that proved harmful and destructive. For that, we should be thankful for Brown’s tireless efforts to not only entertain but enlighten others through his musicals, performances, poetry and music for generations to come.