Singer/songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. died Sunday in Chicago at age 78. He was hospitalized in mid-April after emergency surgery to stop the spread of an infection in his lower spine; although he was released from Saint Joseph’s Hospital following the surgery, he was readmitted two weeks ago and died of complications resulting from the illness.
Brown was born Oct. 10, 1926 in Chicago, the son of an attorney and real estate broker. While he had a series of odd jobs throughout his career, including positions in public relations, ad copy and real estate, he found his calling early in his life after making his professional debut at age 15 in the national radio series, Secret City. By the time he was 21, he already had a weekly radio program entitled Negro Newsfront, which broadcasted news about “America’s largest minority.”
He was active in politics and civil rights through his lifetime, running unsuccessfully for political office twice – for the Illinois State Senate and later, for a seat in the U.S. Congress – and becoming involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During this same time, Brown began avidly composing songs, transforming his hobby into a career.
While attending the opening night performance of A Raisin in the Sun in 1958, Brown met Robert Nemiroff, a professional manager of a New York music publishing firm who brought Brown to the attention of Columbia Records. He soon signed a recording contract with Columbia and began working on his first album, Sin and Soul, released in 1960.
Both the album and Brown became an instant success and with the help of Al Ham, who left Columbia to become Brown’s first manager, Brown easily scored an engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard. He then appeared in a two-hour performance on NBC at the invitation of the Today Show and was soon sharing bills with the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly.
His career got a second wind in the 1970s, with a headlining appearance at Jazz at the Lincoln Center and the opening of Music is My Life, Politics My Mistress, a documentary about his life.
During his lifetime, Brown wrote a dozen musicals, including Buck White, which starred boxing legend Muhammad Ali on Broadway, and more than one thousand songs. Almost all were hits, though his most famous compositions include “Watermelon Man,” “The Entertainer,” “The Snake,” “Signifyin’ Monkey” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”
Brown is survived by his wife Jean, son Napoleon Brown and daughters Maggie Brown; Donna Brown Kane; Iantha Casen; and Africa Pace Brown. He is also survived by 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Information on services and tributes can be found at www.oscarbrownjr.com.