The first time I heard Oscar Brown Jr. was an LP called Sin & Soul. I just liked the name, and I had sort of heard about it. It was very, very popular, and rightly so, because it was a great, great record. What I loved about the record is that the message was so strong. There were so many social issues going on. All of these songs were so ahead of their time, and I was used to hearing and singing the Cole Porters—which are great tunes, don’t get me wrong—but Oscar Brown Jr. came out with this stuff and it was just mind-blowing to me. I said, “Oh, my God, this man is a genius.”
What I loved about Oscar is that he never, ever sold out in any way. I think a long time ago, when that record first came out, [the industry] could have pushed him into another area or into another category because he was so good.
Around 1960, when Sin & Soul came out, I started to do “Dat Dere,” which featured lyrics that Oscar wrote for his son; I had a daughter who was around the same age and was asking all the same questions. I first recorded “Dat Dere” for Blue Note in 1962, and to this very present day I perform it because it reminds me of my daughter when she was little.
I think Oscar Brown Jr. is one of the unsung heroes of music—of any kind of music. I’m just regretful that I didn’t get to see more of him performing, but with my schedule and what was happening, all of sudden you get to be in your 70s. And the 1960s were just so busy, trying to make a living and raise my kids. But I tell you, that’s one of my biggest disappointments in life, that I didn’t get to meet Oscar and tell him what a major influence he had on me. He taught me that when you feel something, you have to be honest about how you feel; it’s not whether you’re going to make money or whether you are going to sell records. I got that from listening to Oscar Brown Jr. all those many years ago on Sin & Soul.