Charles Brown is a fascinating figure in American music. He’s great, first of all. Absolutely great. He’s legendary in the blues and traditional R&B worlds, but most people now probably don’t know him by name. He was a singer, pianist, and songwriter. The easiest way to describe Brown’s sound is he is where Ray Charles and Chuck Berry overlap. Both were big fans and Brown heavily influenced their music.
Aside from his general greatness, Charles Brown has another distinguishing feature. His biggest hits were Christmas songs. “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas, Baby” are both his. “Christmas in Heaven” is another one. They have been covered by dozens of artists. Even if you don’t know Charles Brown, you’ve probably heard the Eagles, Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis, and many others do versions. His Christmas songs were so popular that he used to play them in concert at any time of year. “Merry Christmas, Baby” featured in his sets the same way “The Thrill Is Gone” featured in B.B. King’s.
I’m a little bit torn about this. On the one hand, it makes me happy that Brown was successful, and people are still listening to his music. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like the success of the Christmas songs overshadowed just how good he was. It’s not fair, but we tend to categorize holiday music as its own thing, like it doesn’t count the rest of the year.
Rolling Stone magazine used to have a “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” feature. (Maybe they still do, it’s been decades since I’ve looked at Rolling Stone.) They focused on up-and-comers rather than artist that started in the 1940s. But Charles Brown certainly deserves more recognition. If you hear one or two of his Christmas songs in December, I hope it will spark your interest enough to check out the rest of his catalogue. You won’t be sorry.