December. That feel-good time of year where families and friends unite, and we’re ready to put the cap on another year. With the Holiday season comes things like mistletoe, eggnog, and of course, the tree! Another major component of Christmas season, and usually the most feel-good, is the music associated with it. You hear it everywhere you go from mid-November up to the big day, and sometimes even beyond. Traditionally, other than Hanukkah, no other Holiday has its own genre of music. Before the 1930s, Christmas songs were focused more on the religious facets of the Holiday, though eventually they would become “Americanized” and include other holiday themes like the Christmas tree, snow, and Santa Claus.
Enter the songs we know and love – “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town“, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“, “White Christmas“, and “Merry Christmas Baby”, the latter that’s origins date back to 1947, amid some controversy.
Charles Brown was one of the most influential singers of the mid-1900s. He was born in Texas City in 1922. Like most musicians, he was in love with the craft at a young age. After graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1942, he briefly became a chemistry teacher, a mustard gas worker, and an apprentice electrician, all before finally settling in Los Angeles to pursue a career in music.
During his time in LA, which was during World War II, a great influx of African American musicians was responsible for launching their local nightclub scene for black performers to play their music. The Jazz and Blues club scene was widely held, due mostly to the contributions of one Nat King Cole. However, Cole eventually left LA to perform nationally and became the predecessor to Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. Johnny Moore was another local musician, devoted to Rhythm and Blues, and it’s known that Johnny was an influence on Chuck Berry. Charles Brown would connect with Johnny during his time in LA and would eventually join his band as a vocalist and pianist. Their style encapsulated that cool, relaxed West Coast piano trio style. They recorded one of their biggest hits, “Driftin’ Blues” in 1945 which featured Brown on piano and vocals. It stayed on the U.S. Billboard R&B chart for six months and was considered a huge break for Brown.
They continued to be one of the hottest Blues attractions on the West Coast throughout the 1940s. In 1947, they recorded “Merry Christmas Baby,” the world’s first rendition of the holiday classic. To this day it remains a season classic, and since its inception would go on to be recorded by over 80 artists including Bruce Springsteen, Kelly Clarkson, and Otis Redding. The debate of who wrote the track has always been up for debate, thus the song’s credits brought with it some controversy. Brown didn’t receive any credit on the track, which went to #3 on the R&B chart in 1947. The song’s credit was given to Johnny Moore and Blues songwriter Lou Baxter, though Brown insisted he was the song’s co-writer, not Moore.
He recalled in a later interview, “Leon René had Exclusive Records. They needed a song; Bing Crosby had “White Christmas“. Lou Baxter, who was a songwriter and used to hang around Johnny Moore and the Blazers, said, “Charles, I want you to do one of my songs because I need money.” He had to have an operation on his throat, he had throat cancer. If we did one of his numbers, they would give him a $500 advance. So I looked in the satchel, I took the satchel (of songs) home that night and I looked in there, I looked at all the things, and it didn’t impress me. I saw “Merry Christmas Blues”, but the idea struck me. I said this would be a good idea, but it wasn’t like what he had written. I wrote the title “Merry Christmas Baby”, and I wrote the words, how I was going to sing it, and I mapped it out, played the piano, and I presented it to Johnny Moore. We didn’t know it was going to be a great big hit, but I thought it was unique.”
Upset about the lack of recognition, Brown left the band in 1948 to pursue his own endeavors, which included starting a trio of his own, alongside Eddie Williams and Charles Norris. During this period, there was a high demand for Blues in the South which eventually spread to other parts of the country. The Blues scene at the time, aside from Moore’s Three Blazers, was dominated by Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, and T-Bone Walker. Due in part to the high demand, Brown stayed at the forefront of the Blues scene and the trio had instant success with “Get Yourself Another Fool” and, “Trouble Blu”, which was No.1 on the Billboard R&B charts for 15 weeks in the summer of 1949.
Brown was recognized as a pioneer of the laid-back, piano-driven style of West Coast blues and was recognized as an early influence on the legendary Ray Charles.
In the early 1950s, Rock n Roll was becoming the dominant genre on the American music scene. Artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley were the faces of this new era. Brown’s musical style was seen as too mellow to keep up with the rockier rhythms of Rock n Roll, thus his popularity began to wane. Though other artists like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles crossed over, Charles never did, though he continued to play smaller shows for his devotees. He would continue to record throughout the 50s and 60s and would record another Holiday favorite that he would get credit for this time, “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Another hit that has been re-recorded by several artists since.
Brown collected several accolades for his legendary career, including his inductions into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also a recipient of a 1997 National Heritage Fellowship, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States. Furthermore, he was nominated for seventeen Blues Music Awards with a win in the Blues Instrumentalist: Piano/Keyboard category in 1991 and wins in the Male Blues Vocalist category in 1993 and 1995. He also scored a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album on three different occasions:
In 1991 for All My Life
In 1992 for Someone To Love
In 1995 for Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues
Brown passed away of congestive heart failure in 1999 in Oakland, California. Though his contributions to the Blues scene will never be forgotten. He was an unsung hero during this era, and especially pertaining to the controversy that surrounded “Merry Christmas Baby.” Without Charles Brown, there would be no Ray Charles and without Ray Charles, there’s no Billy Joel or Van Morrison.
As we enter the Holiday season this year and hear our favorite jingles on the radio and in stores, each of those has a story about their inception. Some great and some controversial but nonetheless, staples of this time each year. Happy Holidays.