Roy Brown may not be a household name but he is another of the under-appreciated innovators of the pre-rock’n’roll era, and a big influence on everyone from Elvis to Little Richard.
In 1947 his single Good Rockin’ Tonight was so popular in his native New Orleans that it was taken and covered and turned into a much bigger hit by Wynonie Harris (and Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Pat Boone). But he hit back with Boogie At Midnight, released in November 1949 by Roy Brown & His Mighty-Mighty Men.
He might not be a household name but to music historians he is one of the key figures in the development of rock’n’roll, with his pleading gospel-influenced vocal style acknowledged as a formative influence by Little Richard.
Brown was born in Louisiana and Texas, working in the sugarcane fields and singing and playing the organ in church, before making his way via Texas to Los Angeles by the age of 17. He’s also another of those early rock’n’rollers who had a stint as a professional boxer.
After winning a talent contest in LA singing a Bing Crosby tune, he moved back to Louisiana, performing pop ballads during a residency at a club in Shreveport where he earned a reputation as “the negro singer who sounds white.”
While there he began developing his own blues-influenced style, recording songs including the original Good Rockin’ Tonight, and had 15 hits on the R&B charts between 1948 and late 1951.
They ranged from the soulful blues of Hard Luck Blues – his biggest hit – to party-time rockers like Rockin’ At Midnight (a thinly disguised variation on Good Rockin’ Tonight) and the filthy innuendo-filled Butcher Pete, apparently inspired by a real serial killer.
Like so many others musicians of colour, he was unable to cash in on the rock’n’roll idiom he helped to invent, possibly because of a rare successful lawsuit he brought against Syd Nathan’s label, King Records, for unpaid royalties.
There was also a stint in jail for tax evasion despite Elvis trying to help by writing him a cheque for his bill on a brown paper bag.
He did have another hit for Imperial Records in 1957, back in New Orleans with producer Dave Bartholomew, with Let The Four Winds Blow (co-written with Fats Domino, who also had a hit with the song).
But he fell on hard times again and ended up working door-to-door as an encyclopedia salesman after selling the rights to his biggest earner, Good Rockin’ Tonight, to make ends meet.
He had another comeback in 1970, closing the Monterey Jazz Festival with Johnny Otis, which led to one final hit single – the blistering blues Love For Sale – and was on the verge of becoming a star on the heritage circuit, headlining the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1981, when he died a month later at the age of only 56.
In a nice postscript, his funeral service was conducted by The Rev Johnny Otis.