Today we celebrate poet, songwriter, singer, and activist Oscar Brown, Jr. Brown was born in 1926 in Chicago, where he grew up. His father was a successful attorney and real estate broker. He had his first singing gig on the radio at age 15; after dropping out of college, he began working as a journalist (including work on the Negro News Front) and dabbling in songwriting. When Mahalia Jackson recorded one of his songs, he began focusing on this career. In the mid-50s he got his next break, working on the black freedom project We Insist – Freedom Now! with Max Roach. He was then signed to Columbia records where he recorded for over a decade, working with other pioneers like Quincy Jones.
Brown wrote the musical Kicks and Co., set on an historically black college campus in the South, dealing with desegregation. The Today show gave him an entire show to present the musical to raise funds for its production. Sadly, funding was insufficient and the show was never mounted. He wrote and produced an other socially conscious musical, Joy, in 1966.
His songs range from standard (but marvelous) love songs like Rags and Old Iron to freedom songs like Afro Blue to soul hits like The Snake (sung by Al Wilson in 1968). Perhaps his best-known song is Work Song, covered by artists ranging from Bobby Darin to Nina Simone (who recorded over a dozen of Brown’s compositions).
I commited crime Lord of needing
Crime of being hungry and poor
I left the grocery store man breathing
When they caught me robbing his store
Hold it steady right there while I hit it
Well reckon that ought to get it
Been working and working
but I still got so terribly far to go
Late in his life, Brown founded the Oscar Brown, Jr. HIP (Human Improvement Potential) Legacy Foundation to ensure that his humanitarian interests would carry on after his death. Two years before his death in 2005, he recorded this fascinating interview for Topically Yours. Let us celebrate this hard-working entertainer and activist today.