The singer Cleo Brown, known in later years as C. Patra Brown, made recordings in the '30s and '40s, then entered the studios once again in the late '80s after being rediscovered living in the hinterlands of Colorado. Judging from the titles of compilation albums she appears on, Brown seems like she'd be a lot of fun, lumped in a class with other slick chicks, hot mamas, queens of boogie-woogie, female jivers, and rockin' piano ladies. Even amongst this peer group, Brown had some particularly endearing characteristics, especially in her choice of material. Reefer songs are a dime bag a dozen but how many tributes to swollen feet have been recorded? Her "Breakin' in a New Pair of Shoes" is a link with the great Fats Waller, with whom she was frequently compared. He recorded "Your Feet's Too Big," his own tribute to feet, big if not swollen. Another of Brown's greatest and most unusual songs is "When Hollywood Goes Black and Tan," celebrating black performers in the movie business.
Born into a musical household in Mississippi, she started singing in her father's church as a youngster. Following the family move to Chicago in 1919, she began formal studies music on piano. By the early '20s, she was working professionally in clubs and tent shows as well as broadcasting live with her own regular radio show. By the early '30s, she was well-established and for the next two decades she worked almost non-stop, performing in cities across the United States and holding forth regularly in clubs such as New York's Three Deuces. Opinions vary widely as to her talents, but there is no doubt that she was a great communicator. In fact, some listeners may wind up wishing they had a more personal relationship with Brown once they have heard such personal messages as "Mama Don't Want No Peas and Rice and Coconut Oil," or better yet "The Stuff Is Here and It's Mellow." On the strength of the latter number, originally cut in 1935 for Decca, Brown was ceremoniously welcomed into the fraternity of "artists who have recorded songs about reefer," meaning that her music is available on a variety of compilations collecting such material.
There were two sides to her musical performances: her voice and her piano playing. As for the former, the previously mentioned range of opinion veers from those who describe her as a "female Fats Waller," which definitely should be taken as a compliment unless one is describing taste in clothing; to the other end of the spectrum, in which Brown is considered to have a "tiny and twee" voice that gets across completely on the strength of her personality. As for the keyboard, she is more evenly appreciated in this regard, considered along with players such as Freddie Slack and Bob Zurke as the most prominent of the second generation of boogie-woogie players. "It's coming with us to that Desert Island," one critic said of a Cleo Brown performance; while another writer, singling out her efforts from amongst the large cast of a four-CD set, wrote "Cleo Brown was an absolute revelation on "Lookie Lookie Lookie (Here Comes Cookie)," her piano chops easily the equal of her sly vocals." The influences of the major players from the original boogie-woogie craze can be heard in her playing, of course, including Pinetop Smith, whose piece "Pinetop's Boogie" she recorded, as well as Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, Joe Sullivan, Clarence Lofton, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. Some jazz writers also hand out some of the credit for the popularity of her records to her accompanists, which included leading jazzmen of the day.
By the late '40s, the rowdy content of her music was beginning to bother her. Brown was going through a religious experience that made singing about the usual tawdry classic blues themes a bit unsettling. She retired from music in 1953 and took up nursing. This was a short-lived career, winding up in a decision to return to music, but only of the religious variety. It was pianist Marion McPartland, a fine player as well as the host of the wonderful National Public Radio show Piano Jazz, that came upon Brown living in the Denver, CO, area under not much of a professional spotlight. She was persuaded to visit New York in order to tape an appearance for Piano Jazz, resulting in a superb article on her by jazz writer Whitney Balliett, eventually reprinted in his book American Singers. A new spate of recordings and performances followed, the final chapters of a legend that had gone from the lore of the viper to the gospel, and back again. Although hipsters no doubt wish somebody a bit less of a square had come up with the song, Dave Brubeck's "Sweet Cleo Brown" is a charming tribute. ~ Eugene Chadbourne