Oscar Brown Jr. ‘Between Heaven & Hell + Sin & Soul’ (Soul Jam) 5/5

Chicago born singer Oscar Brown Jr came to prominence at the beginning of the 1960’s and personified the ‘hipster’ persona, hence his nickname of the ‘high priest of hip’. His cultural contribution to the civil rights era is a significant one for in his early career he was a radio broadcaster for the first ever African-American news programme in the United States, called, ‘Negro news front’, that Brown Jr. hosted  for some five years. However, it was his vocal skills that he will be most fondly remembered for and both albums contained within have, at regular intervals, been re-issued in vinyl and CD format, though this is probably the first occasion that they have been paired together, and with the major additional bonus of non-album song from the same era that found their way onto lesser known 45’s. Jazz dance fans will marvel at, ‘Mr. Kicks’ and, ‘When Malindy sings’, both of which are regarded as jazz vocal classics and been re-issued separately on various artist compilations. Both songs feature on the first album, but the latter is probably the stronger all round, containing a wonderful take on Nat Adderley‘s, ‘Work song’, that Oscar added lyrics to, as he did also on another soul-jazz anthem, ‘Date dere’, originally a Bobby Timmons composition. Hipsterdom is very much on the agenda on, ‘But I was cool’, and the very last song on the album, ‘Afro-Blue’, is a version to rival that of the late great Abbey Lincoln. Of the bonus tracks, Brown courageously make an excellent attempt at a song Nat Cole co-wrote, ‘Straighten up and fly right’, and became immortal for the earlier vocal version, while, ‘Sixteen tons’, is a terrific uptempo jazz vehicle. Soul Jam have really cut no corner in terms of the abundant and excellent quality of the graphical illustrations of the singer. These range from album/single covers to magazine covers (Brown Jr. was on the front cover of Down Beat magazine in 1962 for example), black and white/colour photos of the singer at various stages of his career and original album notes are brought up to date with new notes. It is something of a surprise that he did not become a bigger name given his extraordinary creative talents and these included writing a musical adaptation of a play about a black militant named Buck White that played on Broadway in 1969. In fact, the singer played the role a year later in San Francisco. Given the few examples we have of Oscar Brown Jr. (no live recordings for example), and another Columbia album, ‘Tell it is like it is!’, that is now is a hard to find album on vinyl (but some tracks are available on a BGP compilation by Dean Rudland worth checking out) and, only briefly re-issued on CD via the Collectables series, this latest re-packaging is most welcome and a first port of call.

Tim Stenhouse