Hearts are heavy in the Houston blues community tonight as word spreads that 85-year-old Texas Johnny Brown, one of the classiest acts on the scene and the author of Bobby Bland's epic "Two Steps From the Blues," has passed. Brown's son Shawn had been handling his father's care, and he tweeted news of Brown's passing to members of the Blues Society around 7 p.m. Monday.
According to one follow-up message we received, Brown passed in his sleep and without pain.
The diminutive, dapper bluesman has been a fixture on the Houston blues scene since arriving here from Mississippi at the tender age of ten with his father, who was a blind blues musician. Brown worked with his father for some time before beginning a successful solo career.
One of the most pleasant and affable men on the blues scene, Brown had been performing once a month at the Big Easy for years. The first hint of his health issue, which was quickly identified as liver cancer, was in May when he cancelled his monthly Big Easy gig.
According to Houston Press sources, Brown had declined chemotherapy. Hospice nurses were brought in to care for Brown full time only a few days back.
A native of Ackerman, Mississippi, Brown was honored by the state of Mississippi with his own plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail in September 2011. Brown and his Quality Blues Band attended the unveiling in Ackerman and played a concert celebrating the event, and he was a featured artist at the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival.
But Houston was Brown's adopted home, the place where he made his bones as a songwriter, arranger, guitarist, and performer. Dr. Roger Wood, author of the definitive Houston blues history book, Down in Houston, recently told us that in spite of other claims, Brown "wrote and came up with the arrangement for 'Two Steps From the Blues' all on his own."
Wood also noted that Brown was typical of many Houston bluesmen in that he could read charts and that his musical ability went far beyond 12-bar blues.
"Like a lot of guys from Houston, Johnny could play with anyone. The blues was his first love, but he had a jazz sense and knew his way around a good pop tune," Wood said.
Brown was also well known in Houston for another monumental blues classic, "There Goes the Blues." It was featured in the above Houston Press video about Houston's old school blues men and women.
Longtime Houston Chronicle music critic and iFest entertainment coordinator Rick Mitchell recently noted that when he first came to town, "Marty Racine made sure two of the first people I met were I.J. Gosey and Texas Johnny Brown. I had no idea the talent and history those two men alone had behind them."
A ranking member of the Blues Society messaged that Brown's funeral was likely to be in his hometown of Ackerman, but arrangements are still pending. Another member noted that there would be an informal gathering tonight at the Big Easy with more formalized gatherings expected in the next day or two.