Bayou City

Charles Brown: Texas City's Unsung Christmas-Music Angel

It’s far enough into the holidays that many people are completely over Christmas music for another year. But a handful of Yuletide songs within that vast catalog never seem to wear out their welcome. Two of those happen to have originated from the same person, a Texan. In the 50-plus years since their release, they’ve been recorded by dozens of artists across the fields of pop, rock, country and R&B.

It would not be a stretch to say these two tunes rank among the most successful Christmas songs in modern U.S. history. Alongside “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and a few others, they belong to the very short list of songs Americans expect to hear constantly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day — on the radio, at the mall or supermarket, on this or that TV spot. But, unlike too many of their kin, these two songs actually do bring a little holiday cheer into people’s lives.

Their names are “Merry Christmas Baby,” from 1947, and “Please Come Home For Christmas,” released in 1960. The man responsible for bringing them into the world was a singer, songwriter and pianist named Charles Brown. A native of Texas City who passed away in January 1999, less than two months before his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brown is credited as co-author of “Please Come Home”; he could well have written “Merry Christmas Baby” too, thanks to the misleading nature of songwriting credits at the time. He definitely sang lead vocals on the song, and his recording remains the standard by which all others are judged. His "Please Come Home" is equally indelible — it reached Billboard's top Christmas singles chart nine different times, hitting the top in 1972.

Brown was one of the most gifted musicians of his day, but his two Christmas songs have made him immortal. “You’re going to be hearing people sing ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ and ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ for ever,” says Dr. Roger Wood, the retired HCC professor and author of Down In Houston and Texas Zydeco. “That alone separates Charles Brown from a whole lot of folks that came from this area.”

Brown was raised by his grandparents on his mother’s side. His mother died when he just a baby, his father a few years later after being hit by a train, he told an interviewer from Living Blues magazine in 1994. His grandmother, Brown recalled, “believed in education,” including the piano lessons he took at the expense of his bicycle-riding schoolmates calling him a “sissy.” (“Those same boys gonna be paying to see you play one day,” she told him.) Gifted with an agile mind and exceptionally long fingers, Brown excelled at even the advanced material, studying classical music and spirituals as well as what his grandmother disapprovingly called “low music."  But that’s what brought the drinkers and dancers out to the beachside joints and honky-tonks of nearby Galveston, where a saxophone-playing high-school teacher of Brown’s invited him along to his gigs.

At Prairie View A&M, Brown was a star with a group known as the Prairie View Collegians, but opted to get degrees in mathematics and chemistry instead of music. (“I figured I already knew enough piano,” he told Living Blues.) He taught briefly at Carver High School in Baytown after graduation and worked at a U.S. Army chemical-weapons facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and later as an electrician’s apprentice at a shipyard near Oakland. By 1943, Brown had moved to Los Angeles, where his jobs included elevator operator, church organist and piano player for rehearsals at the Lincoln Theater, one of the key venues in L.A.’s then-thriving Central Avenue scene. A fellow Texan, Johnny Moore, saw Brown win a talent contest at the theater and later invited him to join his group, the Three Blazers. The group soon recorded one of the biggest R&B hits of 1946, the Brown-sung “Driftin’ Blues,” and by the time “Merry Christmas Baby” came along, Brown had earned the nickname “the black Bing Crosby.”

Wood says he is in the dark regarding the specific circumstances behind the creation of “Merry Christmas Baby.” However, when he interviewed her for Down In Houston, he does recall Brown’s close friend and former Prairie View classmate, the late jazz/blues pianist Richie Dell Thomas, talking about Brown's working on the song in the L.A. apartment they (platonically) shared at the time. Another Houston bluesman of Brown’s generation, the late trumpeter and bandleader Calvin Owens, once shared some insight into the appeal of composing Christmas music. Owens, who died in 2008, recorded several albums in the 1990s and included several Christmas songs on them. “‘People want Christmas songs,” Wood recalls Owens telling him. “‘You get a Christmas song, if it becomes a hit, it’ll be a hit forever.’”

“If you can create music, and if you can create a Christmas song, that kind of breaks through other barriers,” Wood says. “I think it’s interesting that two of these enduring Christmas songs were written by a black man from Texas City, and I just don’t think most people realize that. I think there’s a lot of folks that think the Eagles wrote ‘Please Come Home For Christmas.’”

Thanks in part to all those childhood piano lessons, and some fortunate timing, Brown belonged to the vanguard of transplanted Texas musicians in the ’40s and early ’50s – including T-Bone Walker and Brown’s good friend Amos Milburn – who helped introduce a new level of musical sophistication into the blues that helped broaden its audience. Several of his songs, both with the Three Blazers and later on his own, have become part of the standard blues/R&B repertoire, chiefly “Driftin Blues” and “Black Night.” But even those two tunes, which were later recorded by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Eric Clapton, Dr. John and many others, can’t approach the lasting impact of “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home For Christmas.”

“To me they’re remarkable pieces of 20th-century popular music,” Wood says. “Because there’s definitely this kind of bluesy element to it, [but] it’s universal music. He had a sensibility that reached beyond the juke joints and the barrelhouses and the blues clubs.”

Brown’s sensibility continues to reach across the decades. Just this week, Brooklyn’s Dap-Tone Records released a new, animated video for another cover of “Please Come Home For Christmas,” this one by its flagship act, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The song is taken from the R&B revivalists’ recently reissued 2015 LP, It’s a Holiday Soul Party!, and stands as a poignant tribute to the group’s late singer, who passed away on November 19 after a long battle with cancer. It also joins some illustrious company: Cindy Crawford co-starred in the video for Jon Bon Jovi’s 1992 cover, one year before the gorgeous version released on the LP Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas. Kelly Clarkson, another Texan, sang it at this year’s National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C.

Still widely heard nearly 40 years after its release, the Eagles’ cover reached Billboard’s Top 20 shortly after its release in late 1978, making it the most successful Christmas song on the pop charts since Roy Orbison’s recording of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” 15 years earlier. It also helped revive public interest in Brown, who by the late ’70s had not been a full-time recording artist for years.

“Merry Christmas Baby” hasn’t fared too badly, either. Artists who have recorded notable covers include Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Etta James, Christina Aguilera and brotherly Oklahoma pop trio Hanson, who used it to lead off their double-platinum 1997 LP Snowed In. Rod Stewart chose it as the title song for his successful 2012 holiday LP. And in 1992, Bonnie Raitt recorded the song for the Special Olympics-benefiting album A Very Special Christmas 2, featuring a very special guest: Charles Brown himself. By that time, Brown was again recording and touring regularly, often with Raitt. Choosing her ten favorite duets for Billboard earlier this year, Raitt selected “Someone to Love” from Brown’s similarly titled 1992 album, saying, “I adored the man and miss him every day.”

Several years after Brown’s death from congestive heart failure at age 77, his hometown of Texas City commissioned a bust of his head to hang in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and the following weekend hosted the free Charles Brown Blues Festival in Nessler Park. (Wood says James "The Blues Hound" Nagel, host of KPFT's "Howlin' the Blues," played a key role in both.) Unfortunately, the festival didn’t last, but Texas City continues to hold events in Brown's honor, including a celebration as part of this year’s Juneteenth festivities. The Christmas songs he wrote seem destined to last about as long as that bust. According to Roger Wood, “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home For Christmas” — one a satisfied lover’s purr, the other an expression of longing to be among those we hold most dear — fall into that rarest of categories among Christmas songs: those written for grownups.

“This isn’t a bad thing, but [most Christmas music] speaks to the child in us. Both of those songs are Christmas songs that speak to the adults in us,” he says. “When we’re children, the idea of ‘please come home for Christmas’ doesn’t make the sense it makes once we’ve grown up and left the nest. One’s kind of witty and more of an adult-themed [song], and the other one is speaking to that universal impulse to get back to where your people are at this time of year.”

Additional information for this article was drawn from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray