Roy Brown, Good Rockin' Tonight

Roy Brown, the man who wrote and first cut "Good Rockin' Tonight," and who had rocked his way to the top and fallen to the bottom before Elvis had ever even gotten laid, saw it like this: "I remember Colonel Parker making the statement, 'I believe the white kids want to hear rock 'n' roll, but I'm gonna have a white boy do it.' In other words: If you want to hear 'Good Rockin' Tonight,' I'm gonna have Elvis Presley do it. A lot of those guys did those things and copied the arrangements note for note, but that way it was accepted."

Brown remembers Elvis, whom he met only once, in 1954, as an unknown cracker punk trying to sneak onto the stage at one of Brown's gigs: 'We used to play for the high sheriff in Tupelo, Mississippi. My bandleader, my guitar player at that time was Edgar Blanchard, from New Orleans -he's dead now- he loved to drink. Elvis came around. He wanted to sing, but Edgar wouldn't let him on the bandstand. Elvis discovered that Edgar liked to drink, so he got him a big bottle of moonshine. Tupelo was a dry town and when I came back from changing my clothes at the sheriffs house, there was Elvis. He was up there playing and singing with them, nobody paying any attention to him.

"On my West Coast tour a few months later, Tommy Shelvin, my bassplayer, said, 'Hey, man, there's a hillbilly singing your song.' Sure 'nuff, Elvis was singing this song with a hillbilly band. But he never did sell, because he hadn't become Elvis yet, y'know. Yeah, they're both dead now, old Edgar and old Elvis."

It's wise when listening to these characters to keep in mind Shakespeare's warning about "old men of less truth than tongue." But nothing can shake the truth from the fact that, like many others, Roy Brown was an originator of that strange, exalted thing, rock 'n' roll, for which Elvis and a few other kids received the credit.

Roy Brown was born in New Orleans on September 10, 1925. His mama, True Love Brown, part Algonquin, part black, was a choir director and organist. His daddy, Yancy Brown, was a plasterer and bricklayer. As the old man followed work, the family moved through the towns of rural Louisiana. Roy worked for a while in the sugar cane fields of Morgan City and New Iberia. He didn't hear the blues there, only spirituals.

His mother died when he was fourteen. Three years later, after finishing high school, Roy moved to Los Angeles. He became a boxer, winning sixteen of his eighteen professional welterweight matches. But the sight of blood made him sick, and he was forced to quit the fight game.

In 1945, at the Million Dollar Theater in L.A., Brown won an amateur singing contest by imitating Bing Crosby's versions of "San Antonio Rose" and "I Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle." Crosby was Roy Brown's favorite singer, and he's not ashamed of it. He says he heard no blues until the early forties, when he heard Billy Eckstine sing "Jelly Jelly" and Ella Johnson sing "When My Man Comes Home."

Brown returned to Louisiana and got his first steady singing job, at Billy Riley's Palace Park in Shreveport. He sang stuff like "Stardust" and "Blue Hawaii." Looking back, he feels he got the job because he was a novelty, a colored guy who sounded white-sort of the Elvis syndrome in reverse.

From Shreveport he went to Galveston, Texas, where he wrote the song that made him famous. "I think we had the first black group on radio in that area," he says, again bringing to mind the words of Shakespeare's "Sonnet XVII." "My theme was 'There's No You,' a Crosby thing. But I wrote a tune called 'Good Rockin' Tonight.' We added a trumpet player to the group. His name was Wilbert Brown, and when we did our radio show on KGBC he sang 'Good Rockin' Tonight.'" One fateful day, Wilbert fell sick and Roy sang the song. The audience loved the way Roy sang it, and it became a local hit. While in Galveston, he made his first record, for Gold Star.

Brown fled Galveston after he was caught fucking the girlfriend of the club owner he was working for. In New Orleans he ran into Cecil Gant, a fellow unsung-hero-to-be. Gant heard Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight" and brought him to Jules Braun, who owned DeLuxe Records. Brown's first DeLuxe release, "Good Rockin' Tonight," was issued in September 1947.

Roy continued to record for DeLuxe for three years. During those years, his voice grew tougher, wilder. He was no longer merely an exceptional pop singer like Crosby, Sinatra, Prima, or Nat Cole, but one of the first real rock 'n' roll voices. By the time he cut "Hard Luck Blues", the most morbid Number I hit in the history of the R&B charts in 1950, Brown had achieved a lowdown range and power in his voice that few other singers then or since could equal.

King Records bought out his contract in 1950, and Brown found himself screwed in the process. After he finally went to BMI and the musician's union to retrieve his rightful royalties from King, he was blackballed. Following his 1951 "Big Town," Brown continued to record for King, but the hits came to an end and so did the big money dates.

He left King, belatedly, in 1955. For the next two years he recorded for Imperial. His versions of Buddy Knox's "Party Doll" and Fats Domino's "Let the Four Winds Blow" were minor pop hits in 1957, but by 1959 Brown was so desperate he returned to King for two sessions. In 1960 and 1961 he cut four singles for the Home of the Blues label in Memphis. As irony might have it, these ill-starred records were produced by former Elvis sideman Scotty Moore.

The sixties were slow for Roy Brown. There were a few sessions for fly-by-night labels like DRA and Connie and Mobile. Chess cut four sides on him in 1963, but never released them. He became a door-to-door salesman, easing himself into the homes of older blacks with autographed pictures of the former star that was him. "I sold a lot of encyclopedias that way, he recalled.

Brown started recording again in 1967. There was an album for Bluesway, Hard Times; singles for local L.A. labels-Gert, Summit-and his own Tru-Love and Friendship labels. In 1971, the year after his successful appearance with Johnny Otis at the Monterey Festival, there were a pair of singles on Mercury. Although much of this work was as fine as his work of twenty years before, it was less lucrative than selling encyclopedias. In 1978 he issued an album, The Cheapest Price in Town, on his own Faith label. It was one of the best and sleaziest albums of the year, but probably no more than a few thousand people heard it.

Then again, like the man says, what the hell. "I drive a new Monte Carlo, my wife drives a Chevron. I'm very happy," he explained. He didn't have to worry about trade-ins. His heart gave out on May 25, 1981, in Los Angeles.

Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n' Roll, Nick Tosches

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