Charles Brown was the pioneer originator of the immensely influential postwar California blues style. Though identified with his classic “Driftin’ Blues,” he was not committed to just the blues, and was comfortable as a popular crooner as well. His efforts as a vocalist, pianist, and composer helped create the music that would become rhythm and blues, and he was one of the principals in bringing about a shift in the mainstream of African-American music, one that would bring vocalists to the forefront and largely eclipse the instrumental art of jazz. Brown was a premier entertainer in the 1940s and 1950s, influencing a host of later performers including Ray Charles.
Brown was born on September 13, 1922 (some sources give the year as 1920), in Texas City, Texas. His mother died when he was a baby, and he was raised by his grandparents, who made him learn to play the piano and the church organ. He stuck to his education, and eventually earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry with the intention of teaching the subject in school. However, after he joined the large migration of Texas blacks to Los Angeles during World War II, he quickly became aware of the jazz and blues scene taking shape there, and decided that he might do better to put his musical abilities to work.
Brown entered an amateur hour competition at Los Angeles's Lincoln Theater, a blues live performance mecca. Ironically he did not win the contest with a blues song but did a great interpretation of “Claire de Lune.” and for his encore followed with “Rhapsody in Blue.” On stage, Brown impressed the guitarist Johnny Moore, who was looking for a pianist-vocalist to complete his new group, the Three Blazers. Brown got the job and became the front man for a new kind of blues act, one that offered music of considerable complexity, and borrowed harmonies and instrumental techniques from the world of jazz without losing the directness and emotional depth of its rural blues roots.