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R.I.P. Mel Brown


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From the KW record:

Terry Pender



One of this city's most beloved musicians--the legendary bluesman Mel Brown--has died. He was 69.

Brown was admitted to the intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital on March 1 with a collapsed lung. He never made it home. Miss Angel, Brown's longtime wife and partner, was at his side, when he died yesterday afternoon about 4 p.m. of complications from emphysema.

Soft-spoken and humble in life, Brown will be celebrated and remembered in death as one of the most talented blues guitarists to come out of the Mississippi Delta.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, the cradle of the Delta Blues, on Oct. 7, 1939, Brown lived in the music centres of Los Angeles, Nashville and Austin before settling in Kitchener in 1989.

His first gig was with the famous harp player Sonny Boy Williamson. Brown's last show was a Sunday afternoon gig at the Boathouse in Victoria Park.

In between, Brown played and recorded with a long roster of musicians, including B.B. King, T-bone Walker, Snooky Pryor, Bobby Bland, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Lee Hooker, David Bowie, Dr. John, Sonny and Cher, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

Brown was born into a musical family steeped in the art form that would transform popular music. The Delta Blues is the musical foundation for the giants of rock-- the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd.

But years before Mick Jagger ever strutted across the stage, the Brown household hosted Sonny Boy Williamson and his band, who were in town for a gig.

This was a common practice in 1950s Mississippi. African Americans were not allowed to stay in hotels. The band needed a guitar player for the gig and a young Brown was tapped for the job.

On the way to the show the car was stopped near a tree. The drummer jumped out and broke off a couple of branches so he could whittle a pair of drum sticks.

In 1955 when he was 16, Brown headed for Los Angeles. Humbled by the competition in the big city Brown returned to Jackson and practised hard for another two years before going back to L.A.

He never looked back.

Between 1958 and 1967 in L.A., Brown played with several bands --Johnny Otis, The Olympics, Etta James, Sam Cooke, Pee Wee Brayton, Johnny Guitar Watson-- and started getting regular work as a session musician.

T-Bone Walker, called by some as the Father of the Blues Guitar, heard Brown playing one night at the Sands Club in L.A. and invited him to appear on his next album.

A studio executive was so impressed that Brown was signed to his own deal with ABC/Impulse where he recorded his first album -- Chicken Fat. To this day Chicken Fat is a classic among blues guitar fans.

Brown recorded several albums and was touring with the Bobby Blue Band for years. In 1975, the tour bus rolled into Denver Colorado for a weeklong gig. A young woman attended every show and fell for Brown. That's how Miss Angel and Brown met.

"And when the bus left it was 13 guys and me," Miss Angel recalled.

"I met him a few days before my 22nd birthday. It was mostly about the party for me."

Brown and Miss Angel lived together for 13 years, and then they got married.

But, in 1976, the couple moved to Nashville where Brown found steady work until moving in 1983 to Austin Texas to head the house band for Antoine's.

And that's where a young blues aficionado from Kitchener named Glenn Smith crossed paths with Brown around 1985. Smith was in Austin scouting for acts he could hire for shows in Kitchener.

"It was at the end of the night and I was leaving Antoine's, literally the lights were on and everyone was leaving and this guy is standing on the edge of the stage and playing the electric guitar by himself and I was just floored. I said: 'Who is that guy?' " recalled Smith.

When Smith opened Pop the Gator on Queen Street South in 1989, he asked Brown to lead his house band. Brown agreed and settled into a house on Cameron Street in downtown Kitchener.

"It was like having a baseball team and saying: 'Guess what? We have Mickey Mantle now,'" Smith said.

"It gave me, as a club owner at the time, huge credibility," Smith said.

Brown hosted a weekly jam night at Pop the Gator and musicians lined up for a chance to share the stage with the great blues guitarist.

"Guys would come to me later and say: 'If I never do another thing at least I was onstage with Mel Brown,'" Smith said.

Pop the Gator closed in the early 1990s but Brown stayed in this city, becoming a fixture at the blues festival and other venues.

"Laid back, smooth, consummate bluesman," Smith said in describing Brown.

"Loved smooth whisky, smooth women, smooth blues, never raised his voice," Smith said.

Miss Angel appeared on recordings and stages with him.

A lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Brown about six years ago when he had to go on oxygen full time because of emphysema.

He quit smoking then.

In October, 2006, Brown was rushed to hospital with breathing problems from a gig at the Silver Dollar in Toronto.

But the veteran bluesman rallied and returned to the stage.

Before the emphysema got bad, Brown liked to golf.

Scott Urquhart was a partner in Pop the Gator and became good friends with Brown.

"He was a private guy. He liked to keep to himself," Urquhart said.

"He was the nicest guy in the world. I don't know how else to describe him, just very patient and very caring," Urquhart said.

Brown inspired some of this country's leading blues talents.

Juno-award nominee Julian Fauth faithfully attended the jam nights at Pop the Gator.

"One time I went with my girlfriend at the time and I wanted to impress her so I put my name on the list to play," recalled Fauth, who now lives in Toronto.

"And there were a lot of people in the room and I thought I wouldn't have to go through with it. It was getting late and Mel Brown looked around the room and said, 'Everybody is getting up to play tonight.' And he looked over at me, and it was obvious I wasn't old enough to be there, and he said, 'Even you.'

"And then I got up and played with him and he liked it and he said, 'Do another one,' " Fauth said. "I did another one and he said, 'You can come back any time.' I did. I didn't always come back to play, but I came back to listen almost every week."

Also at Pop the Gator for jam nights was Shawn Kellerman, another guitar ace and Brown protegé.

"When I didn't have to go to school he let me play rhythm guitar or I would go up and jam when I could only come in for a couple of songs," Kellerman said.

On his third and most recent CD, Kellerman recorded a song Brown wrote called Love Is Sweet. Kellerman played that CD for Brown when he was in the intensive care unit.

"So we listened to three or four tunes from my new CD. Angel said to me he really liked it. So that was good. It was really nice. It was great," Kellerman said.

That emotional meeting was more than 20 years after Kellerman first saw Brown.

"I heard him playing at one of those blues picnics in Frog's Hollow and he was playing piano with Angela Straley, then all of a sudden Mel switched to guitar and that moment is kind of ingrained in my brain," Kellerman said.

Steve Strongman, the Hamilton-based blues artist who grew up in Kitchener, followed Brown to different jam nights.

"I used to go and sit in and jam with him, every week, he used to do every Thursday night at The Red Pepper and I would go in there and he would hand me his big Super 400, which was about the size of me and I would sit and play and learn and soak up as much as I could," Strongman said.

When blues singer Cheryl Lescom returned to Kitchener in the mid-1990s, she was trying to revive her singing career while her marriage fell apart. It was a hard time made easier thanks to the kindness of Brown and Miss Angel, Lescom said.

"He would share his stage generously with you," Lescom said.

"He would welcome you into his space, and when you've got that kind of talent you have to be a special person to do that. And he did that. He was just so gracious and kind. Both of them," Lescom said.

About 10 years after moving to Kitchener, a Toronto-based label -- Electro-Fi Records -- signed Brown. Andrew Galloway, who heads the label, marvelled at the relationship Brown had with his fans in this area.

"He loved living in Kitchener," Galloway said.

"The people were so welcoming to him. He never got over how welcoming people were to him," Galloway said.

For the past 11 years Galloway worked with and recorded Brown. Brown won the W.C. Handy Award for Blues Comeback Album of the Year in 2000 for Neck Bones and Caviar.

"I asked him, 'When did you start playing?' And he said, 'I can't remember when I wasn't playing,' " Galloway, said.

For the past 20 years, Brown seldom ventured far from his Cameron Street home. He would do gigs in Toronto and London, but mostly the shows were in this region.

"He loves Kitchener," Miss Angel said. "He was in the hospital upstairs and he was looking out the window, you know, on the sixth floor so he can pretty much see the whole town, right, and he turned and said to me-- 'I love this place. I just love this place.' That's what he said," Miss Angel recalled.

Mel Brown, Buddy Guy and B.B. King are the last of the originals to take the Delta Blues and send them around the world on the strings of electric guitars.

A few years ago, Guy was onstage at Centre in the Square when he said to Brown, "It's just you, me and B.B. left now."

Brown's importance got the attention of Mako Funasaka, a documentary filmmaker in Toronto behind the talkin'blues productions, a series on Bravo! documenting the blues.

Funasaka filmed Mel Brown -The DVD while Brown recorded Blues . . . A Beautiful Thing.

"I have seen musicians meet Mel for the first time and just be in awe," Funasaka said. "To me that's who he was -- the coolest guy on the planet."

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