On the errant afternoon when I can steal away to the Louisiana Music Factory, the workday stresses melt and I plant myself in the aisles, perusing CDs, scanning the liner notes, knowing there’s never enough money to leave with everything I want, yet feeling … happy. The ambience of a record emporium breathes history, echoing the lives that shape the music with intimations of what it was like to be there in the time-worn posters and old pictures.
For weeks I’d been carrying the bravura voice of Roy Brown, a round and rolling tenor baritone, in my head, particularly the classic song “Good Rocking Tonight.”
Well meet me in a hurry
behind the barn
Don’t be afraid I’ll do you
I want you to bring my
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna
rock away all my blues
I heard the news, there’s
good rocking tonight.
Born in New Orleans in 1925 and raised on gospel music, Roy Brown as a teenager moved to Houston, then California, making his way back here at 22, a bantam boxer searching for a break as a singer. He had his song and that undiscovered voice when he got into the Dew Drop Inn and managed to sing it on stage with blues pianist, Cecil Gant. Brown was so strapped he offered to sell Gant the song right there. Gant had a better idea: he used a pay phone to place a collect call to the owner of DeLuxe Records, then Jules Braun, at his home somewhere in New Jersey. It was about 3 a.m. Gant made a hurried introduction and told Brown to sing the song, which he did, more softly.
“Sing it again,” came the voice from way up the continent. Brown sang it again. Braun told Cecil Gant to advance Roy Brown $50 cash, which he seriously needed. The next week, July 1947, he made the recording.
The song came out in 1948 and was so big that white guys were calling Vernon Winslow – the original Dr. Daddy-O – at WJMR radio and asking him to play that one about going behind the barn with the girl. “Good Rocking Tonight” was a chart-buster that crossed racial lines when segregation was the law.
Roy Brown had 13 hit singles in the next nine years. He eventually settled in Los Angeles. Late in his life, Brown fought to collect back royalties. He died in 1981, just after a triumphant return to the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Shame on me, I didn’t own a Roy Brown recording (though I did have him on some anthologies and compilation discs) until that recent afternoon at the Louisiana Music Factory. I left with The Chronological Roy Brown, 1947-1949. Another tune from his peak period opens with blazing horns from Wallace Davenport, Clement Tervalon and Earl M. Barnes, a jump beat and Roy’s bigger-than-sky voice:
I’m a mighty mighty man
I’m young and I’m in my
I’m a real young man, a
brand new 25
I’m willing and able …
They call me good rockin’
For all the machismo, it’s a song to make you smile – so much energy in his voice and enough high-octane suggestiveness to remind anyone sufficiently seasoned by time how it felt to be “a brand new 25,” to appreciate the élan – particularly when you have to swim laps four times a week (the knees no longer support jogging) to maintain a semblance of fitness that was somewhat easier at 25.
There is an adage: Each generation remains loyal to the music of its youth. I have forgotten who holds the provenance but lately I’ve begun to wonder if it’s true. I have trouble imagining today’s 18-year-olds enjoying the anti-melodies of rap and hip-hop when they’re 40. Maybe some rappers will sustain their groove as the Rolling Stones did. In America, everyone can have a remake three times before 60, as long as they have the money.
But I and the many others who glory in the golden vocals of Roy Brown, or Louis Jordan – a vast influence on 1950s R&B singers – came upon the records much later, after the mighty man was past his prime. Such is the beauty of the blues mystery train and vintage R&B, that you can keep discovering the great ghosts, their voices resonant as if it were ’48, when there was plenty of good rocking tonight.
In my July 2007 column I took The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz to task for omitting mention of Dr. Michael White. I stand corrected. I missed his name in the index because it’s listed under “D”, for Dr. and not “M”. I apologize and thank Dr. White for pointing this out.