Rock royalty gathered in London’s Royal Albert Hall one year after George Harrison’s death to participate in a tribute concert. Paul and Ringo were there, of course, and Harrison’s fellow Traveling Wilburys Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, and Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, among others. When it came time to close out the evening, Joe Brown came out on stage with a ukulele and sang one of the few songs that night not written by George, the 1924 standard “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It was a lovely sendoff, by an artist whose role in the evolution of British pop (and folk) music was profound, but whose contributions have gone unrecognized in America.
Brown was there at the beginning. When U.S. rockers Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent toured the U.K., Brown backed them on guitar. (Richard Thompson, in his memoir “Beeswing,” writes, “Joe Brown was probably the first homegrown British guitar hero.”) He was part of manager Larry Parnes’ stable of teen idols, the only one who resisted having his name changed (Parnes suggested “Elmer Twitch,” but Brown was having none of that).
On a 1962 British tour, Brown and his group the Bruvvers were the headlining act, supported by an up-and-coming Liverpool band, the Beatles, and Brown’s hit “A Picture of You” turned up briefly in the Beatles’ setlist (George on lead vocal). You can hear their version on the first collection of BBC recordings, a session from April 1962. Even then, Brown’s live shows were crazily eclectic: His 1963 live album strung together “Alley Oop,” “Hava Nagila” and “The Sheik of Araby” before wrapping up with Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Brown starred in films, appeared in musicals on the West End and had his own TV show, achievements of which the U.S. audience was oblivious. Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, a number of American record labels — Cameo, Dot, Hickory, Jamie, Warner Brothers, Kapp, Bell — released singles by Brown and the Bruvvers, but they all went nowhere, and none of those labels had any reason to put out a Joe Brown LP. So he remained virtually unknown stateside.
I’d never heard a Brown record until “A Picture of You” popped up on a 1975 Sire anthology, “Roots of British Rock,” a thoughtfully compiled survey of the pre-Beatles British pop scene that placed him alongside contemporaries such as Billy Fury, Cliff Richard and Lonnie Donegan. I was missing out, it was clear.
For decades, Brown, who will turn 80 in May 2021, has been plugging along.
Brown’s music — his revved-up “The Darktown Strutters Ball,” his frantic guitar-led instrumental “Swagger” — wasn’t a pale approximation of American pop. It had, as Thompson says, “a certain streetwise authenticity.” For decades, Brown, who will turn 80 in May 2021, has been plugging along. “The Ukulele Album” is a delight, where George Formby meets ELO, Motorhead and 10cc. And his live shows are chatty, engaging and wildly entertaining programs where, in the space of 90 minutes or so, backed by an adept guitar-bass-drums trio, Brown shifts from gospel to skiffle to rockabilly to British music hall to country to ‘60s pop to the kind of vintage tunes that he and George Harrison bonded over. “We liked music that went way back,” Brown told an interviewer.
“An Audience with Joe Brown” was recorded in May 2002, six months before he had the honor of capping off “A Concert for George,” where he also was assigned one of Harrison’s most enduring songs, “Here Comes the Sun.” Divided into acoustic and electric halves, the film is an ideal introduction to Brown’s ability to connect different musical strands.
He does the 1910 oldie “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” (his version predated Herman’s Hermits’ hit), the folk ballad “She Moves Through the Fair,” rock ’n’ roll numbers by Charlie Rich, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, the neo-rockabilly “I Wonder in Whose Arms You Are Tonight” (it could easily be a Rockpile outtake), a couple of skiffle tunes and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” With Cockney charm, some bad jokes and genuine affection for his songs and his fans, Brown claims his rightful spot in the British-pop history book.