Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, he was named after his father Oscar Brown, Sr., a successful attorney and real estate broker. Brown's singing debut was on the radio show Secret City at the age of 15. He attended Englewood High School in Chicago, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Lincoln University but did not obtain a degree. He also served a stint in the U.S. Army.
Brown's father had intended for him to follow in his footsteps and become a practicing lawyer. While he did help his father at his practice, he ventured off into other careers, such as advertising and serving in the army in the mid-1950s and writing songs. When Mahalia Jackson recorded one of his songs, he began to focus on a career in music. His first major contribution to a recorded work was a collaboration with Max Roach, We Insist!, which was an early record celebrating the black freedom movement in the United States. Columbia Records signed Brown as a solo artist, who was by now in his mid-thirties and married with five children.[2
In 1960, Brown released his first LP, Sin & Soul, recorded from June 20 to October 23, 1960. Printed on the cover of the album were personal reviews by well-known celebrities and jazz musicians of the time, including Steve Allen, Lorraine Hansberry, Nat Hentoff, Dorothy Killgallen, Max Roach and Nina Simone (Simone would later cover his "Work Song" and Steve Allen would later hire him for his Jazz Scene USA television program). The album is regarded as a "true classic" for openly tackling the experiences of African Americans with songs such as "Bid 'Em In" and "Afro Blue".
Sin & Soul was followed by Between Heaven and Hell (1962). The success of Sin & Soul meant that much more money was spent on production and Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns were bought in to handle the arrangements.
However, Brown was soon to fall down the pecking order at Columbia following a rearrangement of the management at the company. His third album was notable for the lack of any self-composed songs, and Columbia was having a hard time packaging him as an artist. They were unsure whether Brown was suited to middle-of-the-road/easy listening nightclubs or alternatively should be presented as a jazz artist.
Who Dat Dere
He was given much more creative freedom for his fourth album, Tells It Like It Is (1963), and he was back to his creative best, composing songs such as "The Snake", which became a Northern Soul classic when it was covered by Al Wilson, and has featured on several adverts. Despite this return to form, and having been told by the new head of Columbia that he was high on the company's priorities, his contract at Columbia was not renewed.
Stage and television
He attempted to mount a major musical stage show in New York City called Kicks & Co. in 1961. Host Dave Garroway turned over an entire broadcast of the Today show to Brown to perform numbers from the show and try to raise the necessary funds to launch it on the stage. Kicks & Co. is set on an all-African-American college campus in the American South during the early days of attempted desegregation. The character Mr. Kicks is an emissary of Satan, sent to try to derail these efforts in which the play's protagonist, Ernest Black, has become involved.
In 1962, he worked on the Westinghouse syndicated television program Jazz Scene USA, produced by Steve Allen. Brown was the show's presenter and it featured a new musical guest each week.
Brown's son, Oscar "BoBo" Brown III, was an instrumental musician who died in a car crash. His daughter Maggie Brown is a musician as well. Along with Africa Brown, these three of his seven children carry out his legacy in singing and acting. His other four children are Donna Brown Kane, David "Napoleon" Brown, Jone Brown, and Lantha Brown.
He founded The Oscar Brown, Jr. H.I.P. Legacy Foundation to carry on his humanitarian work. He also took part at an anti-apartheid protest rally in Compton College in 1976.
Death and musical legacy
Brown died in Chicago, from complications of osteomyelitis in May 2005, aged 78.
Brown's lyrics and original compositions have been performed by a variety of other artists. "Somebody Buy Me a Drink", a track from Sin & Soul, was covered by David Johansen and the Harry Smiths on their eponymous first album. Pianist Wynton Kelly recorded "Strongman" with his trio in the late 1950s. Nina Simone popularized Brown's lyrics to "Work Song" and "Afro Blue," as well as his song "Bid 'Em In." Brown's "Afro Blue" lyrics have since been performed by numerous contemporary jazz vocalists, including Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Lizz Wright. Vocalist Karrin Allyson has cited Brown as a particular inspiration, and has performed his compositions on several of her albums. Brown was scheduled to contribute new lyrics to Allyson's 2006 album Footprints, but died before the project was complete; Allyson instead recorded Brown's songs "A Tree and Me" and "But I Was Cool" as a tribute. Brown's work has also been the focus of full-length tribute albums by lesser-known jazz artists, including cabaret singer Linda Kosut and Brown's own daughter, Maggie Brown.