Christmas song has mysterious local roots
A year doesn’t go by without a new recording of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” that melodically stately, melancholy ballad about not wanting to spend the holidays alone.
This year, there are at least two new versions – by country singer Darius Rucker and alternative rockers Landlady (with guest vocalist Amelia Meath). They join the impressive likes of the Eagles, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, James Brown and others in making the song well known.
But what’s not so well known is that the original version was recorded in 1960 at Evanston’s King Records studio by Charles Brown, an African-American blues musician known for his jazz-influenced piano playing and his genteel and politely forlorn vocal style.
Brown came and went from Cincinnati with little fanfare. And, as he claimed in interviews before he died in 1999 at age 76, he may have been held here against his will by a kingpin of Northern Kentucky’s famous illegal-gambling operations, the late Frank “Screw” Andrews (Andriola). Andrews ran several gambling clubs along Newport’s Central Avenue, at least some of which welcomed African-American customers. Some of Brown’s predicament seems to have seeped into the emotions of his Christmas song.
Brown had once been a star to black audiences, but by 1959-1961, his Cincinnati years, he was down and out. In the 1940s, as the pianist/singer for a Los Angeles trio called Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, the Texas-born Brown had several huge hits with the trio in “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Drifting Blues.” On his own in the early 1950s, he had many other national rhythm-and-blues smashes, including “Black Night” and “Trouble Blues.”
But after the hits and cash flow stopped, Brown had a weakness that may have made him an easy mark in Newport. He needed money to bet on horses, according to Danny Caron, the musician who befriended Brown in the late 1980s and helped him launch a late-in-life return to popularity that also saw Brown inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It was easy for Charles to get indebted,” Caron said in an interview. “He could go through thousands of dollars a day. You gave Charles Brown a thousand dollars and it was gone in an hour. He didn’t have enough money ever to gamble. That makes it very easy for him to get indebted.”
In an interview for the Denver Post with this writer in 1990, before he was set to open for Bonnie Raitt as part of his comeback, Brown recalled his Cincinnati/Newport days and how he got an employment offer from Andrews. “Mr. Screw was crazy about me. When he picked me up and wanted me to come there and stay and join the music department, he paid me $750 a week. Anybody I wanted to bring in, I could.”
Brown was Andrews’ house pianist. And one artist Brown brought to town to work with him was close friend Amos Milburn, another seemingly past-his-prime blues pianist and singer (“One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” “Chicken Shack Boogie”).
In 1960, word of Brown’s presence in town reached Syd Nathan of King Records. In the 1990 interview, Brown recalled that Nathan asked him, “‘Could you write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how good it will be, but I’ll write.’ He said, ‘You and Amos go write one apiece and let me hear what you done.’ When we brought it to Syd Nathan he fell in love with mine.” Milburn’s “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” ended up as the B-side of Brown’s King single.
“Please Come Home’s” opening was a memorable chiming-bell sound. Philip Paul, who played drums on the record, said that was a gong played by Gene Redd, a King Records musician. “I think that made the recording,” Paul said.
The song became Brown’s first hit record in eight years and reached No. 21 on Billboard’s Top Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. Brown subsequently recorded other singles and even an album of Christmas songs for Nathan, but never had another hit. While Brown claimed he wrote “Please Come Home” alone, the credits listed Redd as co-writer.
Brown told Living Blues magazine in a 1994 interview that in Cincinnati he married an older white woman with children named Eva McGhee, who owned “one of the finest garages in Cincinnati.” He characterized it as a “a friendly marriage – it wasn’t really love.” Brown’s 1999 obituary said he was twice divorced and left no family. (Some who knew Brown say he was gay.)
But he also told of wanting to leave town and being threatened by Andrews. He finally escaped, Brown recounted, when federal Internal Revenue Service agents launched a devastating raid on Andrews’ Sportsman’s Club at 333 Central Ave. on Aug. 22, 1961. The raid was part of the new Kennedy administration’s crackdown, and made headlines for days when it happened.
Fortunately for Brown, one “customer” may have helped him escape both Andrews and the federal bust. He was an African-American undercover IRS agent who infiltrated the place before the raid.
In his memoir “Three of the First,” Hilton Owens Sr. (who died in 2007) recalled, “I struck up an acquaintance with well-known ballad singer Charles Brown who was famous almost everywhere, except at the Sportsman’s Club, where he was merely a fill-in during intermission for the main entertainer. … Brown never discussed why he was trapped in the Sportsman’s Club, and I did not pry.”
In his 1990 interview, Brown recounted those events. “That night we were playing there, this black guy came and asked, ‘Mr. Brown, would it took you and Amos long to get out of there?'”
Brown’s path after that is unclear. Accounts say he went to Los Angeles, but a 2004 CD collection called The Very Best of Charles Brown: Original King Recordings shows he recorded again for King on Oct. 9, 1961, and off and on until 1968 while also recording elsewhere. A booklet accompanying another CD says he lived in Cincinnati awhile in the late 1960s, too.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades of struggle and obscurity for Brown. But his one towering accomplishment was “Please Come Home.” It becomes more appreciated with each passing Christmas.
Brian Powers of Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County helped with the research.