Oscar Brown at the Apollo Theater, 1964
Oscar Brown at the Apollo Theater, 1964

Oscar Brown, Jr (October 10, 1926 – May 29, 2005) was an American singer, songwriter, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist.

He ran for office in the Illinois state legislature and U.S. Congress, both unsuccessfully.

His first major contribution to a recorded work was a collaboration with Max Roach, We Insist! - Freedom Now, which was an early record celebrating the Black freedom movement in the United States. Columbia Records signed Oscar who was already in his mid-30's and married with 5 children as a solo artist. In 1960, he released his first LP, Sin and Soul, recorded from June 20 to October 23 1960. The cover to the album included 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") 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". The album is also significant for Oscar's ability to take several popular jazz instrumentals and combine them with self-penned lyrics on songs like "Dat Dere", "Afro-Blue" and "Work Song". This began a trend that would continue with several other major jazz vocalists. Jon Hendricks, for example, three years later composed lyrics for the Mongo Santamaria song "Yeh Yeh" (later a hit for Georgie Fame) Bob Dorough similarly composed lyrics for Mel Torme's version of Comin' Home Baby! and musicians Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson would also go on to compose lyrics for Cannonball Adderley's classic "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" for Marlena Shaw. Several of the tracks from Sin and Soul were embraced by the 60's Mod movement, such as "Humdrum Blues".[3], "Work Song" and "Watermelon Man".

The Sin and Soul album was followed by Between Heaven and Hell. The success of Sin and Soul meant that much more money was spent on production and Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns were bought in to handle the arrangements. To this day, it is the only Oscar Brown LP from his time at Columbia that has not been released on CD.

However, Oscar 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 finding it difficult to know how to deal with Oscar's talents. They were unsure whether he was more suited to the more middle of the road/easy listening nightclubs rather than being presented as a jazz artist.

He was given much more creative freedom for his fourth album, 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 companies' priorities, his contract at Columbia was not renewed.

Brown wrote at least 1,000 songs (only 125 have been published), twelve albums, and over a dozen musical plays.