In a career that has crossed 50 years (and which was still going strong in the opening decade of the twenty-first century), Joe Brown has cut a unique swathe across British rock & roll. Born Joseph Roger Brown in Swarby, Lincolnshire in 1941, he was raised in London. Brown proved a natural guitarist from an early age, and in 1956, at age 15, he formed the Spacemen, a skiffle group through which he started his career in entertainment. The band -- whose ranks included bassist Peter Oakman and his older brother Tony Oakman on banjo and guitar -- later switched to rock & roll, and was subsequently spotted by impresario Larry Parnes, who was in the process of signing up lots of young vocal talent in an effort to get in on the rock & roll boom. The Spacemen became Parnes' resident band, backing such figures as Vince Eager, Johnny Gentle, and Marty Wilde on the early Parnes package tours. The group also had the good fortune to be spotted by producer Jack Good, who was putting together the house band for his new television music showcase Boy Meets Girl. Brown was already a prodigious player, and he was hired as lead guitarist for the house orchestra at the age of 18 -- he was proficient in authentic American-style rock & roll, country, and country-blues, and stood out from most of the competition around him.
He was signed to Decca Records that same year -- his first two singles, "People Gotta Talk" and "Jellied Eels" issued in 1959 and 1960, respectively, failed to chart. But his third, "The Darktown Strutters Ball," reached number 34 on the U.K. charts in 1960. The group by this time was rechristened the Bruvvers, owing to the fact that they weren't using the Spacemen name anymore, and had no official name, but were, as Brown put it -- in his uniquely Cockney-styled way -- "like bruvvers." Brown left Decca for Pye Records in 1961, the latter company using his single "Crazy Mixed Up Kid" to launch its Piccadilly imprint. Only two of his next four singles even reached the Top 40, but Brown was making musical headway (and history) nonetheless. At just about that same time, he appeared as the lead guitarist on Billy Fury's landmark 10" long-player The Sound of Fury, his playing one of the highlights of what is generally regarded as one of the best albums to come out of the early English rock & roll boom. His work from that period and on that album has received high praise across the decades from musicians of succeeding generations, including Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
Brown's own career didn't fully take off until 1962, when he hit the number two spot on the singles charts with "A Picture of You." He was voted the "Top UK Vocal Personality" of 1962 in the pages of New Musical Express, and toured that year on a bill that included the Beatles, who were just about to record their debut single, "Love Me Do"; "A Picture of You" was also a personal favorite of both George Harrison and Paul McCartney, later even turning up on the "Let It Be" sessions. Brown's next two records, "It Only Took a Minute" and "That's What Love Will Do" also made the Top Ten in 1962 and 1963, but his subsequent recordings were much more modest sellers, only making the Top 30.
Brown was still sufficiently prominent in 1963 to get a film debut late that year, in What a Crazy World, which co-starred Marty Wilde. By that time, however, Brown's hold on the listening public was fading in the face of the Merseybeat boom and the next wave of British rock & roll. He turned increasingly to work in movies, pantomime, and theater musicals, and scored a big success in Charlie Girl on London's West End. Ironically, his occasional penchant for novelty tunes -- which included a recording of "I'm Henry the Eighth" -- anticipated the strategy of such successful mid-'60s pop/rock acts as Herman's Hermits, which would parlay their recording of the latter song into a huge American hit; that same use of novelty tunes in his repertory, however, also made it difficult for listeners of subsequent generations, having heard of Brown's reputation as a first-rate guitarist, to fully absorb some of his recordings, especially the early concert documents, which were weighted heavily toward his Cockney/novelty repertory.
Brown's last chart success of the '60s was a low Top 40 placement for his rendition of "With a Little Help from My Friends" in 1967. He later worked on television in children's programming and game shows, but in 1972, Brown was back in music with a new band, Brown's Home Brew, whose repertory embraced not only rock & roll but also country and gospel music and featured his first wife, Vicki Brown, on vocals. Brown has remained active in music ever since, and crossed paths on record with his old friend George Harrison several times across the '70s and '80s -- Harrison was also best man at Brown's wedding to his second wife in 2000, and Brown was one of the participants in the Concert for George following the ex-Beatles guitarist's death in late 2001. He has continued performing in the 21st century, and is also seen frequently on British television in connection with rock & roll-related programming. Brown's fiftieth year in music, in 2008, saw him receive a U.K. gold award for sales over 100,000 copies of a new best-of collection, as well as complete a 37-date tour, and a Royal Albert Hall concert with Mark Knopfler, Jools Holland, Dave Edmunds,, and Chas & Dave. Brown has also received Mojo magazine's lifetime award for outstanding contribution to music after 51 years' recording. And in 2009, Brown was given an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth. ~ Bruce Eder