Cleo Brown, later Cleo Patra Brown (December 8, 1909 – April 15, 1995) was an American blues and jazz vocalist and pianist. She bears the distinction of being the first woman instrumentalist honored with the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.
Born into a musical household in Mississippi, she started singing in her father's church as a youngster. Following the family move to Chicago in 1919, she began formal studies music on piano. By the early '20s, she was working professionally in clubs and tent shows as well as broadcasting live with her own regular radio show. By the early '30s, she was well-established and for the next two decades she worked almost non-stop, performing in cities across the United States and holding forth regularly in clubs such as New York's Three Deuces.
Opinions vary widely as to her talents, but there is no doubt that she was a great communicator. In fact, some listeners may wind up wishing they had a more personal relationship with Brown once they have heard such personal messages as "Mama Don't Want No Peas and Rice and Coconut Oil," or better yet "The Stuff Is Here and It's Mellow." On the strength of the latter number, originally cut in 1935 for Decca, Brown was ceremoniously welcomed into the fraternity of "artists who have recorded songs about reefer," meaning that her music is available on a variety of compilations collecting such material.
There were two sides to her musical performances: her voice and her piano playing. As for the former, the previously mentioned range of opinion veers from those who describe her as a "female Fats Waller," which definitely should be taken as a compliment unless one is describing taste in clothing; to the other end of the spectrum, in which Brown is considered to have a "tiny and twee" voice that gets across completely on the strength of her personality. As for the keyboard, she is more evenly appreciated in this regard, considered along with players such as Freddie Slack and Bob Zurke as the most prominent of the second generation of boogie-woogie players.
"It's coming with us to that Desert Island," one critic said of a Cleo Brown performance; while another writer, singling out her efforts from amongst the large cast of a four-CD set, wrote "Cleo Brown was an absolute revelation on "Lookie Lookie Lookie (Here Comes Cookie)," her piano chops easily the equal of her sly vocals." The influences of the major players from the original boogie-woogie
By the late '40s, the rowdy content of her music was beginning to bother her. Brown was going through a religious experience that made singing about the usual tawdry classic blues themes a bit unsettling. Through the 1950s she worked frequently at the Three Deuces club, establishing a reputation as a two-fisted, driving pianist. Brown began to gain international renown for her work, and she continued to perform regularly in New York, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco until 1953, making records for Capitol Records and performing with the Decca All-Stars, among others.
Brown began to shy from singing bawdy blues songs because of deepening religious beliefs and in 1953 she retired and became a nurse. This was a short-lived career, winding up in a decision to return to music, but only of the religious variety. It was pianist Marion McPartland, a fine player as well as the host of the wonderful National Public Radio show Piano Jazz, that came upon Brown living in the Denver, CO, area under not much of a professional spotlight. She was persuaded to visit New York in order to tape an appearance for Piano Jazz, resulting in a superb article on her by jazz writer Whitney Balliett, eventually reprinted in his book American Singers. A new spate of recordings and performances followed, the final chapters of a legend that had gone from the lore of the viper to the gospel, and back again. Although hipsters no doubt wish somebody a bit less of a square had come up with the song, Dave Brubeck's "Sweet Cleo Brown" is a charming tribute.
She died on April 15, 1995 in Denver, Colorado, aged 85. (Info edited mainly from All Music Guide & Wikipedia)