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Willie Brown, Jr.

Bass soloist and educator Willie Brown, Jr. was born on August 17, 1930 in New Orleans, Louisiana to Odessa Jackson Brown and Willie Chester Brown, both church soloists. He sang his first solo, Heaven’s Radio in kindergarten. Brown attended Sylvania F. Williams School in New Orleans and spent some of his elementary years in Redondo Beach and Los Angeles, California. Attending Nelson Junior High School in New Orleans, Brown performed as a church soloist and in school operettas. He formed the group, Willie Brown and the Boys, before graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1949. His education at Xavier University was interrupted by service in the United States Army in 1953, but he returned to graduate with a B.A. degree in music education in 1957. Brown went on to earn a Masters degree in musical performance from Governors State University in Illinois and later a Ph.D. in music from Birmingham, Alabama’s Faith College. At Xavier University’s Opera Workshop, Brown performed the title role in the opera Riggoletto, “Figaro” in The Marriage of Figaro and “Escamillo” in Carmen.

Moving to Chicago in 1957, Brown served as a Chicago public school teacher, while building a reputation as a church and classical soloist. In the early 1960’s, he gained national exposure as a guest soloist on NBC television’s Dave Garroway Show. In 1967, he was invited as special guest of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to perform for the SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Brown performed with the black McLin Opera Company and the Light Opera Company and performed over two thousand times as a professional with Chicago’s Lyric Opera Company where he was the only full time African American artist. His Lyric Opera credits include solos as “Escamillo” in Carmen and as the priest in Aida. Brown was also a soloist in Tales of Hoffmann, Pagliacci and Cavallieria Rusticana. Brown often performed Handel’s Messiah, Requiem, Seven Last Words of Christ, St. Paul by Mendelssohn and Strabat Mater as an oratorio bass soloist. His musical repertoire included operatic arias in Italian, French and German and oratorio arias in Latin. Brown also performed cantatas, English, Italian and German folk songs, American show songs, spirituals, gospels, hymns and popular songs. Brown’s concert credits included Notre Dame University, International Parliament of Religion, and the Chicago Gospel Fest. The Bravo Chapter of the Lyric Opera, the Chicago Board of Education Music Department, and the Chicago Board of Administrative Affairs invited Brown as a special guest performer.

Brown was the winner of numerous awards for his solos including the “Best Male Singer” from the R. Nathaniel Dett Scholarship Award, the B Sharp Best Singer Scholarship and the 1996 James P. Lyke African American Male Image Award. He was the director of the Angels Choir of Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Brown passed away on February 7, 2014 at age 83.

Accession Number

A2006.103

Sex

Male

Interview Date

9/23/2006

Last Name

Brown

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Booker T. Washington High School

Nelson Junior High School

Faith Grant College

Xavier University of Louisiana

Governors State University

Sylvanie F. Williams School

Bienville Elementary School

First Name

Willie

Birth City, State, Country

New Orleans

HM ID

BRO36

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Louisiana

Favorite Vacation Destination

New Orleans, Louisiana

Favorite Quote

The Lord Is My Light And My Salvation. Whom Shall I Fear?

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/17/1930

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Steak

Death Date

2/7/2014

Short Description

Opera singer Willie Brown, Jr. (1930 - 2014 ) performed in several operas, including, "Carmen," and, "Aida," and was the only full time African American Fine Artist employed by Chicago's Lyric Opera. Brown also served as a Chicago public school teacher. Brown passed away on February 7, 2014.

Employment

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Chicago Public Schools

Post Office

Favorite Color

Brown

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Willie Brown, Jr.'s interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 3

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his mother's childhood in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Willie L. Brown, Jr. describes his father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers his childhood in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes New Orleans' neighborhoods, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes New Orleans' neighborhoods, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes Sylvania F. Williams Elementary School

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls how his community encouraged him to sing

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls his early recognition as a singer

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes discrimination based on color in New Orleans

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. lists the school he attended in California and New Orleans

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his high school singing career

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls his decision to attend Xavier University of Louisiana

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes the Solfege system

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers the choir at Xavier University of Louisiana, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers the choir at Xavier University of Louisiana, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers performing with the Xavier University choir

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers John H. Stroger, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. talks about his service in the U.S. Army

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his return to Xavier University of Louisiana

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his career upon arriving in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his position with Chicago Public Schools

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his career with the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers the highlights of his opera career, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers the highlights of his opera career, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls his notable opera performances in New Orleans

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls singing for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. reflects upon theatrical adaptations of operas

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. reflects upon his opera career

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his travels during his opera career

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers meeting Paul Robeson, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers meeting Paul Robeson, pt. 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. remembers being compared to William Warfield

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls racial discrimination in the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. recalls the Lyric Opera of Chicago's cast and events

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Willie Brown, Jr. shares his advice for aspiring opera singers

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Willie Brown, Jr. reflects upon his life

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Willie Brown, Jr. reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Willie Brown, Jr. talks about his wife's religious conversion

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Willie Brown, Jr. describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Willie Brown, Jr. talks about the use of vulgar language

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Willie Brown, Jr. narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$5

DAStory

2$4

DATitle
Willie L. Brown, Jr. remembers the highlights of his opera career, pt. 2
Willie L. Brown, Jr. recalls singing for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Transcript
And at Xavier [Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana], that's when I got really introduced to the opera. And 'Rigoletto' [Giuseppe Verdi]--I did, I loved 'Rigoletto' because I could become Rigoletto. I told people, when I do a concert now, and if I would do 'Rigoletto,' I would tell people why I love 'Rigoletto.' I say, "I could do it." The story of 'Rigoletto, I say, is about a man who was kind of hump-back like, and they used to tease him because he has a beautiful daughter [Gilda]. And they stole his daughter from him and took them into the court, and the Duke [Duke of Mantua] liked him and, and, and they molested his daughter. That's the story of 'Rigoletto.' And so Rigoletto got angry, hired a killer [Sparafucile] to kill the Duke, but in the end the Duke got mixed up and killed his daughter--(unclear). Well, his daughter. And so--but I did that excerpt from that in New Orleans [Louisiana], and I was Rigoletto. Now, I like 'Rigoletto' because I see myself in New Orleans. I told you we went in the court, we went to the court and we could go in--and Meat Ball and Kidney Stew [sic. Pork Chop and Kidney Stew] would, would be out there dancing for money, but we could go in, to an extent, to just sing--not at that time though, and not at that part of my history; this was only when we got permission, something like that. But anyway, I saw myself as Rigoletto, who had a beautiful Creole daughter, 'cause there's some beautiful women out here in New Orleans, and I could see my daughter working in the restaurant, and I couldn't go and see her. And I could see myself out there with buck dancers as tap dancers; they wouldn't let--and, and I wanted to go see my daughter and they wouldn't let me see my daughter. I say--and so that's just--it's for the--as far as I could get as far as comparing Rigoletto with New Orleans, and so when I, I say--I, I become Rigoletto.$$Okay.$$My color isn't, isn't blinding people because I see Rigoletto as a black man.$$So did they, okay. The other one, it just dawned on me (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) 'Carmen' [Georges Bizet].$$I don't know as much about opera, but 'Carmen' is--you play the bullfighter; that's the one where they do the, (singing) dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, right.$$(Singing in Italian).$$Yeah, right, right.$$He says, (singing in Italian). I always had--that was me. And that was--he was a lover's man, the troubadour, everybody loved the troubadour 'cause he was a bullfighter--a rich bullfighter. Everybody loved the troubadour. So he come in, people, "Oh, here come Torro." Women like him--everybody like him. And so I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed singing it at the opera but I wasn't the lead. But it reminded me of when I did sing it so many times down in New Orleans with the orchestra, symphony orchestra [New Orleans Symphony; Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra], everything just as grand as anybody would wanna be. And, and 'Rigoletto' and 'Carmen,' that's the two--$But I was there with Lena [HistoryMaker Reverend Dr. Lena McLin] also, and also I went down to Atlanta, Georgia where I met Dr. King [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.], not met him, but I sang for him with Lena, and Lena wrote a song ['Free at Last!: A Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.'], a tribute to Dr. King, and he heard me sing it, and he invited me down to Atlanta, Georgia where I sang a tribute to Dr. King. And it's a great number, great number. Now, she has a whole slew of songs that she added too, but she had that one song when I, when I sang with, and that is--she would call it a tribute to Dr. King; I sang it at church here, too. That's when King first heard me sing it the first time I was at Quinn Chapel [Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, Chicago, Illinois]. I'm a member of Quinn Chapel Church, and that's my--he heard me 'cause he was preaching there, and I sang this (unclear) and, and he was fascinated. A lot of people don't know that I knew that Dr. King's running mate was Bennett--Reverend Bennett [John C. Bennett] (laughter), Reverend Bennett, it wasn't Abernathy [Ralph Abernathy]. They weren't really that close.$$Okay. So, Reverend Bennett--$$Reverend Bennett.$$Okay.$$Wherever you saw Dr. King, you saw Reverend Bennett (laughter), yeah, they were, they were buddies, yeah. He took me to his house, he showed me around--all that kind of stuff, you know, and I became a friend, we became friends. They wrote me after a while, you know. He wanted, he wanted to record me--why, I don't know. We went on Dearborn [Street], at about 1100 North Dearborn, they made the tapes, but I was supposed to sing, and for some reason it didn't go any further, why, I don't know, but I know he wanted to tape it, and [HistoryMaker] Harry Belafonte--no, the, the big-time pianist, they were friends to King, they were gonna promote it. Oh, this big time song he wrote. It'll come back to me.$$Oh, a piano player?$$Yeah, big-time player.$$Not Earl.$$Big time guy.$$Not Earl Hines [Earl "Fatha" Hines] or--$$Hm?$$I think he's (unclear).$$I can't--right now, I--oh, he wrote things like, well anyway, he's a big man, big man. And he and King were popular, and he was going to promote it.$$Not Earl Grant. You remember Earl Grant?$$No, no, this is a white fellow.$$Oh, a white guy.$$He was a--he's (unclear). Harry Belafonte heard me singing, you know--hear me sing something there, where they were, and they were great friends, too; I met him there when I was there. But anyway, Rosen [Charles Rosen], ah, it'll come back to me, it'll come back to me (laughter). I can get some of the music, the music I have right now, and get serious--some of the songs that he wrote big-time, big-time. But he was gonna promote this and never got any further, but I know we taped a bunch of tapes.$$Hm.$$And that's it. So (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) You don't remember the name of the company that recorded it?$$That was supposed to record it? No. That taped it? I don't know the taping of it, I really don't. I can't say who was taping but I know who was supposed to promote it, but I, I just can't remember, I just can't remember. I really don't know who did the taping, but I know it was on--oh, about 1100 North Dearborn--Wabash [Avenue] or Dearborn, 1100.$$Well, let me tell you--I'm gonna ask you, now who was Reverend Bennett? Now you said he was Dr. King's friend, but like (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) His best--his, his running buddy.$$What church did he pastor? Where was he?$$Reverend Bennett didn't--I don't think he pastored a church.$$He was just a part of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]?$$Yeah, part of SCLC, but they were good buddies, though.$$Okay.$$Yeah, Reverend Bennett was there when we were taping this here.