Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Pete Brown giving it large

Pete Brown remembered

The great performance poet and lyricist lived in Hastings in his final years, and died here on 19 May.  Local jazzman Julian Norridge wrote this obituary.

Pete Brown, one of Hastings’ most respected musicians and songwriters who wrote the lyrics for many of supergroup Cream’s greatest hits, has died at the age of 82 from what he recently described as “various forms of cancer”.

Born in Ashtead is Surrey on Christmas Day 1940, Brown began his creative life as a poet. He began publishing his poetry aged 14, and before long featured in New York’s Evergreen Review, alongside Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the early ‘60s he was involved in the Liverpool poetry scene and began doing public readings.

He became a significant advocate of British Beat Poetry and began writing in partnership with Michael Horovitz. In 1965 they recited their work together on stage at a fabled event at the Albert Hall featuring some of the best American Beat poets, including Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.

Harmony Row

By this time he had also formed The First Real Poetry Band so that he could read his work accompanied by jazz. This led to a residency at the fabled Marquee Club in Soho every Tuesday night.  It was Pete Brown’s luck that the Thursday night residency was held at the time by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated.

That band included Graham Bond and Dick Heckstall-Smith, who had both played with Brown’s poetry band. Through them he met two other members of Korner’s band, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who would go on to form the legendary supergroup Cream with Eric Clapton. 

They liked what Brown did and effectively recruited him as the band lyricist. He wrote some of the band’s biggest hits, including ‘I Feel Free’ and ‘White Room’ with Jack Bruce and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ with Eric Clapton. When Cream split up, Brown continued writing with Jack Bruce for the next 46 years, one of the longest song writing partnerships in history.

More words and music

In subsequent years Brown wrote for and performed and recorded with a wide variety of bands and musicians, including his former collaborators Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond, and also Jon Hiseman, Gary Brooker and Vivian Stanshall.

In 1977 he set music aside for a while to concentrate on writing scripts for film and television, but the only film actually produced was in America, a children’s film called Felix the Cat: The Movie. He subsequently wrote his autobiography entitled White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns.

But Brown couldn’t stay away from music for long. During the 1980s, he performed extensively as a sideman, both as singer and percussionist, working with African jazz pianist Mervyn Afrika and The Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra. Over the years, he also produced many records in the UK and in France, Switzerland, Germany and America.

From 1978 onwards he had a permanent song writing partnership with Phil Ryan (Man, Eyes of Blue) until Ryan died in 2015. They co-led the Interoceters, and then Psoulchedelia, making four records together and touring extensively.

Shadow Club

In the months leading up to his death, Brown recorded (in Eastbourne’s Echo Zoo Studios) a new solo album, Shadow Club, which in part harks back to the clubs and artists who featured in the British R&B boom of the mid-1960s, of which he was a part. Eric Clapton features on the title track and Malcom Bruce, Jack’s son, is the bass guitarist.

Other guests include Arthur Brown, of Crazy World of and Fire fame, a very old friend; major American guitarist Joe Bonamassa; Bernie Marsden, formerly of Whitesnake; and Mississippi blues veteran Bobby Rush. The drummer is Richard Bailey, who has recorded with Bob Marley, Johnny Nash, Jeff Beck, The Who and Steve Winwood.

The producer, musical director and piano player and co-author of many of the tracks on the album is Hastings-based pianist John Donaldson, who is also the driving force behind Jazz Hastings, the monthly jazz club where Pete Brown performed several times.

“It’s so sad he didn’t live long enough to see the album released,” said John (it’s due out in the autumn). “He was a lovely guy, a counter-culture hero with huge intelligence and an incredible memory – he could remember detailed personnel and track listings on a 1930s Ellington album for instance!  He was a complete one-off, loved by so many of us and will be missed terribly.”

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Posted 07:46 Thursday, May 25, 2023 In: Music & Sound

Also in: Music & Sound

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