Jesse Brown, of Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, dies at 88
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter October 7, 2013 7:56PM
Gospel singer Jesse Brown, of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. | Supplied photo
Updated: November 9, 2013 6:24AM
Jesse Brown was a prince of gospel who sang before the Queen of England.
Mr. Brown was one of the original members of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, a chart-topping, Grammy-nominated group that still tours the world. He took a break after he got married, which stretched into a hiatus of half a century. But his musical career roared back in dramatic high fashion after a deathbed directive led to a search for Mr. Brown.
Just a youth when he joined the group, Mr. Brown dropped out in the mid-1940s, after he married. He was replaced by singer Jay T. Clinkscales, said Sandy Foster, the lead singer since 1971.
But when Clinkscales was on his deathbed in 1995, he urged Foster to locate Mr. Brown to take his place.
“He said, ‘I ain’t gonna be able to travel with you guys no more, because I don’t think I’m going to make it,’ ’’ Foster said. “He said, ‘There’s another guy; I took his place. Everybody called him ‘Mule.’ ’’
He tracked down “Mule” — Mr. Brown — and had him come sing with the group.
“We rehearsed and went to Atlanta, Ga., and recorded with Gramercy Records, and the name of that CD was ‘Talking to Jesus,’ ’’ Foster said. “That was the first CD he made with us. Made it in ’95, and it came out in ’96.”
Then about 70, Mr. Brown became the oldest and only remaining original member of the group. With his deep bass voice, he sang lead on “You Better Run” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
They toured England, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland. They played a Belgium blues festival alongside Buddy Guy and Ike Turner. They sang in front of Queen Elizabeth.
“He did real good,” Foster said. “He made six CDs with us before he passed.’
Mr. Brown, 88, died Sept. 27 at Chicago’s Holy Cross Hospital.
Born in Leland, Miss., to sharecropper parents, he was about 5 when his sight was damaged by debris that landed in his eye after a fall. He was blind by the time he was 13, relatives said.
He studied music at the legendary Piney Woods School, founded in 1909 to educate African-American children in one of the poorest parts of Mississippi — in an era when teaching them could draw violence, and worse. Piney Woods was a leader in teaching the blind. Helen Keller visited the school.
It produced a number of musical groups, including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an interracial jazz band that toured the nation in the 1940s.
The young Jesse Brown joined another musical group at the school, the Cotton Blossom Singers, according to Foster and Mr. Brown’s daughter, Sally Miles. When the Cotton Blossom Singers moved to Jackson, Miss., they changed their name to the Jackson Harmoneers. They received their permanent moniker during a concert in Newark, N.J. A promoter dubbed them the “Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.” They didn’t like that at first — no grown African-American man wanted to be referred to as a boy, Foster said.
“There was a big debate about it, and the place was packed,” Foster said. “The people accepted them, so, well, they kept that name.”
In the mid-1940s, Mr. Brown moved to Chicago with his wife, Mary Louise Davidson. They raised five children and lived mostly at 21st and Avers. He worked for the Chicago Lighthouse for the blind, and he sang and played guitar for different groups. He occasionally accompanied Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Miles said.
After a divorce, he moved to California and wed his second wife, Virginia. For a time he worked in a school cafeteria, said his granddaughter, Tinisha Dorsey. In 1987, after his second marriage ended in divorce, he returned to Chicago, his daughter said.
He was thrilled at being contacted in 1995 to rejoin the group, Foster said.
“They were known nationally, and there was always a competition between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama,” said the Rev. Stanley Keeble, who is hoping to establish a Chicago gospel museum,
“Their voice is like their third sight,” said their promoter, Eddie Sulton of Sulton Productions.
“I was so proud of my dad,” Miles said. “He’s never considered himself being disabled. . . . He loved people, and they respected him.”
His favorite place to tour was Japan, Foster said. “I said, ‘Why is that your favorite country?’ And he said, ‘Because everything they do for you, they bow.’ ’’
“I said, ‘You can’t see them bow.’ And he said, ‘People told me they bow!’ ”
The group has produced dozens of albums. Some of their best-known songs are “Our Father”; “Leave You in the Hands of the Lord”; “One Desire,” and “I’ll Make it Alright.” They have also been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Mr. Brown also is survived by his sons, Jesse Jr., Jerry, Troy and Jesse James; another daughter, Tanita Lazenby; a sister, Doretha Peterson; 36 grandchildren, 49 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
Services were held.