This Houston Blues Singer Still Shines After 40 Years Out of the Spotlight

Jewel Brown sang for Louis Armstrong, starred on network musical specials and then walked away from fame – all before she turned 35. But she’s back with a new album – and the same ol’ swing.

By Hady MawajdehSeptember 11, 2015 9:15 am| ,

Jewel Brown started out singing in nightclubs in Houston and Galveston before she caught the attention of both of the biggest names in jazz: Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

After decades away from the limelight, she’s back. At the age of 77, we might add.

Watch this video of Brown singing “Jerry” with Louis Armstrong and his band. More about her career as a young blues and jazz singer, and why she’s decided to step back onto the stage nearly fifty years later, after the video.

Jewel Brown can’t tell you how it happened, but she knows precisely when. She was just 9 years old growing up in a poor neighborhood in Houston. She describes her parents as common laborers, who never had any money.

“I saw their struggle. I had a father that put shoes on our feet – and on my mother’s feet – and he greased his feet and walked to church barefoot. That’s the kind of father I had,” she says. “I saw him walkin’ in the cold and the rain and all to work. As a child I saw that and it bothered me.

“I prayed that night that I come up with an idea. And I asked God ‘Please show me guidance. Direct me to be able to help them. And I can tell you – It’s a fact, Jack – that God answered a prayer. Because, the very next day they had a talent show at a place called the Masonic Hall in Fourth Ward, Houston and I won nine weeks straight. That set me up to be up at the club matinee in Fifth Ward on Lyons Avenue in the Anchor Room with Nat King Cole. That’s right, I was 9 years old.”

Cole’s career took off and so did that of Brown. By 12 she had her own band and enough money to put food on the table, to buy her first car. (And yes – she drove it.) But her parents, proud as they were, wouldn’t come to her shows.

“Because see, back in the day they didn’t want you to be straddling the fence,” she says. “I had started singing in church at 5 years old, because I had a father we all had to participate in some kind of churchly activity. So neighbors said ‘Brother Brown, you gonna let that gal sing in them nightclubs?’ ….So I had to go and choose the nightclub because that’s what was paying me.”

Her big break as a singer for Louis Armstrong came after she was discovered singing in a Dallas nightclub, singing for Jack Ruby. Yes, that Jack Ruby.

Somebody had put in a call to the legendary jazz manager Joe Glazer in New York who jumped on a plane to Dallas and tried to sign her on the spot.

“He asked me who did I want to be with: Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong? Well hey, in this business it’s true that you have to think, quick,” she says. “I had already been talking to all of the guys, you know. They told me that Duke didn’t like to fly. So while you takin’ that boat, you ain’t workin, okay? I need to work.”

She was strikingly beautiful and charismatic on stage. When you think of the singers capable of silencing and commanding a room full of people. Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, come to mind. Many think that Jewel Brown is in that league.

Had she not given it all away to go back to Houston and care for her parents in the early 70s, her name might’ve been as well known today as, say, Mavis Staples, and she knows it.

“I had just closed out a show in Las Vegas. I was headlining a show at the Sahara,” she says. “Unfortunately, it looked like nobody was helping my dad with my mom. And I said ‘Hey, I gotta go do what I gotta do.’ And that’s what I did.

“I got to feel what’s in my heart to do. I gotta be me. I don’t ever try to be anybody else. That’s one thing that my mother said to me that lives with me to this day. She said: ‘If you are the only rose in a field of tulips. You don’t wanna be a tulip. Stay a rose.’”

Now on her own, as she approaches her 78th birthday, Jewel Brown has returned to the stage. Her new album, “Roller Coaster Boogie” (recorded in Japan) showcases a voice that has lost none of its presence. None of its power. It seems easy for her, not to think about what might have been. Which makes sense, since the story of Jewel Brown is far from over.