“A mastering engineer's best friend is a recording/mixing engineer that knows what they're doing and in our business we should be sweetening a good mix, not trying to fix it. For 15 years, Paul Brown has been sending us stellar mixes that have been a joy to master!” Kevin & Larry Nix (L. Nix Mastering)
The History of The Owner Paul Brown
When virtuosity, intuition and pure soul meet, the results are magical. And that kind of magic — steeped in the sounds, tradition and spirit of Memphis — is Paul Brown’s specialty. The Nashville, Tennessee-based musician, songwriter and producer is a roots world MVP, but his abilities truly extend beyond any genre to encompass his vision of music as a universal language. And Brown is fluent in all of its dialects.
“The common threads I bring to everything I do are passion, positive energy and absolute commitment,” says Brown, whose award-winning resume ranges from producing and co-writing heralded albums by soul-blues legends Bobby Rush, Ann Peebles and Don Bryant to performances with Al Green, Rufus Thomas and Darlene Love to tours with the chartbusting rock icon Jimi Jamison (lead singer of Survivor) and ’80s hit-makers Xavion. Currently Brown is on a powerhouse of tours across the U.S. and abroad with rising blues-rock guitar star Sean Chambers, Rush and Dove award winning Soul Gospel artist Mike Farris.
Along the way Brown has developed an inimitable keyboard style and become a master of the Hammond B-3 organ, a complex instrument whose sound instantly recalls a wealth of classic American rock, soul and blues recordings. But Brown has established such an absolute command of the B-3’s nearly endless sonic palette — controlled by blending keys and draw bars — that it speaks in a fresh, remarkable tongue under his hands.
“The B-3 has become a part of me,” Brown attests. “It all stems from the feel and the chords, melodies and dynamics I absorbed from playing soul and gospel music, and then taking it in all directions, including New Age and metal. There was a whole world to discover in that music, and it’s built a bridge for me as a musician that takes me anywhere I want to go. Now, when I’m supporting a great singer or taking a solo, it’s part of a musical conversation that comes from a deeper, more meaningful place than words can express.”
That’s abundantly clear when Brown’s behind the keyboard. Whether on stage or in the studio, his signature approach and passionate energy are both unmistakable. In addition to the gliding melodies, elongated textures and churning chords that are the usual B-3 stock in trade, Brown displays a stunning, highly original vocabulary on the instrument — enhancing and reflecting the vocal performances of compelling singers like Rush, Peebles, Deborah Bonham and Mighty Sam McClean with voice-like effects — hums, stutters, exclamations, lines that trail off like sentences. It’s that musical conversation he alludes to, in a very literal sense.
And the world is listening. Brown’s accolades include the 2012 Blues Music Award for “Best Soul Blues Album of the Year” for producing, engineering and mixing Bobby Rush’s Show You a Good Time at his own Ocean Soul Studios, which was built by Brown and his wife, New Age artist April Brown. That same year he won the Jackson (Mississippi) Music Award for “Best International Producer of the Year.” His resume embraces stage, television and session work across the U.S. and Europe with Derek St. Holmes, Al Green, Irish rock icon Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Deborah Bonham, George Clinton, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Rickey Medlocke, Bettye LaVette, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes and many others.
What’s striking about Brown besides his stellar musical abilities is his attitude. He is perpetually upbeat and strikingly un-jaded. “That’s just my personality,” he explains. “I’ve played on some of the world’s biggest stages and I’ve gone without food for days, but I’ve always loved every minute that I’m making music.”
Such relentless positivism is rare among music business veterans, and it’s even more unusual in light of Brown’s early hardscrabble life. He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, but moved to Memphis, Tennessee, at age five. When Brown was 12 his mother died and he and his brothers became wards of the state.
Brown and two of his brothers were sent to the Tennessee Preparatory School in Nashville, where he immediately fell in love with the battered upright piano in his elementary school classroom. His musical gifts emerged. Soon Brown was playing piano, trumpet and saxophone, and devouring the sounds of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, KISS, Pink Floyd and other 1970s supergroups while his revelation of R&B is quite another story altogether.
“One night I ran away from the school to go to a KISS concert,” Brown recounts, “and I’m standing in this packed out arena when I start realizing I’m one of the very few white cats in the audience and I’m think to myself man I had no idea this many black folk are into KISS! Then the lights go out out and all you hear on stage is this heartbeat rhythm of kick drum and hi-hat for, like, an eternity. Then this black cat comes out in a diaper and then this other black cat comes out on bass with this outrageously cool outfit and star glasses!”
He’d gotten the date wrong, and accidentally gone to a Parliament-Funkadelic gig. “But man, when I felt those grooves and the band grooved and those vocals… it ended up being one of the most musically enlightening experiences of my life.”
When Brown was 15, country star Louise Mandrell visited Tennessee Prep on a career day. She was so impressed with Brown’s story and his innate musical skill that she became his sponsor, taking him on tour and even giving him the spotlight at concerts and on television appearances. When he turned 17 she threw him a party at Tennessee Prep and gave him a cornet. But that had a nasty backlash: school authorities, fearing charges of favoritism, barred him from contact with Mandrell and from practicing.
“Without music, I was losing my mind,” Brown says. “One night I grabbed my cornet and a road atlas, scaled down from a second story window, and never came back.”
Brown's destination was Memphis, where — after a failed attempt living with his oldest brother and several hungry months — he found work on the riverboats as a deck hand. During his downtime he began practicing again on a small Casio keyboard, developing melodies and chord changes based on the rock ‘n’ roll he heard on the radio.
“When I started out on the boat, I’d been living in a Memphis Park and I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days,” he recounts. “That Casio keyboard was the first thing I bought with my first paycheck. But by the time I left the river it took two trips to get all my musical gear on that boat.”
After a near fatal boat accident he abandoned the riverboats and cashed in all his chips for a serious life in music. His first band was a pop-rock group called Amber. They went nowhere, but Brown began to develop his skills as an arranger while in the band.
His next stop was Xavion, a Memphis-based funk-rock outfit that had a radio hit called “Eat Your Heart Out.” Brown became Xavion’s sole non-African-American member and began touring the southern frat house circuit. “By then, Xavion’s day in the sun was over, but I felt like I was on top of the world,” he recounts. “most of us were riding in the back of a Ryder truck with all the gear, but I was playing music professionally with a killer band that fused this awesome blend of deep funk and hard rock.”
That band’s funk and R&B roots began taking a deep hold, and through his first publishing deal and studio sessions with guitarist and producer Nikos Lyras and drummer Steve Potts, Brown was invited to join the Stax soul band the Bar-Kays. Then another former Stax Records artist, Shirley Brown, hired him and his education continued in the African-American venues of the southern chitlin circuit. His next gig was with Jay Blackfoot and the Soul Children, which lasted until a pivotal call from Thomas Bingham, guitarist and MD for the classic soul artist Ann Peebles, of Hi Records and “I Can’t Stand the Rain” fame.
Playing keyboards in Peebles’ band gave Brown his first experience on the B-3 and introduced him to a deeply traditional approach to soul music, with gospel as its foundation. Peebles and her husband Don Bryant, took Brown under wing. The keyboardist was invited to live at Peebles and Bryant’s’ Memphis home, where they built a small studio that Brown began working in 24/7 to craft his producing skills using the soulful voices of Peebles and Bryant as his tools of trade.
Their partnership continues after 21 years. When Peebles was off the road and out of the studio, Brown was free to perform and record with other artists, including his notable year-long stint with The Mother Station in 1994 that yielded the album Brand New Bag and the hit single “Put the Blame On Me.”
The next year Brown was invited to produce Peebles’ critically acclaimed Fill This World With Love album with Stax session guitarist and producer Bobby Manual, with Manual schooling Brown on the intricacies of production and the importance of producing, engineering and mixing with feel as much as tone. The result was a deep soul disc packed with glowing performances that took Peebles music to a new generation of listeners.
Since then Brown’s career was been a flurry of activity: production projects, a non-stop chain of touring, major tribute records to soul giant Don Covay and Eric Clapton, appearances on TV’s Late Night With David Letterman and in the PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues and several live DVD’s including Bobby Rush’s Live at Ground Zero. Brown also served as music director of Italy’s prestigious Porretta Soul Festival in 2013. His most recent production is another groundbreaking album, a follow-up with Bobby Rush called Down in Louisiana that’s received glowing reviews, scored a number 10 spot on the Americana charts and airplay around the world, all recorded at Brown’s Ocean Soul Studios with a band he assembled.
“I feel like I’m at a wonderful place in my life musically,” Brown declares. “I’m getting to do all of the styles of music I want to do. That stretches from a beautiful New Age album with my wife April to a metal album on my son’s fast rising band Obstruction of Power. I’m at the top of my game creatively, and I’m having a ball. And that’s all because I believe in doing things for the right reasons and avoiding anything superficial. For me, it’s all about the music and all about heart and soul.”