Monday, December 10, 2007

Merry Christmas Baby

Charles Brown where are you?
It's Christmas time in the city and Charles Brown is not in town. Charles died back in 1999, but his version of "Merry Christmas Baby" will always be the one-the only one. A major influence on the likes of Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, I used to see Charles all the time in the 80s and 90s inside the Top of the Stretch room at Golden Gate Fields. Sometimes he'd sit alone, sometimes near another blues great, Jimmy McCracklin, and now and then he'd be accompanied by one or more women admirers. Charles loved horse racing and he never missed an opportunity to go to the track. You couldn't miss him on weekends because he'd always be wearing an outfit for his evening gigs. Usually Charles had on a seaman's cap in royal blue sequins with matching suit. In his last few years he was wheel chair bound, but that never stopped his wardrobe or his racetrack appearances. Even when he'd taken a tough beat in a photo finish, Charles remained friendly. He never refused an autograph or signature on a program or CD. He made the time, and knew there was always another race coming up somewhere. He liked people and his breathy voice was just as recognizable cheering for a thoroughbred as it was in a smokey blues ballad.
Charles had his own style of betting horses too. During his hey day, he'd often play 6 or 8 horses in a trifecta box. Sometimes there were only 8 horses in the race, but that didn't stop Charles Brown. He liked saying I got it! I caught the Tri! My friend Leonard, a ticket clerk at the track, used to show me some losing tickets he'd found laying around. In a 9 horse race, the ticket would read $2 exacta box 1 2 4 5 6 7 8. "The 3 horse ran third, Leonard would say, this is Charles Brown shit." Like his love for the blues and his massive talent, Charles had his share of big winners too. They had a big memorial for Charles Brown at the Golden Gate Fields Turf club. His pallbearers included Johnny Otis, and Richard Penniman. Sometimes when I go to the track I can still see Charles Brown moving through the clubhouse, grabbing a program, asking who won the fifth at Hollywood Park, and and smiling gently all in one motion.
Merry Christmas, Baby, you sure been good to me.

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