Christmas is all about tradition. We all have things that we do every year around the holidays. In recent years I have become part of some nice traditions that I really look forward to. One of my traditions is to write a Christmas entry for this series every year and this year is no exception.
Last year I celebrated with Otis Redding’s 1968 version of the classic “Merry Christmas, Baby.” This year I thought I would take you back to the song’s origins, 21 years earlier. Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers are remembered these days primarily for the inclusion of Charles Brown in the lineup. Moore grew up in Texas and relocated to L.A. in the 1930s. There the guitarist (whose style influenced Chuck Berry) met two fellow Texans, pianist Brown and bass player Eddie Williams. Together they became the Three Blazers.
Oscar Moore, Johnny’s brother, became a member of the Nat King Cole Trio. When Cole ended his deal with Atlas Records and moved to Capitol in 1943, Oscar Moore suggested to label owner Robert Scherman that the Three Blazers could replace Cole. Scherman was amenable, but only if Oscar was involved. Johnny wasn’t happy about it but for awhile his group became Oscar Moore with the Three Blazers. The group backed Ivory Joe Hunter and had a 1945 hit with “Blues at Sunrise.”
The next year, with Brown singing lead, the group had its biggest hit with “Driftin’ Blues.” Even though it had become clear that Brown was the group’s big attraction, Johnny Moore refused to credit him on the records. Moore was also not interested in being tied down to one record label which resulted in the group’s early recordings being released on a variety of labels including Philo (later Aladdin) Records, Exclusive, and Modern.
More R&B hits followed including “Sunny Road” in 1946 and “New Orleans Blues” in 1947. “Merry Christmas, Baby” was also a hit that year and the holiday song returned to the charts in each of the next two years. Years later Brown said that the recording came about when Leon Rene, owner of Exclusive Records, decided that he needed a Christmas song to compete with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
At the time there was a songwriter by the name of Lou Baxter who used to hang around the Three Blazers. Baxter had throat cancer and needed surgery. He was short of funds so he asked Brown if the group could record one of his songs. Baxter gave Brown a bunch of songs to look over but Brown wasn’t impressed by what he saw. There was one song called “Merry Christmas Blues” and while Brown didn’t think much of the song, it did give him an idea.
“I saw “Merry Christmas Blues,” but the idea struck me. I said this would be a good idea, but it wasnâ€™t like what he had written. I wrote the title “Merry Christmas Baby,” and I wrote the words, how I was going to sing it, and I mapped it out, played the piano, and I presented it to Johnny Moore,” Brown said.
Unfortunately for Brown, Exclusive Records never paid him for his work but when Hollywood Records took over the label’s lawyers promised payment. Once again, however, no one was paid. To add insult to injury, at some point Johnny Moore gave himself a songwriting credit, along with Baxter. Brown’s name does not appear on the record. That songwriting credit ended up having great value because over the years “Merry Christmas, Baby” has been covered by artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Etta James, and Bruce Springsteen.
The lack of recognition and money weighed on Brown and he left the group for a solo career in 1948. The two remaining Blazers soldiered on for a number of years with a variety of singers. Even Oscar Moore returned for a while when the Nat King Cole Trio folded. The group continued recording into the early 1960s.
The treatment of Charles Brown was certainly not in the spirit of Christmas but nonetheless, he went on to have a splendid solo career. I hope that Christmas treats you better this year. I wish you the peace of the season and the hope that you get to spend it in the warm embrace of family and friends.