HARLINGEN — John Riley Brown, better known as Texas Johnny Brown, who was one of the first blues musicians to perform at Harlingen’s Blues on the Hill and returned to perform several times, died at his home in Houston Monday evening, friends said. He was 85.
Brown’s career spanned over six decades. He played or recorded with a virtual who’s who of the blues world, including Amos Milburn, Ruth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Lavelle White, Buddy Ace and Joe Hinton.
His song “Two Steps From The Blues” is a blues classic.
His CD “Nothin’ But the Truth” on his own Choctaw Creek Records was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award in 1999 for Comeback Album of the Year.
In a June 2010 interview with the Valley Morning Star, Brown was asked what makes good blues. He simply replied, “Melancholy feelings make good blues music.”
As a boy growing up in rural Mississippi, Brown said he flocked to blues at a young age. “It’s something that I latched on to,” he said.
The Houston-based musician was back in Harlingen to play the city’s 10th annual Blues on the Hill concert series in front of hundreds from all over the Rio Grande Valley.
In a July 2007 interview with the Star, Brown said songwriting doesn’t get any easier as the years go by.
“You don’t want to repeat yourself,” said the blues veteran. “But you’re also trying to keep the flavor of what your music is all about.”
The trick is to make the new tune sound like a song by Texas Johnny Brown but not have it sound like “the same old song” by Texas Johnny Brown, he said.
“It’s not easy, but I still have something to say,” he said. “As long as you have a good story to tell, you have a good song.”
Brown’s life story sounds like something out of a blues legend. His father was blinded while working for a railroad. From then on, they survived by traveling from town to town with their dog Carburetor and playing blues on street corners.
Brown came off the road and worked for years as a mechanic to help raise his children. After they grew up, he was back playing the blues.
Funeral arrangements are pending.