Soul singer Don Brown feels that his talent is a gift from God.
“Mine didn’t come from school,” said Brown. “It didn’t come from going to some university or some music classes. My people couldn’t afford that. Mine came straight from God and I know it’s a gift, so I just try to give the gift back to the folks.”
Brown was born and raised in Fredericksburg and got his first request to sing from his kindergarten teacher, who asked him to perform at their graduation. He credits his early musical development to his mother’s collection of 45 rpm records which he used to play over and over until he could imitate singers like The Temptations and Otis Redding. His other main influence was his church, where he sang with youth choirs and eventually started taking solos and even directing the groups as he got older. This led to what Brown describes as his main vocation: being a church worship leader.
“I’m a worship leader today at a little church called the Greater Holy Lighthouse Of Prayer,” said Brown. “We meet out at the Fredericksburg Bible Seminary on Lee Hill School Drive. It’s a really small church, small congregation.”
Brown finds the spirit that makes him a good worship leader also makes him a good entertainer in the vein of his classic R&B heroes.
“I guess it’s the worship leader in me. I always get people to join in and be a part of the show,” said Brown. “That’s where I get my joy from. If that doesn’t happen, I feel like it wasn’t a good show. No matter what your preferences are, I’m going to do a song where you’re going to feel the groove, and not only feel the groove but you’re going to want to sing along. I try to encourage folks to do that. Most of the time it works.”
Brown’s life hasn’t always been easy or happy. Fifteen years ago, his wife died. Depressed, Brown fell into taking drugs, but credits an encounter with God for turning his life around.
It was a cold winter day and he was doing a temporary labor job picking up trash along a roadside. Brown said that God spoke to him that day.
“He said, ‘You don’t always seek my face,’” Brown recalled. “I was really blown away to the response that I was getting from God. Yet, I was so true and I said ‘Lord it looks like I keep running away from you. Give me the wisdom to seek your face and always run to you.’”
That experience led Brown to a new song, “Run to You.”
“As He was speaking, I was writing. And then after I finished writing He dropped a tune into my head,” Brown said. “And when He dropped the tune into my head I was thinking, what is this? He said, ‘now put those words that you just wrote to this tune.’ I’m like, OK, let me try it, and it worked. It fit.”
Brown performed his new song many times in church, but couldn’t afford the studio time it would take to record it. A chance meeting with drummer Toby Fairchild seemed like the answer to his prayers. Impressed with “Run to You,” Fairchild offered to record the song in his home studio and even helped assemble a team of excellent local musicians to play on it. Brown copied the song on CDs, which he sold and gave away. He also put the song online for sale on iTunes and the CD Baby website.
Since that time, Brown has played with several local bands including the Nightshift Trio with Fairchild and Yanna Andrews and the World Music Club with Pete Fields and Claude Arthur. Brown started his own band called The Don Brown Jazz Explosion, but has struggled to keep a regular group together. He feels like the number of venues in Fredericksburg has declined in recent years, with the closing of places like The Otter House and University Cafe, where Brown often played. But like his music, Brown remains optimistic and upbeat.
“One thing I’ve found about the music that we do—the music that we do is timeless,” said Brown. “No matter where I go, when I do it, everybody gets involved. I’ve had 300 geriatrics in front of me at the library singing ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ and singing ‘My Girl.’ Everybody’s enjoying the music. Everybody’s coming together as one big happy family.”
Stephen Hu is a local writer and musician who can sing as well as any geriatric person.