Vinyl Destination: Bob Brown Left the Folk Scene Decades Ago, But His Old Records Might Beckon Him Back
On a Saturday afternoon in February, a middle-aged man walked into Adams Morgan’s Red Onion Records with his three kids. He asked owner Joshua Harkavy if the shop carried any albums by Bob Brown, a D.C. folk musician from the 1970s. Harkavy happened to have one in stock. He grabbed a mint-condition copy of Brown’s 1970 LP, The Wall I Built Myself, and handed it to the customer. Recognizing the long-haired guy on the cover, the man’s 10-year-old daughter turned to her father and asked, “That’s you, isn’t it?”
Yes, he said—that’s him. “I didn’t recognize him at all,” Harkavy says. Few would have. Brown, 64, hasn’t released any music since his second album, Willoughby’s Lament, in 1971. He hasn’t played a concert since the early 1980s, and he largely abandoned the music industry after his career petered out nearly 30 years ago in Los Angeles. Brown had been on a major label—folk artist Richie Havens’ Stormy Forest, a subsidiary of MGM—but after MGM was gradually absorbed by Polydor in the 1970s, Brown’s records seemed to be carried off with the wind.
In the past few decades, though, Brown’s fragile, country-tinged folk tunes have attracted a loyal following. Willoughby’s Lament has become one of those cherished rare LPs that sends collectors digging through crates and scouring the Internet for years.
I didn’t have to work hard to find a copy of the legendary album, though: In January, I found it in the Vinyl Vaults, Amoeba Records’ online outlet for digital and physical copies of rare recordings. This was shortly after Variety magazine got the scoop on the six-year, $11 million venture that brought the California record-store chain into the download marketplace. Some of the available titles are so rare—and their copyright owners so tough to pin down—that Amoeba has posted some albums for sale without contacting the responsible parties.
If Amoeba tried to contact Bob Brown, it didn’t try very hard. Brown is one man who’s easy to find. After stumbling upon Amoeba’s digital copy of his album, I found Brown through one of his businesses, Bob Brown Service Solutions. It seems the old folkie has come a long way since his long-haired days: He now travels the world as an independent management consultant to corporate hotels and chain restaurants, delivering keynote speeches and leading seminars. He counts the Walt Disney Company, Marriott, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden among his clients. He spent most of January in Dubai, working with restaurants in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers and one of the world’s most expensive hotels, the seven-star behemoth Burj Al Arab. On his website, he’s pictured in a suit and tie, hair short and tidy, arms crossed, with a genial smile that says, “Trust me. I’m your guy.”
Yet when I first spoke to Brown on the phone in early February and told him about finding Willoughby’s Lament on Amoeba’s site, something seemed to stir in him. “Oh, my goodness,” he said.
Brown had no idea that his album was for sale. “No one’s gotten in touch with me,” he said. The shop didn’t seem to want to talk to Washington City Paper, either. I spent several days trying to reach the store’s owners and managers, but Amoeba didn’t return my messages. By Feb. 5, the digital copy of Willoughby’s Lament had disappeared from Amoeba’s site.
The experience added another strange wrinkle to Bob Brown’s musical career. Growing up in Clinton, Md., Brown picked up a guitar at age 14 and started playing coffeehouses in the D.C. area at the end of high school. Brown had a thing for folk music, and in 1966 he took a trip to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival. “I saw Richie Havens play and I just cried,” he says. “It touched a part of me that is so powerful, and I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Brown says he had a funny feeling about Havens when he met him at the Newport fairgrounds. Later that month, he reconnected with the famous troubadour at the Blues Bag coffeehouse, and after, the two traded songs on a beach in Provincetown, Mass.
After he enrolled in the University of Maryland in 1966, Brown began to open for bands at the school’s Ritchie Coliseum, which is where a representative for Mercury Records spotted Brown and offered him a deal. Brown called up Havens to seek legal advice, but got something unexpected. “Richie called me back [and said] ‘Forget about the lawyer,’” he says. “‘I have my own record label.’” Brown took a bus to New York and signed a two-album deal with Havens’ Stormy Forest.
Brown’s studies took a backseat as he focused on music: He toured the U.S. and U.K. with Havens; lived in the Chelsea Hotel for a stint, where he befriended, among others, Leonard Cohen; and he recorded and released his two solo albums on Stormy Forest. He’d frequently perform at venues like D.C.’s Iguana coffeehouse in the basement of Thomas Circle’s Luther Place Memorial Church, which is where producer Mark Greenhouse first heard Brown. “His music was intoxicating to me,” Greenhouse says. The two eventually became friends. “It was so advanced for folk music. It was chord changes you didn’t see coming. It was lyrical poetry. It was Joni Mitchell quality, and Joni at that time in life was very important [to me].”
From the early 1970s through the mid-1980s, Brown bounced around trying to get a hold on his career. He had recorded a few tracks for a third album when things with the label “went south,” as he puts it, and he parted ways with Havens and Stormy Forest. Greenhouse witnessed a shift in his friend’s life. “When it all came to a halt,” he says, referring to Brown’s career with a major label, “there was this kind of loss in him, not knowing quite who he was and what to do.”
Brown tried to get back to the position he had while on Stormy Forest, and he almost made it. He was living in New York City when he nearly inked a deal with Columbia Records President Clive Davis, who wanted Brown to record an album with Simon and Garfunkel producer Roy Halee. The idea unraveled after Davis was fired from Columbia Records in 1973.
Brown spent a couple of years in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, where he recorded with Toto and Dolly Parton producer George Massenburg, befriended Bud Cort (also known as Harold from Harold and Maude), and hung out at Dan Tana’s on Hollywood Boulevard with folks like Harvey Keitel and Jeff Bridges. (Brown says people would sometimes confuse him for Bridges.) But the two albums Brown made with Massenburg, as well as a full-length he recorded with Greenhouse and The Eagles’ Steuart Smith from 1980 to 1981, never saw the light of day.
The musician returned to D.C. in 1977 and played what would be his final public performance at the 9:30 Club in the early 1980s. He moved back to L.A. to try to jumpstart his career one last time, but it didn’t pay off. The final straw came, he says, after Donna Summer’s producer blew him off four times. Dejected, Brown moved back east in 1983. After a year of living in Charleston, S.C., he came back to D.C. in 1987 and started waiting tables at New Heights in Georgetown.
It was the beginning of a new start. At the behest of his manager, Brown helped lead a server training and discovered he had a knack for it. He began networking at Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington meetings and gradually, the consultant gigs trickled in. Brown met his wife, Judith Slowey-Brown, through his work in the hospitality business. He says he spotted her at the back of the hall while he was giving a speech at a managers’ hotel conference in Manchester, England. He says she didn’t know much about her husband’s musical career; she hadn’t even listened to his music until 2006, right around the time he and audio engineer Bill Wolf began transferring the album he cut with Greenhouse and Smith from tape to CD. While on a drive with his family, Brown popped the CD into the stereo of his Honda Odyssey. “My wife was like, ‘Is that you?,’” Brown says. “‘Why didn’t you put this stuff out?’”
Brown’s wife isn’t the only person who wants to see his music revived. In recent years, folks have come out of the woodwork to talk to him about his old recordings. “It’s weird, because it’s like something reawakened,” he says. One of the people who contacted him is Rob Sevier, co-founder of the archival label Numero Group, which has done some impressive work reissuing D.C. soul recordings. Numero included one of Brown’s previously unreleased tracks, “Close of the Day,” on a 2009 folk compilation called Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes. Sevier’s imprint is one of several labels that has expressed interest in reissuing Willoughby’s Lament.
The only thing keeping Brown from reissuing his old albums is the question of ownership. “It’s just a little shaky,” says Sevier. Brown had a chance to talk to Havens about it when he caught him at Havens’ show at The Birchmere in 2007. There, according to Brown, Havens said he owned the entire Stormy Forest catalog and that Brown could have the rights to The Wall I Built Myself and Willoughby’s Lament. The pair twice tried to set a date for Brown to pick up the masters from Havens’ warehouse in Fort Lee, N.J., but the meetings fell through because of scheduling difficulties. Since then, attempts to reissue Brown’s material have stalled for much the same reason. Havens quit touring last year after a short trek following kidney surgery, and that hasn’t made it easier for Brown to sort everything out. (Havens’ management could not be reached for comment.)
Amoeba Records appeared to overstep the ownership issue completely when it started selling mp3s from Willoughby’s Lament. When the shop’s Vinyl Vaults went online, it reignited a national conversation about music copyright, raising questions about the legality of selling digital copies of out-of-print records. The consensus is that Amoeba had better lawyer up: Selling digitized copies of rare records can still be copyright infringement. Merely taking down a record once someone complains doesn’t absolve the store of wrongdoing, either. D.C. copyright attorney Paul Jorgensen says it’s “like taking someone’s car, and after they protest that you took their car, you [give] it back to them,” he says. “You did something wrong. You stole the car.”
Brown has mixed feelings about Amoeba selling his record without his knowledge. He seems miffed that the shop didn’t get in touch with him, but he looks at it as another sign that people are still interested in his music. That impression was confirmed when he walked into Red Onion Records in February. That day, Brown had been working at the Mayflower Hotel when he decided to take his kids on a tour of his old stomping grounds. When he noticed the record store sitting in a space his friend Juergen Haber once owned, he decided to pop in.
Harkavy says Brown’s visit will be hard to forget. Chances are, Brown feels the same way. The shop owner asked to have his picture taken with Brown and invited him to perform at the shop sometime soon. “My wife said it’s a sign,” Brown says, “that I should be getting my music out.”
Listen to an unreleased Bob Brown song, "Perfect Song," below. Lyrics, music, vocals, guitar by Bob Brown; additional vocals by Aleta Green. Recorded by George Massenburg at Hollywood Sound in Los Angeles.
Ally Schweitzer contributed to this report.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery