Soul-jazz organist Odell Brown helped write Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’Steve Krakowon October 19, 2022 at 5:07 pm

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

I’ve been delving into Windy City jazz for most of my life, beginning with the out-there, Afrocentric sounds of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the like. These days, as an old man, I’m also drawn to soul jazz—an earthier, groovier style that incorporates elements of hard bop, blues, gospel, R&B, and of course soul. In soul jazz you hear a lot of tenor saxophone and electric guitar, but the genre’s most characteristic sound is probably the Hammond organ, showcased in a small combo. Organist Odell Brown led his share of combos like that, and he was one of the best to ever do it—but that hardly sums him up.

Odell Elliott Brown Jr. was born on February 2, 1940, in Louisville, Kentucky, and started playing keys at age four thanks to his mother, who gave piano lessons in her spare time. His father bought him a baby grand “in spite of himself” (as Brown wrote on his website), and in his teen years he got into electronics and model trains and played in school bands.

At age 19, Brown left for Nashville, Tennessee, to check out colleges and get acquainted with the music scene—he’d hoped to follow his dad to Fisk University, an HBCU founded in 1866. He took private lessons in music theory and orchestration and started playing with several musicians attending Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University. Instead of going to school, though, he ended up getting popular enough as a musician to support himself by leading a band. 

The U.S. government then drafted Brown into the army, where he worked with the 179th Army Post Band in Fort Carson, Colorado—an experience he described as “more than enough to make up for what I missed at college for two years.” He sharpened his skills as a player and arranger and picked up vibes, timpani, and bass. 

After an honorable discharge, Brown headed to the Windy City in 1964, where he reconnected with his old comrades from Tennessee State to form Odell Brown & the Organ-izers. The best-known player, other than Brown himself, was probably tenor saxophonist Artee “Duke” Payne, who would become somewhat famous (or notorious) as a jazz bagpiper. (He put out a funky late-60s pipe-driven single on M and M Records.) Payne was raised in Mobile, Alabama, and had come to Chicago to work with sax star Sonny Stitt; with Stitt and on his own, he’d toured the midwest and gigged at local rooms such as McKie’s, the Sutherland Lounge, and the Gate of Horn. The quartet’s other two members were sax man Tommy Purvis (like Brown, born in Louisville) and drummer Curtis Prince, a San Antonio native who’d moved here to play with bassist Cleveland Eaton (who joined the Ramsey Lewis Trio in ’64). 

The Organ-izers cemented their reputation and built an audience with a regular gig at the Hungry Eye in Old Town, and soon they signed to the Cadet imprint of the legendary Chess Records. The ensemble first recorded in July 1966 at Chess’s Ter Mar Studios, laying down tracks for their debut album, Raising the Roof. On the LP’s back cover, late Jazz Showcase owner Joe Segal (also a noted critic) nails a lot of what makes the group so distinctive—and a lot of what I love about soul jazz.

Odell Brown & the Organ-izers covered Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” on their 1966 debut album.

Segal praises the intelligence and creativity of Brown’s band, contrasting them with organ groups fixated on volume and endurance. He singles out lead track “The Honeydripper” (written in the 40s by Joe Liggins) by exclaiming, “Never have I heard it played with such groovy abandon.” When he unpacks the group’s cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” he notes the breadth of their stylistic palette: “The Organ-izers underly their melody with a Latin beat, and then Purvis rhapsodizes on the theme before Odell Brown takes it into a ‘bluesville’ finale.” He describes Payne’s tune “Enchilada Joe” as “hard-driving calypso” and their version of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” as “the most artistic and deep-probing musical venture of the entire set. . . . Both tenors are ‘Coltrane-ish.’”

This unpretentious but powerful range is the best thing about the hard-working organ combos of the era, which managed to be progressive and crowd-pleasing at the same time. 

The Organ-izers then recorded the 1967 LP Ducky for Cadet, which featured ace session peeps such as Phil Upchurch on bass and “Master” Henry Gibson (Curtis Mayfield’s guy) on congas, plus lush production by the legendary Richard Evans. The title track showcases Brown’s funky, unrestrained organ playing, and the whole band spreads out on the Latin-tinged “Get Off My Back.” That same year, the combo released Mellow Yellow, which includes a quirky take on the Donovan cut of the same name, Martin Denny’s exotica classic “Quiet Village,” and more Latin sounds on “Que Son Uno.”

The title track of the 1967 Organ-izers LP Ducky

Brown also got his start as a solo artist at around this time, cutting the 1969 Cadet LP Odell Brown Plays Otis Redding, which you might call “jazz funk” (though nobody would have at the time). Brown lays down cracking B-3 moves on standards such as “Hard to Handle,” “Respect,” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” effortlessly transforming them all into rump-shaking party starters. The production, by R&B sax giant Gene Barge, doesn’t hurt either. 

Barge also appears on Brown’s next LP, 1970’s Free Delivery, which features bassist Louis Satterfield (later of Earth, Wind & Fire) and other masterful session players such as guitarist-writer-singer Cash McCall and drummer Morris Jennings (both covered in SHoCM). Album highlights include the insanely danceable “Nitty Gritty” and another Beatles cover, “Come Together,” whose trudging beat becomes surprisingly soulful. 

“Nitty Gritty” is from Odell Brown’s 1970 LP Free Delivery. (Despite the YouTube title, it’s not an Organ-izers release.)

Brown was working as an arranger and producer for Chess Records, and in 1969 he supported the incredible Dorothy Ashby on the Cadet release Dorothy’s Harp. But after Leonard Chess died that same year, he chose to leave the label. Purvis passed away in 1970, and Brown put the Organ-izers on hold indefinitely. Payne kept making music and eventually also became a math teacher at Betsy Ross Elementary on the south side. Prince would go on to lead the jazz band at Carver Area High School, which made a sought-after private-press LP in 1979.

Brown appeared as a session player on Richard Evans’s Dealing With Hard Times in 1972 and Minnie Riperton’s classic Perfect Angel in 1974. (He also claimed on his website to have worked with Curtis Mayfield, but despite how often that information has been repeated, I could only find evidence they’d crossed paths—no specific credits.) Also in ’74, Brown jumped to the Paula label for what turned out to be his final formal release under his own name, a self-titled LP that edged into jazz-fusion territory. The mellow “Song Theme” adds gentle flute; the smooth 11-minute version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You” surely had clubbers doing stepper moves for days. 

“South of 63rd” appeared in 1974 on Odell Brown’s final formal release under his own name.

As the 70s progressed, Brown kept working as a hired gun, playing on albums by the likes of Eddie Harris and Cleveland Eaton. He also made his highest-profile connection—he began collaborating with Marvin Gaye. Brown appeared on albums such as Live at the London Palladium (Tamla, 1977) and “Here, My Dear” (Tamla, 1978). Most notably, he has a writing credit on Gaye’s last LP, Midnight Love (Columbia, 1982), specifically the massive hit “Sexual Healing.” 

While Gaye was working on Midnight Love, he was in recovery from a cocaine addiction. Music writer David Ritz claimed that the title of the album’s biggest smash came from something he told Gaye—supposedly Ritz saw some sadomasochistic comic books at Gaye’s place and said the singer needed “sexual healing.” Plenty of people have denied this, including Brown, who said he never met Ritz. What’s not in dispute is that Gaye wrote the reggae-influenced song with Brown and guitarist Gordon Banks, using a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Jupiter-8 synthesizer (gifts from the label). Brown said that a melody he tapped out became a crucial piece of “Sexual Healing,” and his obituary for Minnesota’s Star Tribune quotes him as saying “It took two minutes to write.” 

Please exercise caution when reading the YouTube comments for this video.

Regardless of who contributed exactly what, Brown got a cowriting credit on the sexy postdisco tune (which Blender magazine would describe in 2005 as “the plaintively blue-balled model for basically every slow jam”). It spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and won Gaye two Grammys in 1983. 

Brown’s career should’ve been peaking, but sadly this is where it came off the rails. Though neither he nor Gaye is alive to explain what happened, they stopped working together. Brown had struggled with severe depression all his life, and by the time the Grammys were televised in February 1983 and he learned about the awards, he was living in a transient hotel in Los Angeles. After Gaye’s murder by his father in April 1984, he started spiraling downward. 

Fortunately Brown came back from the depths. In 1994 he moved to Richfield, Minnesota, at the urging of the love of his life, fellow musician Barbara Whiteman, who’d repeatedly traveled to California to help him recover. In 1999 they married, bringing him some welcome happiness and stability. Minnesota Public Radio reported in 2003 that he’d tried to deal with the annual downturns in his mental health around Christmas by self-producing an album of holiday songs. Brown also launched Over the Edge Productions, which he described on his website as “a modern, progressive music production company that deals intently with composition, arrangements, musical performance, digital recording, consultation and education.”

Brown died peacefully in his sleep in Richfield on May 3, 2011, at age 71. Thankfully we can still hear his feisty organ playing, and that won’t change—the recordings he left behind are a healing balm for fans of soulful music.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

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