‘Lookin’ For A Soul Brother . . .”

Sometime in the late 1950s, musician and civil rights activist Oscar Brown, Jr., sat down and worked out a tune titled “Brother Where Are You,” a song of despair that was also a quiet call to action and its listeners’ self-reflection:

A small boy walked down a city street
And hope was in his eyes
As he searched the faces of the people he’d meet
For one he could recognize

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

The eyes of the people who passed him by
Were cold and hard as stone
The poor boy whimpered and began to cry
Because he was all alone

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

Now there are many
Who will swear that it’s true
That brothers are we all
Yet it seems there are very few
Who will answer a brother’s call

Brother, where are you?
They told me that you came this way
Brother, where are you?
They said you came this way

“Brother Where Are You” first showed up on record, as far as I can tell, on Abbey Is Blue, a 1959 album by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. (A year later, Lincoln would team with Brown, Coleman Hawkins and other jazz luminaries for the album We Insist! – Freedom Now, a civil rights-themed project released in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963.)

The tune is familiar to me – and others of my vintage, I assume – because of its inclusion by Johnny Rivers in his 1968 masterpiece Realization. In those environs, the song became less a plaint about racial injustice and more a call for economic and political justice. (It was, of course, not uncommon in the late 1960s and early 1970s for young, socially aware white men to call each other “brother” with no irony and little self-consciousness.)

I have no way to know where Rivers found the song, but there were several versions of it out there. (Tracking the song on indices can be difficult, as some listings have a comma after “Brother” and some don’t. Additionally, some include a question mark at the end of the title while others don’t. The number of possible permutations means I no doubt missed some covers while digging.) Among the more notable versions I found were several early soul/R&B versions of the song, one by a group called Thee Midniters from 1965 and another by a singer named Richard Simmons (not the exercise dweeb) in 1966. I also found a live 1965 performance by the composer himself, later released on the album Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington.

One of the more interesting covers of the tune is by the Remo Four, a Liverpool group from the mid-Sixties that released some good records and worked with, among others, Beatle George Harrison. Among its members were Tony Ashton and Roy Dyke, who with Kim Gardner, later scored a one-hit wonder – “Resurrection Shuffle” – in the U.S. as Ashton, Gardner & Dyke. In 1967, the Remo Four’s version of “Brother Where Are You” was included on Smile, an album released in Germany. (It’s now available on CD anywhere.)

One of the most indelible parts of River’s recording of the song on Realization is the chant of the background singers: “Lookin’ for a soul brother all around me.” I’m not at all sure where that originated, but it’s included as well on the version Al Wilson used to close his 1968 album Searching For The Dolphins. As Rivers produced Wilson’s album, which was then released on Rivers’ Soul City label, I’d really like to know which of the two, Rivers or Wilson, was the first to record the song.

There have been other covers of the tune over the years, of course. A combined total of the listings at All-Music Guide shows about eighty CDs on the market that include the song. Subtract – as a guesstimate – half for duplication and other songs with the same title, and there are still about forty artists and groups that have covered the song. And it continues to attract attention. A 2008 version by a group called Masters of Space And Time caught my attention this morning at Amazon. But as is the case with many tunes, I still hold the familiar close. So the version I first heard, Rivers’ take on the tune, is the one I turn to.

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One Response to “‘Lookin’ For A Soul Brother . . .””

  1. Larry Grogan says:

    I have ( and have overlooked) a few of those covers. I’ll have to dig them out.

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