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Blame It On Charlie

If I’m ever in need of someone to blame for me getting into the music business, and I’m not up to accepting the responsibility for myself, I blame it on Charlie.

We all have people that shaped our lives at crucial times, giving us a boost up to the next rung on the ladder. Nobody gets through life completely on his or her own. Suffice it to say, Charlie (Charles F.) Brown was one of the more important influences on my professional life. There are lots of days I want to thank him for that. And then there are the days I wish he’d kept his mentoring to himself.

In the late 1970s, Word Music was a flourishing Christian music company in sleepy Waco, Texas. Charlie Brown was the chief editor and creative director for the company’s choral music division. He was also a songwriter, orchestrator, record producer, and choral arranger – all the things that I would eventually become. In the spring of 1976, either due to a lapse in good judgment or pure dumb luck, the Baylor University School of Music dropped its academic guard long enough to allow Charlie to teach an elective course on music editing. Like the mythical city of Brigadoon, the opportunity for me to learn something practical about the music business emerged out of the bureaucratic mists of academia for one brief semester, only to disappear, never to return. But what a semester it was!

Class met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, ostensibly for one hour. But Charlie never got away in less than two hours. The fifteen or so students in the class pumped him with questions, not allowing him to leave when class ended. In that semester, he taught us how to write a proper lead sheet and a playable piano transcription, skills I use to this day. He let us observe his recording sessions with real session musicians in Dallas. He brought in guest speakers, including Kurt Kaiser, who would become another mentor to me. In fact, I learned more practical, useful information about how to make a living in music in that one semester than I did in all my other university music classes combined. (Then again, I was a Music Ed major, and took a lot of classes that were a complete waste of time for someone who would never direct a public school band.)

By the time the semester ended, several of us from class were doing free-lance copywork and editorial work for Word. Thanks to Charlie, over the next few years, I did some 500 lead sheets and 300 piano transcriptions, work that often paid the rent. It was Charlie who landed my first two choral pieces with Shawnee Press. It was Charlie who cut a half dozen or so of my earliest songs on choral records and custom artist records. It was Charlie who was my professional sounding board for the first few years of my career. It was Charlie that taught me about consistency of textures in vocal writing, who demonstrated that 2-part voice writing is an art unto itself, and opened my eyes to the wonders of the minor four chord with an added 6th.

And it wasn’t just me he influenced. Charlie was also there for the likes of these and many others: Mark Hayes, pianist and composer; Don Cason, future president of Word Music; Dennis Worley, future music executive and now a big-deal music minister; Debbie Hall, Los Angeles session singer; Paul Smith, singer and songwriter; Karla Worley, singer, songwriter and author; and Sheldon Curry, composer and arranger. It’s not difficult to imagine serious people in church music in 1978, asking, “Just exactly who exactly is responsible for unleashing these yahoos into the church music world?”

I blame it on Charlie.

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