Tony Russell (Charles) Brown, pianist and vocalist, was born in Texas City on September 13, 1922 (some accounts say 1920), the son of John (Mose) Brown, a cotton picker, and Mattie Evelyn (Simpson) Brown. Brown's mother died when he was six months old, and his father was killed by a train in 1928. Charles was raised by his maternal grandparents, Conquest and Swanee Simpson. Mrs. Simpson, a church choir director, encouraged him to learn classical music and provided him with piano training. Brown played in the band at Central High School in Galveston and also at various local clubs with saxophonist Costello James, his science teacher at the high school. Brown enrolled at Prairie View A&M College (now Prairie View A&M University) in 1939 and graduated in 1942 with a degree in chemistry. During his college years he played with the Prairie View Collegians, and in 1942 he was voted the most popular student on the campus. After college he worked as a chemistry teacher at George Washington Carver High School in Baytown; at the federal arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, manufacturing mustard gas; and as an apprentice electrician in a shipyard in Richmond, California, before settling in Los Angeles in 1943.
In Los Angeles he worked briefly as a church organist and as an elevator operator in a downtown department store. In 1944 he won first prize in an amateur talent show at the Lincoln Theater and was hired by Mark Neal, the husband of jazz singer Ivie Anderson, to play at Ivie's Chicken Shack, a local nightclub. Brown quit the job when he was denied a raise and was working part-time playing the piano for rehearsals at the Lincoln Theater when Johnny Moore, who had also been in the audience when Brown won the amateur contest, invited him to join Moore's band, the Three Blazers. Brown debuted with the group at the Talk of the Town, a Beverly Hills nightclub, in September 1944. The Three Blazers quickly became a popular attraction at local clubs, and Eddie Mesner, the head of Philo Records, signed them to a recording contract. In 1946 their song "Driftin' Blues," featuring Brown's smooth vocals, became one of the nation's top rhythm and blues hits. The Three Blazers had a string of hits, including "So Long," "Sunny Road," "Groovy Movie Blues," and "Merry Christmas Baby," the last of which was released during the 1947 Christmas season.
Brown left the Blazers in 1948 for a solo career following a financial disagreement with Moore. He recorded more than 200 sides with Aladdin Records and had several hits, including "Black Night," "Trouble Blues," and "Seven Long Days," but a dispute with the label over royalties and the advent of the rock-and-roll era caused Brown's musical popularity to wane. In 1958 he retired from touring, unable to pay his musicians' union dues in the wake of a legal dispute with his booking agency. In 1959 he found work in a casino in Newport, Kentucky.
Although Brown continued to record sporadically, the buying public largely ignored his albums. For most of the next two decades he worked as a janitor, window washer, and music teacher to make ends meet. In the late 1970s two events helped resurrect his career: in 1978 the country-rock band the Eagles recorded his song "Please Come Home For Christmas," which reached Number 18 on the national charts, and in 1979 he played a lengthy engagement at Tramps, a nightclub in New York City, which led to several European tours. In 1988 he was featured in the documentary film That Rhythm . . . Those Blues, and the following year he opened for Grammy-winning singer Bonnie Raitt on her national tour. In the 1980s and 1990s he recorded a number of albums, including One More for the Road (1986), All My Life (1990), Someone to Love (1992), These Blues (1994), Just a Lucky So and So (1994), Honeydripper (1996), and So Goes Love (1998). In addition, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, and he received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award in 1997. Two months after his death on January 21, 1999, from congestive heart failure, Brown was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Both of his marriages, to singer Mabel Scott in 1948 and to Eva McGhee in 1959, ended in divorce. He left no children.