Zen and the Art of Hospitality:
Singer-Songwriter Bob Brown Returns to his First Muse
Bob Brown flies millions of miles around the world training hotel staff to better serve the public. He was at the Grand Cayman Ritz Carlton a few months ago teaching courses in "The 8-Keys of Dining Sales Success" and "Hospitality for Lifetime Loyalty." Walking past the hotel’s grand piano, he stopped to play. As he began to improvise melodies, hotel patrons and staff began to take notice. One woman cried: “It’s so pretty!” Another asked if he was famous.
He told her he wasn’t. He should be.
Tompkins Square has just reissued Brown’s long out-of-print albums The Wall I Built Myself, originally released in 1970, and Willoughby’s Lament, from 1971. This richly arranged and performed folk music comes from a local figure that had long ago left music for another muse. Now it’s his time to come back.
* * *
Sound was crucial to Brown at an early age. His mother was deaf and didn't sign, so he served as her interpreter when they’d go to the gas station or grocery store. His grandmother, who lived across the street, played a grand piano, and instilled in young Bob the joys of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. “A lot of the suspended chords I play come from a classical ear.”
Brown was a precocious teen at Surrattsville High, and took the bus from his home in Clinton, Maryland to perform in D.C.’s coffeehouse folk scene: places like the Crows Toe on 10th and K, and the Iguana, part of Luther Place Church on Thomas Circle. Brown hitchhiked to the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, the year Bob Dylan alienated some of his fans by going electric. Brown watched Dylan sitting on a box in a field playing “Maggie’s Farm.” It was an epiphany.
It was around this time that Brown met singer-songwriter Richie Havens, who signed him to his record label, Stormy Forest. Brown had the opportunity to work with top session players, but he insisted on working with D.C.-area players, with whom he had developed the kind of interplay that musicians dream of. Artists like Orin Smith, whom Brown met sitting on the stop of the University of Maryland's Garrett Hall, playing guitar upside down and backwards; and Joe Clark, who went to Baltimore's Peabody Institute and wrote the musical arrangements for Brown's first two albums.
In 1969, the record company put Brown up in New York's famed Hotel Chelsea, rubbing elbows with people like Leonard Cohen, Johnny Winter, and Andy Warhol. A few years later he left New York for Los Angeles, where he and his then-partner Aleta Green signed what would have been a lucrative deal with Clive Davis at Columbia Records. Unfortunately, after Davis got fired there was no more deal.
With his tail between his legs, Brown came back to D.C. to wait tables. "I worked at the Hawk and Dove—they had kind of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll thing going on at the time." He ended up at Paolo’s on Wisconsin and M, which he explains was once "the busiest restaurant in the world. I was the top salesperson and had a really great manager. I left the music world because I was making $500 a night or more as a waiter. I was still playing music and recording on the side but I got so sick of the rejection."
* * *
“Rejection is your greatest teacher.” Brown wrote in his 1994 book The Little Brown Book of Restaurant Success, which sold more than twice as many copies as his albums. He's a Zen master of the service industry. On bad customers, he wrote, "You may not be able to change a jerk, but you can change the way you respond to him." Brown wrote that customer complaints are an opportunity to shine, that the right response will guarantee loyalty. In his own case, it was rejection from the music industry that led to a new life. "This whole career opened up for me. It was something I just made up."
"My view of the hospitality world is very similar to music. It’s a poetic view of people as performers." In conversation, Brown exudes warmth that has served him well in music as well as in hospitality. As Brown sees it, the two are not far removed. “A sale is a transfer of enthusiasm,” he wrote in his Little Brown Book, and whether he’s telling you how to be more effective as a hotel employee, or performing songs like “It Takes the World to Make a Feather Fall,” his enthusiasm is contagious.
At Red Onion Records & Books last month, Brown performed at a shop where, at its Adams Morgan location, he had not long ago been a customer. As a City Paper article explains, in February 2013 he visited the shop with his children and asked if they had any records by Bob Brown. Owner Joshua Harkavy happened to have a mint copy of The Wall I Built Myself, but didn't recognize the 64-year old customer as the long-haired folk singer on the album cover. Brown's ten-year old daughter did.
With sensitive accompaniment from pianist-guitarist Wall Matthews, Brown played a beautiful in-store concert that was only the second time he had performed after a 30-year hiatus. You would never have known he’d ever left the business. “I still played but not a lot. Now that I’m playing on a regular basis it’s all coming back. It’s deeply embedded in my soul."
Though he doesn't have any more local concerts lined up yet, he's playing at Joe's Pub in New York in June. Now 67, he's ready for his close-up. “Music touches this untouchable part of yourself. The other stuff I do has power, but it doesn’t go as deep as the music. If I had my way I’d be playing music all the time. Right now I’m grateful that I have this second chance to play music.“
The Wall I Built Myself and Willoughby’s Lament are available on Tompkins Square records.