The Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group, called “Jimmy Mak’s signature band” by The Oregonian, performed on Thursday nights for 20 years at the noted Pearl District music venue. That’s a remarkably long run, but the band’s roots extend back even further than its September 1997 debut at Jimmy Mak’s.
In 1997, most Portland music fans were familiar with Mel Brown as the dean of Portland jazz drummers and for his earlier stint as a Motown staff drummer (working with the likes of Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations). But before that, Mel had gigged around the NW with Billy Larkin & the Delegates, a funky organ group. (The band had a regional hit record, “The Pygmy,” which was covered by Booker T & the MG’s.) Similarly, in 1997 organist Louis “King Louie” Pain was known to Portlanders for his work with the great Portland blues/soul icons Paul deLay and Linda Hornbuckle (now sadly both deceased), but his roots were in the soul-jazz organ group genre. In the mid-seventies, back in his native Bay Area, Louis had cut his teeth playing in an organ group led by Bay Area sax legend Jules Broussard, who Mel had actually worked with a few years earlier.
Within a month of the group’s inaugural Jimmy Mak’s gig, customers were lining up down the block on Thursday nights. The band’s unrehearsed-yet-tight Hammond B-3-anchored style (featuring organ bass), dubbed “the sound of spontaneity” by The Oregonian, was something totally new to the young, hip Pearl District audiences. Adding to the coolness of the gig: mixed in with the young fans were some veterans of Portland’s ‘50s & ‘60s jump jazz scene–rooting the band on and, in the case of the late Sweet Baby James Benton, occasionally sitting in.