By day in and around New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s, Joe Brown worked for a wallpaper company. But at night and on weekends, he was Joe Brown in the flashy suit. With the muttonchop sideburns and the curl in his hair, the second tenor and baritone singer for the gospel group Thrashing Wonders.
Joe Brown died Friday at age 62 here in Rock Hill, after coming home years ago to drive a truck for a living. But he left a legacy that lasts in the memories of those who heard him.
The Thrashing Wonders, which would open for the largest gospel groups of that era, at gigs before thousands, had three Rock Hill members at different times. Joe Brown, Billie Brown and Willie Roach. Roach, nicknamed "Blues Man," even was able to make his living in music, with the Thrashing Wonders and other groups, before coming home to Rock Hill in the late 1980s
"Joe had this mellow, mellow voice," Roach said. "A versatile voice. Really, he could handle all of it."
Based in New York but playing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the group made a reputation on the black gospel circuit. Some of those groups turned to rhythm and blues and found stardom. Others, such as the Thrashing Wonders, stayed with gospel and never became household names outside the core group of fans.
"Boston, Providence, New York and Jersey, Philly, D.C., Baltimore -- we played all those places and in between," Roach said. "Those were the days when live performances were a big deal. The Thrashing Wonders could hold an audience. A dependable, good group with style."
Black or blue or white tuxedos was the norm: Brown even was known to wear a full- length fur coat in those days.
"People who knew gospel knew Joe Brown," said Johnny "Boggie" King, another Rock Hill musician who made his mark on the music scene in New York. "Thrashing Wonders? Man, that group would go out on the road, and people would come from all around."
Brown learned the drums and other instruments at Emmett Scott High School, where he was a star on the basketball team, too. In New York, he also played bass guitar and even managed one of King's early bands, JKB, for a couple of years.
His two sons, Vonne and Jermaine, grown men now with families of their own, remember riding to gigs with their father. Jermaine talked about his father's music and performances like the sons of great athletes remember the touchdowns and adoring crowds.
"He was great," Jermaine said.
And that's what makes a life lived by a man like Joe Brown so special. When he was young, and he had that music learned in church like so many black musicians, he took a chance at life in New York.
"Joe always had a full-time job, had to juggle his family with the music," Roach said.
But Joe Brown did it. There are the promotional pictures from 35 years ago and more still around, and those albums.
Monday at Parker Funeral Home, Brown's grandson held in his hands a record of his grandfathers. A 33 rpm, an LP. Most kids have never heard of anything but a compact disc.
"My granddaddy made this music," said an 11-year-old granddaughter, Asia.
How many of us can say, like Joe Brown's family can say, that after we die what we did will last forever?