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I've had men that weren't this good," declares Erica Brown, rubbing her hands together and raising an eyebrow. She's two forkfuls into a heaping slab of cherry cheesecake.
Adorned in reading glasses and a simple T-shirt and jeans, the singer, who is so elegant on stage, looks more like a librarian than a showstopping diva. But a few minutes later, when Brown starts humming along with Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," her vocal prowess is unmistakable.
Sharing the booth is Scotty Rivera, Brown's partner in crime and the drummer for the blues-inflected act that bears her name. As Brown scoops up another morsel, Rivera glances at her and chuckles. "If you think I'm missing even one drop of this," she responds, "you have lost your mind."
Brown learned to savor life's simple pleasures early on. Although she was raised in the opulent environs of Sikeston, Missouri -- a place she remembers as having more millionaires per square mile than any other city in the country -- her family was anything but affluent. Still, she was often treated to unexpected luxuries: Her mother and aunts were domestics who worked for many of the town's wealthy families. "We had as much chance of having foie gras for New Year's Eve as we did turkey," Brown remembers. "Me and my sisters laugh about that now. We were some of the richest poor kids in town."
They were also some of the most dapper. One of Brown's aunts worked for a woman who went on shopping sprees several times a year; when she returned, she'd pass on her "old" clothes to the girls. "I will never forget that. When I was twelve years old, I had a pair of snakeskin pumps -- they were the bomb," Brown recalls with a laugh. "The woman had, I'm sure, a separate room with nothing but clothes, and the stuff she would send to us was virtually unworn. We would turn up for holidays in silks and satins. It was a very interesting existence."
Brown's parents lived in different towns, thirty miles from each other. "My father and mother were two volatile individuals who weren't about to let either one of them tell the other what to do," she explains. During the school year, she'd see her father on weekends, when he'd stop by and visit her in Sikeston. During the summer, she'd spend time with him in Cape Girardeau. "He was a farmer," she says, "so there wasn't a lot of music going on at his house." Still, his first ranch -- financed with gambling money he won during a stint in the military -- was dubbed Melody Lane.
In Sikeston, Brown was surrounded by music. Encouraged by her mother, she sang in various choirs and played the flute. But it would be years before she decided to make music her career. As a teen, she felt a higher calling. "I was a very shy kid, very shy, painfully shy," she admits. "I was also a very religious kid. That was my deal. I wore long skirts down to the knees. We weren't Pentecostal; we were Baptists. But I might as well have been Pentecostal, because that was my thing. So I was seriously considering becoming a nun -- I had already sent away to St. Louis for the papers."
But then Brown got sidetracked by a crazy little thing called love. She got married at sixteen and bounced between Cape Girardeau and Milwaukee before finally landing in Denver in the mid-'70s. When she and her husband split up three years later, she decided to stay here. Soon after the divorce, she started going to Basin's Up (now Luckystar) in Larimer Square to catch live music. While watching Coco Brown perform with her band, Split Decision, she came to a decision of her own. "They had a big old band, like eight or nine people," she recalls. "I sat in the front row and watched her, and I remember thinking that was the coolest damn thing I'd ever seen in my life. And if I could do that, I'd be happy."
Brown's first gig was with Ron Ivory's outfit, the Ivory Summers band. A year later, she was on the road with a keyboard player named Steve Wilson in the band Hot Flash. "It's kind of funny," she says. "'Cause I'm 46 now, and hot flash means something altogether different to me."
Her time with Hot Flash not only helped Brown hone her skills as a performer, but also helped her overcome her pronounced stage fright. The breaking point came one night at a VFW hall in the middle of South Dakota. "I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've got to be the only black person within 500 miles.' I was terrified," Brown remembers. "The place was packed, and it was a big place. So we got through the first set, and I did fine -- because I always did fine. But Steve could sense that something was going on with me, and he didn't like it. So he walks up to me and says, 'Would you do what the fuck I hired you for, or get back on the bus and go home?'
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