Born in 1971 and raised in Bowling Green, Ohio, Sugar Brown was born as Ken Chester Kawashima to a Japanese father and Korean mother who both immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s. Now a permanent resident of Toronto, Canada, Sugar Brown is a modern blues musician, singer and songwriter. His brand of dark, sweet, and inconsolable blues has caught the attention of the Canadian music scene, winning the 2013 Toronto Blues Society Talent Search and quickly receiving invitations to play at the Kitchener Blues Festival and the prestigious Mariposa Folk Festival in 2014.
Sugar Brown’s blues originated while studying as a college student at the University of Chicago. By day, he studied history, political economy, and philosophy; by night he learned to play the blues from Chicago’s famed West Side blues raconteur and singer, Taildragger, as well as from blues legends such as Dave Myers and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, the late drummer of Muddy Water’s band. Sugar Brown’s blues were shaped by playing the small clubs and venues along the West Side of Chicago, where the sounds and memories of past blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and Magic Sam were still very much alive. Taildragger’s band, The La-Z Boys, played this style of blues every week at the 5105 Club and every weekend in the summer months at the now defunct Delta Fish Market, originally a gas station that was renovated in the 1970s into a fish market (with fish transported fresh from the Mississippi delta) with live blues music. There, in the parking lot, Sugar Brown played harmonica on a large, red-painted stage behind Taildragger and before delighted, dancing audiences of the West Side of Chicago. Since the 1970s until the late 1990s, the Delta Fish Market hosted performances by the likes of Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Taildragger, and even Lightnin’ Hopkins. For Sugar Brown, playing at the “Fish Market” was better than heaven on earth and it changed him and his thinking forever.
(The Delta Fish Market sadly went out of business in the late 1990s. In the 1980s, however, Dutch television accurately captured on film the scene at the Delta Fish Market, including live footage of Honeyboy Edwards, Eddie Taylor, Taildragger, Detroit Jr., Johnny Littlejohn, and others, here.
Taildragger is responsible for giving Ken the stage name Sugar Brown in 1992, saying to him, “You ain’t black…..and you sure ain’t white….You’re Sugar Brown.” (Taildragger’s first two proposals for Ken’s stage name were “Japanese Boy” and “The Korea Kid”, both of which Ken vetoed outright, claiming he was in a blues band not an early United Nations delegation.) After Taildragger was imprisoned for shooting and killing fellow west side bluesman Boston Blackie in 1994, however, Sugar Brown left Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in modern Japanese history under the supervision of intellectual historian, Professor Harry D. Harootunian. He moved for several years to Tokyo to study Japanese language and history, but couldn’t stop playing and singing the blues. He studied during the day and played blues at night as a regular performer in one of Tokyo’s best known blues bars, Bright Brown.
Since completing his Ph.D. in history from New York University in 2002, Sugar Brown has been living and working in Toronto. By day, he studies and teaches at school, now as Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.