"But my father pushed me, and said I had to sing in church," the Youngstown, Ohio native said from the stage of George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. "That's the background and the backbone of my singing."
The ever-modest world-famous performer noted, "I'm known for bel canto, but I grew up singing gospel in church."
Spirituals were the absolute highlight of his extremely diverse recital program.
"Come by here dear Lord", "There is a balm in Gilead", "Every time I feel de Spirit", and definitely "All night, all day" were most heartfelt, poignant of all Brownlee's many selections. They're arranged by Damien Sneed and recorded in their "Spiritual Sketches" CD (click here to hear).
Brownlee told the audience that he renamed "All night, all day" "Caleb's Song", in hopes that "angels will be watching all night and all day over my little boy, Caleb, who is on the autism spectrum disorder."
The very warm, personable singer shared other personal information about his own early life and career with the eager audience, packed with long-time fans.
"I wasn't a bad kid, but music kept me focused." That's why he's "a big advocate of music education in schools. At 15, I had a chance to tour internationally. So my world was opened up by music."
(Vocal Arts DC has an extensive educational program, including "Taking Classical Song to Our Schools" that introduces art song to students at middle and high schools in the metro Washington area. Many students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and other schools in the program attended the Brownlee recital.)
Brownlee said he was introduced to classical music at age 18 or 19. Until then, "I had no idea what opera singing was."
Well, he found out fast. With the first classical art song he sang, he won his first music competition.
"I thought they were crazy, but I guess they saw something in me," he joked. Then he sang that first winning art song, Schubert's "Der Jüngling an der Quelle" (The Youth at the Brook's Source), as the first of his three encores.
That first win began a championship season between 2000 and 2001: He won admittance to the Young Artist Program at the Seattle Opera and to the Young Artist Program at Wolf Trap Opera Company outside Washington, D.C. -- and won the coveted Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
From the Lisner stage, he motioned to "Wolf Trap people" in the front row, including his "second mother". Brownlee dedicated his second encore to his second mother, and to all mothers, the romantic 1950s hit "Be My Love".
He certainly loves Washington, and the mutual love was palpable and audible with resounding, repeated cheers, whoops.
"It's really nice to sing for friends who knew me in the beginning of my career...They really appreciate me," said the humble star. "They travel all over the world with me."
The tenor has appeared in Washington so often that he calls it his "second home". These performances include his Vocal Arts DC duo-recital with soprano Sarah Coburn in 2009, nine months before his debut with the Washington National Opera.
"Any time you invite me, I'll come."
He feels there is a balm in Washington. And every time he sings here, Washingtonians feel his spirit.