Oakland Man Who Built Bikes for Kids with Good Grades Dies

The Oakland man known for building snazzy bikes out of scrap parts, died Saturday at 62 after a bout with lung cancer.

Paul Brown was known simply as "Tall Paul" around West Oakland where he lived out of an RV laden with bicycle parts. Brown would build his bike creations and give them to kids who could produce good report cards. 

"They meant so much,” Tyrone Stevenson Jr. said of his uncle’s love of bikes. "That was his pride and joy. He took so much pride in everything he did.” 

His nephew said even in the hospital last week, his uncle talked about his dream of staging a parade of pimped-out tall bikes in Oakland. He also talked about opening a school for neighborhood kids. 

“He said he wanted to teach kids how to pimp out their bikes,” Stevenson said.

Brown used to beam as he throttled a tall orange bike — its pedals, rims and even chain pimped-out in gold.

“Man that’s my favorite color… gold,” Brown once said. “I love gold, I don’t know why. I used to have some gold teeth.”

In NBC Bay Area's 2015 interview with Brown, his voice boomed as he recalled his first bike. His mother had saved for a year to buy bikes for Brown and his three brothers for Christmas. Christmas morning, Brown hauled his down to the basement and took it clean apart. He got a whooping.

Six decades later, Brown was still taking bikes apart —  fashioning strange and funky new models from their parts.

“I just love bikes, Brown said. “Just working on them — being creative with them.”

There was a time in his life when Brown did the regular old job thing. He drove a Greyhound bus and then big rigs over two decades. Finally one day on his way home from New York, he decided he’d had enough. His bikes were calling. He lived in an archaic RV, eeks out his living by recycling — and builds his bicycles. People donated items for him to recycle, which he hauled to nearby salvage yards. The theme of his existence hankered back to a dream he harbored as a kid growing-up, not far from where his RV parked.

“I always said to myself I want to have the baddest bike in the world,” Brown laughed.

Brown built bikes for his own satisfaction. A chopper bike with forks extended like the tusks of a walrus was for trick-riding. He started building the double-stack bikes after spotting a guy riding through the neighborhood on one. He had even built a bike for then-president Barack Obama, although he has yet to claim it.

“I made that bike for President Obama,” Brown said pointing to a double stack blue bike. “I want to see the president ride that bike.”

But Brown was just as excited to see neighborhood kids ride his bikes, or at least bikes he’s tweaked with his personal pimped-out style. He gave a pair of his bikes away to a couple neighborhood kids who displayed report cards boasting three A’s apiece. It set off a gold-colored spark in Brown’s head. He decided to launch his own one-man program to try and inspire other kids

“Any little kid — boy or girl, black, white, Spanish, Chinese,” Brown said, “If the kid got more than three A’s on their report card I’ll pimp their bike for free.”

Brown said he had hope to deliver some of his bikes to nearby schools — possibly even making an inspirational pitch to the kids during an assembly. He said he was trying to build the perfect bike for the occasion, where the school could raffle it off to dutiful students.

“The excitement on the kids’ face when I pimp their bikes out… wow,” Brown said, his voice choking up.

Neighbors and workers around the industrial West Oakland neighborhood all knew Tall Paul’s bikes. They dropped off loads of steel to recycle. Sometimes they brought him food. People often stopped to photograph the bikes or to ask Paul how he gets off and on the tall bikes without breaking his neck. He showed his secret feature — a golden peg which he uses to climb on and off. They’ve witnessed the irony of a man with little, building things for others.

“Some families might not have the money to buy a new bike,” said neighbor Paul Victor. “But who needs a new bike when Paul can pimp-out a bike and make it better than a new bike. It’s custom, one of a kind.”

Although Brown scraped by, he doesn’t lament his situation in the life. He did what he always dreamed of — the bar he set for himself decades back — building the baddest bikes in the world.

“You would think I don’t have too much,” Brown said, leaning on his tall bike. “But man, I got everything I need. I got happiness. I got that.”

"People would donate bikes to him," Stevenson said. "And he turned trash into treasure."

Services for Tall Paul are pending. 

CORRECTION (May 26, 2018, 3:09 p.m. PT): This story has been corrected to show the correct date Brown died.

Contact Us