Milton Brown was one of the founders of that marvelous fusion of hot jazz and hillbilly string band music that we now call western swing, yet a tragically early demise led his name into near-obscurity today. Not only did Brown’s music lay the foundations of western swing music, it also served to inspire such subsequent luminaries as Django Reinhardt.
William Milton Brown was born in Stephenville, Texas on September 7, 1903 to Barty and Martha Brown, a family of poor sharecroppers. Ma and Pa Brown determined that Milton and his sister Era would get an education to live a better life, and so they did. Singing old standards and church songs, Milton’s musical talent showed itself at an early age. Tragedy struck in 1918 when his sister died, and the Browns relocated to Fort Worth. Milton finished high school late, as helping to support his family made his attendance sporadic, and after graduating, he pursued a career in music. In 1927, he sang in a local group called the Rock Island Rockets, and his younger brother Derwood soon joined him on guitar. Nonetheless, Brown made his living as a cigar salesman until the Great Depression left him unemployed.
Brown’s big break came in 1930, when he crossed paths with the Wills Fiddle Band at a dance in Fort Worth and joined in a chorus of the “St. Louis Blues”. Leader Bob Wills was impressed and asked him—and his brother Derwood—to join the band. After a stretch on Fort Worth’s WBAP as the “Aladdin Laddies,” the Wills Fiddle Band was contracted by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of the Burrus Mill and Elavator Company of Saginaw, Texas, producer of Light Crust Flour, thus becoming the first generation of the prolific Light Crust Doughboys. In 1932, the Doughboys cut two sides for the Victor Company in Dallas, as the “Fort Worth Doughboys”, producing one of the finest—and earliest—western swing records made. Not too long after, Milton had a spat with Pappy, and left to form his own band: the Musical Brownies.
For the Brownies, Brown hired jazz musician Bob Dunn, the first player to electrify his steel guitar, and fiddlers Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner. Their regular spot was the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth, buy they also toured Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells. They’d a play a hot tune, then follow with a waltz to let the dancers cool off. After two 1934 sessions for Bluebird, the Brownies secured a spot on Decca Records’ roster, which produced a string of successful records. Tragically— perhaps as much for the world to be deprived of his talent as for his own misfortune—the end came too soon for Milton Brown when he fell asleep behind the wheel while driving a young lady home one night, and wrapped his car around a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway. Although he was expected to make a full recovery from the accident, Brown died of pneumonia on April 18, 1936, at the young age of thirty-two.
Decca 5070 was recorded on January 27, 1935 at the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the Brownies’ first Decca session. Brown’s Musical Brownies consist of Cecil Brower on fiddle, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Bob Dunn on his famous electrified steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, and Fred Calhoun on piano. Milton, of course, sings the lead vocals, with Derwood and Dunn backing.
First up is Milt’s recording of the tune that launched his career, W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. A signature piece, at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion the Brownies were known to stretch this one out to a full fifteen minutes. Even limited to a three-and-a-half minute phonograph record, Brown makes a tour-de-force performance out of it. Make note of Bob Dunn’s idiosyncratic steel guitar solo.
Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.