I recently learned of the passing of Western swing legend Milton Brown’s little brother Roy Lee Brown at the age of 96 on May 26, 2017. I had read of him and watched him discuss Milton on a television documentary. Not long ago, I was reading about him, and wondered what had become of him as of late. I was saddened to hear of his death. I had already written out this article beforehand to publish soon, so I’m posting it now, dedicated to his memory…
I love hot jazz and I love hillbilly music. If you put the two together, what do you get? Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. If I had to pick one, I’d rank Brown’s Brownies as my favorite musical ensemble (I’d probably have to place my favorite singular musician as Jimmie Rodgers). Part of that could be that they came from Fort Worth, Texas, one of my favorite places on Earth, no doubt. But they could’ve come from Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and I’d still love that certain sound they had, that no other Western swing band could quite capture. I don’t recall ever hearing anything by the Brownies that I didn’t like, from their hot numbers to their waltzes, though I’d have to say my favorites are the pieces Brown adapted from blues songs. Much as I like the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Milton Brown just had something special that they lacked.
Despite my love of the Brownies, I’ve never to this day posted a single one of their records on Old Time Blues. Well that’s got to change. Thus, here is one of the best Musical Brownies records that I have the pleasure of owning. Now don’t go thinking I’ve forgotten anything with the lack of biographical details and what-have-you in this post, there’ll be more on that later.
Bluebird B-5558 was recorded at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 1934 at the Musical Brownies’ first session (but not Milton Brown’s, he had first recorded two years prior with the Fort Worth Doughboys). It was released on July 18 of the same year. The Musical Brownies are Derwood Brown on guitar, Cecil Brower on fiddle, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, Wanna Coffman on string bass, Fred Calhoun on piano, and of course Milton Brown singing the vocals.
First—it’s actually the “B” side, but I don’t care—is the rollicking “Garbage Man Blues”, Brown’s scorching hot take on Luis Russell’s “Call of the Freaks” (though like a number of Musical Brownies Bluebirds, Dan Parker is credited as the songwriter). Brown may have picked it up from the Washboard Rhythm Kings, who prefaced their rendition with a similar spoken prelude. The frenzied, half scat chorus of “get out your cans, here comes the garbage man” is interspersed with enticing instrumental solos by Brower, Stockard, Brown, and Calhoun, in that order. Milton sings the first verse out of key, but soon recovers. Brown’s biographer Cary Ginell informs me that producer Eli Oberstein refused to allow a re-take, reasoning that listeners would be none the wiser. Frankly, I don’t think Brown’s error detracts much from the excellence of the performance (to be completely honest, I never noticed until it was pointed out to me). Roy Newman and his Boys, from Dallas, covered “Garbage Man Blues” in 1935, and in later years the song has been resurrected by Pokey LaFarge.
Since I chanced to get my hands on this record, I’ve been listening to it over and over again. Doesn’t get much better than this!
On the other side is something quite different, Milton Brown’s own composition “My Precious Sonny Boy” played as a waltz, complete with Ted Lewis style spoken interlude. Quite a sincere and touching song, really. Nicely orchestrated too.
Updated with improved audio on June 21, 2017.