Decca 5201 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1936

Seems it’s seldom these days that I post any music just for music’s sake, just to celebrate the greatness of a song, rather than to commemorate some occasion or happening.  I’ve already quite thoroughly expounded upon the life and time of Milton Brown—the Father of Western Swing—so I feel I needn’t go into much more detail about that here, you may go read it on that page if you so desire.  But there’s still plenty more to say about the many records Brown made in his short two year recording career, and goodness knows there’s so much more to hear.  So herein is one of my own favorites of those many, I hope you’ll enjoy it as well, and I also hope to be able to offer some anecdotes and shed some light that may perhaps not have been shed otherwise.

Though his recording career only spanned from 1934 to 1936 (excluding the Fort Worth Doughboys session in ’32), in four sessions, two for Bluebird and two for Decca, spread over a week’s worth of days, Milton Brown managed to cut a total of one-hundred-and-three sides.  Decca 5201 comes from the first and second days of Brown’s last session, his second for Decca.   It was recorded at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3rd and 4th, 1936.  The Musical Brownies at this point in time included Milton Brown singing and leading Cecil Brower and Cliff Bruner—the latter a new addition to the band for this session—on fiddles, Derwood Brown on guitar, Ocie Stockard on banjo, Bob Dunn on steel guitar, Wanna Coffman on string bass, “Papa” Fred Calhoun on piano.

Firstly, the Musical Brownies get hotter than anything on “Somebody’s Been Using that Thing”, one of several tunes Milton lifted from the Hokum Boys’ repertoire, some others being “Easy Ridin’ Papa” and “Nancy Jane”—though it was written and originally recorded by mandolinist Al Miller in 1929.  To set the record straight (pun intended), one “Greaseman” has evidently propagated preposterous misinformation that the lyric in this song is “Georgia boy, somebody’s been using that thing,” while it is in fact “sure as you’re born, somebody’s been using that thing,” albeit slurred to sound like “sho’s yo’ bo’n.”  This one is a serious contender against “Garbage Man Blues” to win the title of my personal favorite Milton Brown song.

Somebody’s Been Using That Thing, recorded March 3, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

On the “B” side, Milton sings a respectable pop vocal on Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Pierre Norman’s jazz standard “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”.  Listening to this tune, one wonders if Brown was familiar with the work of the Boswell Sisters.

When I Take My Sugar to Tea, recorded March 4, 1936 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Decca 5070 – Milton Brown and his Brownies – 1935

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.

St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Next, the Brownies swing Eddie Green’s blues standard “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find, recorded January 27, 1935 by Milton Brown and his Brownies.

Bluebird B-5558 – Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies – 1934

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!

Garbage Man Blues, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

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.

My Precious Sonny Boy, recorded April 4, 1934 by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies.

Updated with improved audio on June 21, 2017.