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 Milton Brown’s 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.

Vocalion 03394 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1936

Look out friends, here’s Leon! Take it away, boys, take it away!

The last thing we heard from ol’ Bob Wills was his famous “New San Antonio Rose” of 1940.  Now, let’s get a little hotter with an early side by the King of Western Swing (and if you ask me, that Spade Cooley never deserved the title).

Following a pair of unissued recordings with his “Wills Fiddle Band” for Vocalion, and a stretch with the Light Crust Doughboys of Burrus Mill, Bob Wills first organized his Texas Playboys in Waco, Texas in 1933.  The next year, they relocated to Oklahoma, where they began a radio program broadcast from Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.  In September of 1935, Will’s Texas Playboys recorded for the first time in a series of sessions held in Dallas that included “Osage Stomp”, I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as well as four sides with only Wills and guitarist Sleepy Jackon, highlighting his own merits as a fiddler.  They followed up the next September in Chicago, cutting such classics as “Trouble in Mind” and the famous “Steel Guitar Rag”.  Wills built his band around such talents as steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe and singer Tommy Duncan, all of whom he helped make famous with his “hollers,” announcing their solo and other quips.  Over the years, Wills developed his Texas Playboys from a fairly small string band into a full-fledged swing orchestra that drew larger crowds than Benny Goodman and both Dorsey brothers’ orchestras.  In the 1940s, the Texas Playboys toured across the states, and eventually settled in California.  Throughout that decade, they made a series of film appearances, and their popularity soared, to the point that they were a national sensation.  During the War, Wills made a number of patriotic records such as “Smoke on the Water” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima”.  The popularity of the Texas Playboys continued through the postwar era, and into the early 1950s, when they recorded Wills’ famous “Faded Love”.  As 1950 turned to 1955 however, musical trends shifted, and their popularity began to wane.  Nonetheless, the Texas Playboys continued to perform until 1965.  Wills continued his solo career until a stroke in 1969.  Bob Wills and many of the former Texas Playboys were reunited in 1973 at a tribute concert with Merle Haggard.  After the first day of that concert Wills suffered a stroke that led to his death two years later, in 1975.

Vocalion 03394 was recorded in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday the 30 of 1936, just over a year after their first sessions in Dallas, and their first return to the studio since.  The Texas Playboys are made up of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Sleepy Johnson—who doubles on guitar—on fiddles, Everett Stover on trumpet, Ray DeGeer on clarinet and saxophone, Robert “Zeb” McNally on alto sax, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on tenor banjo, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, Al Stricklin on piano, Joe Ferguson on string bass, and William “Smokey” Dacus on drums.  I don’t know why it is, but these “scroll” label Vocalions tend to be some of the most enticing records out there!  Lots o’ great stuff to be found on ’em.

Leon McAulliffe’s famous “Steel Guitar Rag” was derived from blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag” of the previous decade, which he recorded first in 1923, and again in 1927.  Wills’ Texas Playboys heat up on this side a helluva lot more than Weaver ever did, with a healthy dose of hot jazz injected in it.  Becoming one of the Texas Playboys’ best-sellers, the success of “Steel Guitar Rag” made “take it away, Leon” a household phrase in the Depression era South.  That saxophone solo at around a minute-and-a-half in is just sublime!

Steel Guitar Rag

Steel Guitar Rag, recorded September 29, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Next, cut the following day, the Texas Playboys get low-down with a vocal duet between Wills and Tommy Duncan on “Swing Blues No. 1” (yes, there was a “Swing Blues No. 2”, too).

Swing Blues No. 1

Swing Blues No. 1, recorded September 30, 1936 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Okeh 05694 – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – 1940

I just found out that today (March 6) is the birthday of the late, great Bob Wills.  Now, I’m not about to let the 111th anniversary of the day that such a hero of Texas’ music was brought into this world fall by the wayside, so I’ve hastily put together this tribute.  What better way to pay respects to the King of Western Swing than with one of his most famous records.

James Robert Wills was born near Kosse, Texas, where he picked cotton on the family farm and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin, following in his father’s footsteps, who was the champion fiddler of the state of Texas.  The Wills later relocated to a farm near the little town of Turkey, Texas, which now bills itself as Wills’ home.  At sixteen, Bob hopped a freight train and left home to become a professional entertainer, but returned home in his twenties to become a barber.  In Fort Worth, Wills added the blues to his repertoire, and made his first recordings in Dallas with Herman Arnspiger in 1929, though they were not issued.  Wills cut his first issued record in Dallas in 1932 with the Light Crust Doughboys, featuring Milton Brown’s vocals.  In the early 1930s Bob Wills formed his famous Texas Playboys and toured the nation, becoming one of the leading music stars of the era, and an originator of the Western Swing genre.  Wills continued to perform until a stroke in 1969, despite the diminishing popularity of Western Swing.  Wills died May 13, 1975 in Fort Worth, Texas.  He is honored every year with the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest in Greenville, Texas.

Okeh 05694 was recorded April 16, 1940 at the Burrus Sawmill in Saginaw, Texas (near Dallas, which is indicated by the matrix numbers with a “DAL” prefix”).  The Texas Playboys consist of Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and Lewis Fierney on fiddles, Herman Arnspiger and Eldon Shamblin on guitars, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, Johnnie Lee Wills on banjo, Son Lansford on bass, Al Stricklin on piano, and Smokey Dacus on drums.  We heard a few of those musicians with the Light Crust Doughboys seven years prior to this record.

Tommy Duncan sings the vocal on the famous “New San Antonio Rose”.  The old “San Antonio Rose” was just an instrumental of the same tune.

New San Antonio Rose

New San Antonio Rose, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Bob takes the fiddle on the eponymous “Bob Wills’ Special”, a low-down old fashioned Western Swing riddled with those hollers that Wills specialized in.

Bob Wills' Special

Bob Wills’ Special, recorded April 16, 1940 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Vocalion 02621 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys – 1933

1933 Sheet music for Beautiful Texas, words and music by W. Lee O’Daniel.

On March 2, 2016, Texas celebrates the 180th anniversary of its independence from Mexico, and the creation of the Republic of Texas.  After ten years as an independent nation, and a hot button issue in United States politics, Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state.  To celebrate and remember the occasion, here’s two fiercely Texas-themed tunes by the Fort Worth-based Light Crust Doughboys, under the leadership of W. Lee O’Daniel, the radio advertising director for  Burrus Mills, makers of Light Crust Flour and future Governor of Texas.

Vocalion 02621 was recorded on October 10, 1933 at Vocalion’s studio in the Furniture Mart Building at 666 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, Illinois, the first recorded (but not first issued) sides at the Doughboys’ first Vocalion session, and only second overall session, after their 1932 Victor session, which yielded one disc.  The band members on these sides include Herman Arnspiger and Leon Huff on guitars, Clifford Gross on fiddle, Sleepy Johnson on banjo and fiddle, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, and Ramon DeArman on string bass.

Guitar player Leon Huff sings lead vocal on W. Lee O’Daniel’s song, “Beautiful Texas”, proudly boasting of “about six million people who’re glad that they’re here to stay.”  A truer song has never been written.

Beautiful Texas

Beautiful Texas, recorded October 10, 1933 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys.

On the reverse, the Doughboys play an instrumental number, “Blue Bonnet Waltz”, taking its name from the official flower of the State of Texas.

Blue Bonnet Waltz,

Blue Bonnet Waltz, recorded October 10, 1933 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys.

Updated with improved audio on July 11, 2017.