ARTICLE IN "FI" MAGAZINE BY ROBERT PALMER (JUNE 1997)
(Thanks to Cary Ginell for providing this article)
Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies are not exactly household names, except perhaps among a few old-timers in Texas and Oklahoma who remember dancing to their music in the 1930's.
Although the Brownies enjoyed unprecedented regional popularity in their day and virtually invented the wonderful hybrid known as western swing, their legacy has not fared well in subsequent years. Their music has proved too jazzy and swinging to win them a prominent place in the annals of country music, too "hillbilly" to be taken seriously by jazz scholars, too full of regional quirks to be accepted as mainstream pop. Where does that leave them?
Well, among other things, it would be no exaggeration to call the Brownies one of the most important, and most unjustly obscure, of the predecessors and forefathers of rock and roll. They were white dudes boppin' the blues, influenced more by Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Cab Calloway, and even Duke Ellington than by any country music artist. They boasted the first electric guitarist on record, and one of the wildest ever, in their gonzo lap-steel man Bob Dunn. They had the beat, courtesy of a classic rhythm section, and they popularized the percussive slap bass style, which passed from the Brownies' Wanna Coffman to Bob Wills' band, who passed it on to Elvis' original bassist, Bill Black. In many ways, the Brownies' most potent secret weapon was Milton Brown himself. He was an exceptional and innovative bandleader, forging a highly distinctive ensemble style while borrowing from anywhere and everywhere. He was also one of the first truly comprehensive American song stylists. Brown could, and did, sing just about everything, from straight pop to sentimental old ballads, heartfelt blues to jazzy hipster jive, cowboy song to country hoe-down. Not only was he likely to follow an utterly idiomatic "Joe Turner Blues" with "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," he sang them both with equal fervor. At the time, there was nobody to compare him to; the figure I'm repeatedly reminded of when listening to Brown's impressive chops, natural feel, and inclusive stylistic grasp is Elvis Presley.
Just being able to listen to Milton Brown's music, in all its prolific glory, comes as an unexpected treat. I've been familiar with perhaps two dozen of the Brownies' vintage recordings, all collected on indie label and imported vinyl reissues that are themselves long out of print. With Brown being generally ignored by both country music and jazz scholars, and little-known among pop and rock aficionados, a major Brownies reissue seemed unlikely, to say the least. So my hat is off to music researcher Cary Ginell for what appears to be something of a one-man crusade on behalf of the Brownies' heritage. When I first spotted on a bookstore shelf Ginell's recent biography, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing (University of Illinois Press, $29.95), I felt a preternatural pang of hope. Sure enough, the book's back jacket flap announced that "the complete recordings of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies are being offered on compact disc," and referred interested parties to Texas Rose Records/OJL, P.O. Box 85, Santa Monica, CA 90406. I wrote off as excitedly as a kid sending in a cereal boxtop for a Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, and before long I was the proud possessor of The Complete Recordings of the Father of Western Swing, a hefty box of five music-packed CDs.
The Brownies, it turns out, recorded some 102 tunes under Milton's leadership, all first takes by a super-tight working band, all issued at the time on 78s that sold primarily in the southwest. In addition, the Brownies box includes the two earliest recordings made by Milton, in 1932 when he and a hoe-down fiddler named Bob Wills were both in the Fort Worth Doughboys. Also part of the package is the fourteen-song session made by the Brownies under the direction of Milton's younger brother Derwood, following the elder Brown's death from a highway accident in 1936. Finally, there are two recent recordings by the third and youngest Brown brother, Roy Lee, performing songs written but never recorded by Milton Brown. When compiler Cary Ginell says "complete," he means "complete." The Fort Worth Doughboys' "Sunbonnet Sue" and "Nancy Jane" are particularly interesting for the perspective they offer on the Milton Brown/Bob Wills relationship.
Over the years, Wills has received most of the credit for pioneering western swing. In terms of his longevity and influence (not to mention later musical innovations, such as introducing drums on the Grand Ole Opry), Wills deserves his reputation and accolades. But the title "Father of Western Swing" properly belongs to Milton Brown. At the time of the Fort Worth Doughboys session, and for the rest of his career, Wills remained a barndance-style or "breakdown" fiddler, playing by ear and by rote; he never teamed to play improvised "take-offs" or solos, which Brown's fiddler, the classically-trained Cecil Brower, made a basic hallmark of western swing. On the 1932 Doughboys date, Wills' fiddling sounds out-of-place, almost primitive when combined with Milton's accomplished, not particularly "country" lead vocals and brother Derwood's jazzy guitar chording. Of the two songs recorded, Milton would get the most mileage out of his original "Sunbonnet Sue." With a change in lyric and title the tune became "Sweet Jennie Lee," an uptempo dancehall favorite. Another lyric change and the same melody and chords served as the Brownies' theme song, reprised by Roy Lee Brown at the end of the fifth disc.
By late 1935, when Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made their first recordings, Milton Brown and the Brownies had already recorded more than half of their 102 issued sides, at two sessions in San Antonio and two in Chicago. The first 18 performances were made before the arrival of steel guitar firebrand Bob Dunn, but even without his formidable solos the band was astonishing. At a time when the instrumentation of the rhythm section as we know it today had not yet become standardized, Brown had hit on a combination of players that looks downright eccentric on paper but worked like a charm in real life. The heartbeat of the Brownies came from Ocie Stockard's chopping banjo, Derwood Brown's rhythm guitar, Wanna Coffman's robustly slapped and pummeled string bass, and the driving left hand of the Earl Hines-influenced pianist Fred "Papa" Calhoun. These four men seem to have fused their collective playing into a single, mighty engine of rhythm, their individual parts interlocking as deftly as the cross-rhythms of then popular country-blues guitar teams like Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, who were among the many blues artists the Brownies covered. (Others ranged from the Mississippi Sheiks to Big Bill Broonzy to Bessie Smith.) Add to this churning rhythm section one or two "hot" fiddlers, such as Cecil Brower, plus Milton Brown's stand-up vocals, and you have a powerpacked unit, even without the steel guitar.
While cutting the first of their eighteen earliest sides, the Brownies quickly learned to relax in the studio - fortunately, since they were allowed one take per tune! Brower and Calhoun made good use of their plentiful solo opportunities, but the one band member who sounded from the very beginning like a man who was born to make records was Milton Brown himself. His vocals on these early sessions are marvels of musicality, warmth, projection, and the rare ability to negotiate a variety of musical idioms while retaining an identifiably personal sound and style. In particular, these sides include some of Brown's most impressive blues singing - "Joe Turner Blues," Luis Rusell's swinging novelty, "The Call of the Freaks" (retitled "Garbage Man Blues"), and superb renditions of bluesballads such as "Corrine Corrine" and "Sitting On Top of the World." (The Brown titles are "Where You Been So Long Corrine" and "Just Sitting On Top of the World.") On these and later blues performances such as "Texas Hambone Blues" and the rocking, rolling, irresistible "Easy Ridin' Papa," Brown displayed a big, bold shouter's voice, reminiscent of fellow southwestern blues shouters such as Jimmy Rushing and, especially, Big Joe Turner. But even when he was shouting, Brown was also altering melody lines, displacing accents, and otherwise improvising on the material at hand, in the manner of the better jazz singers.
Good as they were already, the Brownies made a quantum leap when they hired Bob Dunn late in 1934. Born in Oklahoma in 1908, Dunn was proficient on jazz trombone as well as steel guitar. He had reportedly copied his homemade amplification rig from a Rube Goldberg-like electric guitar contraption played by an unnamed black street performer. Dunn first encountered the man playing for tips on the Coney Island boardwalk, later following him all the way to New Orleans in order to complete his "studies." Amplified guitar was an idea whose time had come; within a year of Dunn's recording debut, jazz guitarist Eddie Durham (who also doubled on trombone) and others were hauling their own jerry-rigged amps into the recording studios. But Dunn's first, marathon sessions with the Brownies on January 27th and 28th, 1935, apparently mark the first appearance of an amplified guitar on a commercial recording. They also constitute the recording debut of one of the most singularly imaginative and off-the-wall instrumental stylists in the annals of American popular music.
The style of Dunn's single-string leads and solos was influenced almost entirely by jazz hornmen, especially trombonist Jack Teagarden. When Dunn solos, you don't hear the sweet and dulcet tones of the familiar pedal steel (which had not yet been invented). You hear a lurching, perpetually off-balance-sounding cascade of bent broken tones, raw trombonelike swoops and smears, advanced harmonic substitutions that occasionally make Dunn sound like a proto-bebopper, abrupt squeals of feedback, bell-like harmonics, and above all, a sense of delighted discovery and bemusement, as if the unlikely sounds coming out of Dunn's amp were startling him as much as his listeners. The guitarist only occasionally played the sort of chordal passages that were to become de rigueur in pedal-steel soloing. When he did improvise chordally, he would voice riff-like lines in two or three-part harmony, in emulation of a swing band's sax or brass section.
Brownies arrangements also exploited the amplified steel guitar's varied tonal colorings; on "The Waltz You Saved For Me," a sentimental trifle transformed by the band into something swinging, the melody is stated in three-part harmony - twin fiddles handling the top and middle notes with Dunn's guitar on the bottom. Still, it's the solos that carry the day - the future-sonic pre-bop of "Somebody's Been Using That Thing," the almost Thelonious Monkish use of jabbing, offcenter accents on "If You Can't Get Five Take Two," the feedback-laced outburst that improbably sends the Dixieland chestnut "Darktown Strutters' Ball" spinning off into the stratosphere. Of the 84 records the Brownies made with Dunn on board, he played solos on 61 by my count. All of them are included in the Brownies box. Dunn made a few subsequent recordings with various western swing groups, including his own shortlived recording unit, Bob Dunn's Vagabonds. By the end of the forties, Dunn had more or less dropped out of music, though he did run a music store in Houston before his death in 1971. His consistently bracing and often jawdropping solos and accompaniments on the Brownies sides remain his most lasting legacy.
The Brownies box makes it possible to appreciate and savor Bob Dunn's work in its proper context. Now that we can add him to the short list of pioneering electric guitarists that also includes Les Paul and Dunn's fellow southwesterners Eddie Durham, T-Bone Walker, and Charlie Christian, we can better appreciate the pan-idiomatic, fundamentally American origins of the electric guitar - the most revolutionary innovation in music and technology in the last half of the twentieth century. Except for Dunn, the guitarists we've mentioned eventually became identified with one particular idiom or genre - Christian and Durham with jazz, Walker with blues, Paul with pop. During the earlier part of their careers, however, the lines between genres were not so clearly demarcated. To a greater or lesser degree, all these players, Dunn included, were musical omnivores. Each of them was familiar to some degree with pop, blues, jazz, and country music; in Dunn's case, the Brownies' wide-ranging repertoire also exposed him to old-fashioned hoe-down tunes, western cowboy ballads, and Tex-Mex influences. In time, all of it became raw material for rock and roll.
Milton and his Brownies, including Dunn, are responsible for the middle three discs in the box, and parts of the first and fifth. The latter disc is rounded out by the 14-song session the Brownies recorded under Derwood Brown's leadership, after Milton's death in April, 1936, from complications following an auto collision. Derwood, banjo stalwart Ocie Stockard (reportedly the steady heartbeat of the Brownies' tightly-knit rhythm section), and hillbilly-bluesman-turned-Louisiana-politician Jimmie Davis shared the lead vocals, and all of them are at their best on the bluesier tunes. Derwood, who greatly admired Fats Waller and other jazzmen, displays a taste for deep Mississippi blues with a powerful vocal turn on Johnnie Temple's "Louise Louise Blues." Stockard wails with idiomatic fidelity and amorous intent on "I Just Want Your Stingaree." And Jimmie Davis, the future Louisiana governor and composer of "You Are My Sunshine," evidently had more than sunshine on his mind when he appropriated New Orleans chanteuse Blue Lu Barker's "if you feel my leg/don't you feel my thigh" routine for his "High Geared Daddy." The Brownies' rhythm section was still together, and as gloriously rocking as ever. But in the end, the band seemed to lack a central organizing focus without Milton's rock-solid presence at stage center. And Bob Dunn, who left the Brownies shortly after Milton's death, is sorely missed on these last 14 performances, despite the inventive work of his replacement, Lefty Perkins. The records by the Derwood Brown-led Brownies were not big sellers, and by mid-1937 the group had disbanded for good. The musicians scattered to other bands, and it was left to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to further develop (and streamline) western swing, bringing it to California during the war years and inspiring generations of imitators. Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies, who had opened up the territory, faded into obscurity - from which Ginell's thorough, informative book and terrific-sounding CD reissue may yet rescue them.
One thing the CD box has going for it is the hit-and-run nature of the original sessions; there's no repetition of alternate takes as on so many box sets, and the music moves along with all the momentum and spontaneity of a dancehall set. Knocking off one first take after another, the Brownies kept their interest up by following fast hoe-downs with strutting jazz tunes, sentimental ballads with adults-only blues and boogie, making for captivating listening on CD. If you have any affection for this kind of music, and don't get too upset over the occasional lapse into mawkish sentimentality or minstrel-show racial stereotypes, you'll find this one of the most consistently listenable box sets you're likely to encounter.
With so many reissue programs nearing the bottom of the barrel in their mining of rock's blues and r&b roots, it's a bit of a shock to encounter a body of work this substantial, this innovative, this significant as a direct antecedent of rockabilly and other generative rock and roll styles---and this little-noted and little-known. But hey, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't mind getting another shock like this one - not one little bit.
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