Milton Brown & His Brownies

Unsung legends of western swing who laid the groundwork for Bob Wills and pioneered the amplified steel guitar.
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Artist Biography

b. William Milton Brown, 8 September 1903, Stephenville, Texas, USA, d. 18 April 1936, Fort Worth, Texas, USA. In 1918, the family moved to Fort Worth where, after completing his education and nursing a strong desire to be an entertainer, Brown worked as a salesman with the Lowe Cigar company. He did not play an instrument but he hoped for the chance to work with a band as a vocalist. By 1927, with guitar backing provided by his 12-year-old brother Derwood Brown, he was regularly singing at local house dances. Late in 1929, he was made redundant and thought seriously about making a living from music. The two Brown brothers soon joined with fiddler Bob Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger (then performing together as the Wills Fiddle Band) and together they played dances. In 1930, they were sponsored by the Aladdin Lamp company and with the addition of Clifton ‘Sleepy’ Johnson (guitar), they began to play on WBAP as the Aladdin Laddies.

Brown was an astute organizer and when the Aladdin show ended, he found work for the group playing for dances at the Crystal Springs entertainment centre in downtown Fort Worth. They soon came to the notice of W. Lee O’Daniel, the sales manager of Burrus Mill And Elevator Company. Late in 1930, O’Daniel, seeking to increase sales of the company’s Light Crust Flour, employed the band. Performing as the Light Crust Doughboys, first on KFJZ before moving them to the more powerful WBAP, they soon became a popular act with O’Daniel (who wrote several songs including ‘Beautiful Texas’ and ‘Put Me In Your Pocket’) acting as their announcer. In 1932, as the Fort Worth Doughboys, they recorded for RCA - Victor Records. The recordings of ‘Nancy Jane’ and ‘Sunbonnet Sue’ represent the first recorded example of Brown’s singing and Wills’ fiddle playing. Although neither realized it at the time, it was probably the first example of what eventually became known as western swing music.

Differences of opinion with O’Daniel saw first Brown and then Wills leave the Doughboys to pursue their own careers and become competitive rivals for the musical audiences. In September 1932, Milton Brown formed his Musical Brownies comprising brother Derwood (guitar and harmony vocals), Jesse Ashlock and Cecil Brower (fiddles), Ocie Stockard (banjo), Wanna Coffman (bass) and Fred ‘Papa’ Calhoun (piano) and began to establish himself in the area, including regular broadcasting on KTAT. The band made its first RCA Records recordings on Bluebird, in San Antonio, on 4 April 1934, by which time Ashlock had joined Wills. After a further session in August, they next recorded for Decca Records in Chicago in January 1935 - a two-day session that produced over 30 recordings. By this time, Milton had added the steel guitar of Bob Dunn and had finally arrived at the sound that he had been seeking from the start (Dunn is now regarded as the instrument’s pioneer and finest player of western swing music). The numbers varied from the ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown’ to ‘In The Shade of the Old Apple Tree’ and included a dazzling instrumental of Dunn’s own composition, ‘Taking Off’.

Brower left for a short time and was replaced by Cliff Bruner, but when Brower returned, Brown also kept Bruner, thus giving the band their strong twin-fiddle lead. By this time, the popularity of the Musical Brownies ensured a spot on WBAP and regular bookings at dancehalls all over the state. In March 1936, a three-day session produced 49 more recordings, which proved to be the last that Milton Brown would make. In the early hours of 13 April 1936, Brown, accompanied by 16-year-old Katherine Prehoditch, was driving home from a show, when for some unknown reason, he crashed. He did not drink but it seems possible that he fell asleep. The girl died instantly and Brown, after initially showing signs of recovery to the extent that he sang to Bruner when he visited him in hospital, died of what the death certificate described as ‘pneumonia, traumatic’ on 18 April 1936, in the Methodist Hospital, Fort Worth. Milton Brown’s career was brief; he played no instrument and although a great vocalist, he never had a hit record. Through persevering in his aim to create a genre of music, he has become accepted as a founder of western swing music. After his death, Derwood fronted the band for a time to fulfil bookings but early in 1938, his Musical Brownies disbanded.