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BROWN, WILLIAM MILTON
Light Crust Doughboys (left to right) Sleepy Johnson, Bob Wills, and Milton Brown at the home of future governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, 1932. Sleepy Johnson Collection, Courtesy Dr. Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
BROWN, WILLIAM MILTON (1903–1936). Milton Brown, western swing bandleader and singer, was born William Milton Brown in Stephenville, Texas, on September 8, 1903, the son of B. L. "Barty" and Martha Annie (Hueford) Brown. Milton's parents were cotton sharecroppers who were determined that Milton and his older sister, Era Lee, would get an education and not spend their lives in the cottonfields. Milton and Era attended the Smith Springs school. Both were good and popular students who showed a talent for singing at an early age. Stephenville's entertainment center, known as the Stephenville Jokey Yard, served as a marketplace as well as performance venue for the traveling medicine shows that came to town. The tent-show patter and musical numbers performed there may well have influenced the stage presence Brown developed later. His early vocal repertoire included church songs and sentimental ballads learned at home. In September 1915 a second son, Melvin Derwood, was born to the Brown family.
In May 1918, Era died. Devastated by her death, the family moved to Fort Worth a few months later. They settled on the city's west side close to the Bain Peanut Company, where Barty found work. Another son, Roy Lee, was born in Fort Worth in February 1921.Over the next several years Milton attended school, but dropped out periodically to help support the family by working with his father. As a result of this sporadic school attendance, he did not graduate from Arlington Heights High School until 1925. He was not sure what direction his talents would take him, but he was sure that he wanted to make his living in music. Although Barty Brown was an accomplished fiddle player and Milton's brothers both became musicians, Milton never showed an interest in any musical expression besides singing.
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By 1927 Brown was singing with his friends Roy McBride and Ellis Fagan in a group called the Rock Island Rockets. Advertised on radio and in newspapers, the group received good responses at their performances around town for various organizations and businesses. Before long, young Derwood started playing guitar with his brother at singing engagements. The Brown brothers met fiddler Bob Wills and guitarist Herman Arnspiger in the spring of 1930 at a Fort Worth house dance. They formed a band, the Wills Fiddle Band, which played every Saturday night at the Eagles' Fraternal Hall in downtown Fort Worth. After winning a fiddle contest in the summer of 1930 the band performed on KFJZ radio in Fort Worth, and later on WBAP in Dallas. The group also played at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, a popular club near Fort Worth. Wills hired tenor banjoist Clifton "Sleepy" Johnson and a second fiddler, Jesse Ashlock, to fill out the band's sound. With the help of friends and fans in Fort Worth, Wills persuaded W. Lee O'Daniel, general sales manager of Burrus Mills and Elevator Company, to sponsor the group on a KFJZ radio show by advertising the mill's Light Crust Flour. The program and the band became a huge success, but when O'Daniel ordered the band to quit playing dances and placed other restrictions on the group, Brown left.
Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Brown (second from right), a skilled bandleader and vocalist, organized the Musical Brownies in 1932. Their innovative sound was highly influential to other bands and earned them acknowledgment as the pioneers of western swing. The Musical Brownies (left to right): Wanna Coffman (bass), Cecil Brower (fiddle), Bob Dunn (steel guitar, seated at front), Cliff Bruner (fiddle), Fred “Papa” Calhoun (piano), Milton Brown (vocals, leader), and Ocie Stockard (banjo). Dunn was the first person in any western swing band to play amplified. Roy Lee Brown Collection, Texas Music Museum.
Seeking creative freedom in a band of his own, Brown organized the Musical Brownies in 1932 and shaped them into the first western swing band. Original members of the group were Ashlock (fiddle), Ocie Stockard (tenor banjo), Wanna Coffman (bass fiddle), Derwood Brown (guitar), and Milton Brown (vocals). Pianist Fred "Papa" Calhoun and fiddler Cecil Brower were soon added. In 1934 steel guitarist Bob Dunn was invited to join, and in 1935 fiddler Cliff Bruner. Brown had assembled the prototype western swing band—two fiddles, guitar, banjo, bass, steel guitar, and piano—to accompany his pop vocal styling and occasional scat-singing. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies began broadcasting in Fort Worth on KTAT and playing at the Crystal Springs dance hall. The band became extremely popular in North and Central Texas and was highly influential for other swing bands. Bob Wills once said of Brown that he had "the finest voice I'd ever heard."
Brown married Mary Helen Hames in Marietta, Oklahoma, on September 17, 1934. A son, Buster Lee, was born to the couple in December 1935. Tensions soon arose, however, with Mary's insistence that her husband quit the music business, get off the road, and lead a more traditional life--an accommodation Brown was unwilling to make. The couple divorced in 1936.
But Brown's professional career was going strong. His band became the first western swing organization to record. Between 1934 and 1936 it made more than 100 recordings for RCA Victor/Bluebird and Decca. The group played Saturday night dances at Crystal Springs and out-of-town engagements on a regular circuit that included Waco, Corsicana, Weatherford, Mineral Wells, and other towns around Fort Worth. Brown was on his way to national prominence when he died. Early on the morning of April 13, 1936, while driving a young woman home from an evening out with friends at Crystal Springs and another Fort Worth nightspot, he evidently fell asleep at the wheel. The woman was killed instantly in the crash. Brown died on April 18, 1936, at Methodist Hospital of pneumonia brought on by the accident. His funeral, held at Lucas Funeral Home, was attended by as many as 3,500 people, according to newspaper accounts. Brown was buried next to his sister in the little cemetery in Smith Springs. He was survived by his parents, two brothers, and a son. If he had not died so young he might have achieved the national prominence of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Tex Williams, and others whom he influenced. Milton Brown is an inductee in the Texas Music Hall of Fame and Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies were inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1989.
Jean A. Boyd, The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998). Cary Ginell, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Ruth K. Sullivan, "BROWN, WILLIAM MILTON," accessed May 22, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbrbz.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on December 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.