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MILTON BROWN AND HIS MUSICAL BROWNIES
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.
MILTON BROWN AND HIS MUSICAL BROWNIES. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies was a pioneering western swing band that played together between 1932 and 1936. In 1930 Milton Brown, of Stephenville, Texas, became the vocalist for James R. (Bob) Wills's band, the Wills Fiddle Band. In 1931 Wills, Herman Arnspiger (a guitarist), and Brown began playing a radio show as the Light Crust Doughboys, sponsored by the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. When W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, president of Burrus Mill, ordered the Doughboys to quit playing dances, Brown left the band. In 1932 he organized Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, perhaps the best of the early Fort Worth bands. According to Derwood Brown, who played guitar with the Doughboys when not in school, his older brother Milton was a cigar salesman with little musical experience when he joined the Wills Fiddle Band. But Milton was a born bandleader who learned quickly under the tutelage of Wills and Arnspiger. He took Derwood from the Wills band to play rhythm guitar; he then added Jesse Ashlock on fiddle, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, and Wanna Coffman on bass. Shortly after he organized the band, Brown employed pianist Fred (Papa) Calhoun and fiddler Cecil Brower.
Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies began broadcasting on KTAT, a Fort Worth radio station, and playing dances at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion in Fort Worth. The band was highly influential in the Fort Worth and Dallas area. Brown himself, one of the best vocalists western swing produced, influenced Wills's singers and consequently most western swing singers. Since the Brownies was always a fiddle band, the Bob Wills influence indelibly marked Brown's style. Jesse Ashlock, Brown's first fiddler, learned fiddling from Wills and had often gone to Wills's dances, where he would sit "right behind Bob and play real low and learn the tunes he played." In other ways Milton Brown took the Wills style beyond the level to which Wills had brought it. In 1934 he added Bob Dunn, the first, and in many ways the best, steel guitarist in western swing. In the formative years of the music, Dunn strongly influenced men like Leon McAuliffe and other steel guitarists. Brown was also the first to use a piano in western swing.
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Brown's band became extremely popular in North and Central Texas and was known beyond the borders of the state. Between 1934 and 1936 it made more than 100 recordings for Victor and Decca. The royalties from recordings were so meager that band members thought the record companies were cheating them, but the companies claimed their recordings simply had not sold well. What the band needed was a big-selling recording, but this possibility ended when Milton Brown died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in 1936, just as his career was developing. After Milton's death, his brother Derwood kept the Brownies going, but the popularity of the band declined, and the group was no more within a couple of years.
Brown and his musicians were among the earliest pioneers of what was later called western swing, a mixture of country, blues, jazz, pop, and other musical forms. Wills and Brown were responsible for making Fort Worth the "Cradle of Western Swing." Their influence on American music continues. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies were inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1989. In 1996 the Texas Rose label released a 5-CD box set titled The Complete Recordings of the Father of Western Swing: Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies, 1932–1937.
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). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
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Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 10, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.