Sunday, April 14, 2024

Milton Brown, the Edison of Western Swing

“It’s the same ol’ tune, fiddle and guitar, where do we take it from here?” An ol’ honky tonk hero sang that in the ‘70s, but back in the early ‘30s, Milton Brown and Bob Wills were thinking the same thing. The singer and the fiddler worked together less than two years in the Light Crust Doughboys, but what they started afterwards, when they kept adding instruments and improvisation, came to be called Western swing.

Although Wills earned the “King of Western Swing” tag with four decades of dancehall-filling dominance to make cowboy jazz a Texas tradition, the innovator was Brown, whose Musical Brownies were the prototype Western swing band in 1932. Four years later he’d be dead and his former partner would carry the torch with an “Ah-ha!” holler.

Brown’s smooth vocals brought the city to the country and, with the addition of pianist Fred “Papa” Calhoun, the Brownies converted the string band into a dance outfit, mixing the previously disparate styles of jazz, country, blues and pop to fill the floors. The 2/4 “Milton Brown Beat” revolved around the mighty strike hand of tenor banjoist Ocie Stoddard, who was followed closely by standup bassist Wanna Coffman and Milton’s little brother Derwood Brown on heavy rhythm guitar. Fiddler Jesse Ashlock handled the melody, while Calhoun brought such an air of improvisation that he was nicknamed “Papa” by Brown in reference to legendary jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines.

The Musical Brownies would first record in April 1934, a year and a half before Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. And yet Wills was called “the first great amalgamator of American music” when he and the Playboys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Milton Brown is not even in the Country Music Hall of Fame!

Milton led the band for only four years, during the Depression, but he knew how to get the people to come out. The Musical Brownies were easily the most popular dance band in Texas in the early ‘30s. But they almost never played out of state, except to record in Chicago and New Orleans.

In the essential Cary Ginell oral history Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing (University of Illinois Press 1994), Calhoun recalls being dragged out to Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, four miles northwest of Fort Worth, on a snowy Thursday night in late ’32 and being impressed by the turnout of hundreds for Milton and the boys. Billed as “the Colonel from Kentucky” (though he was from Chico, TX), Calhoun played solo jazz piano on KTAT, so he was known to the Brownies, but nobody played keyboards with a string band back then. Milton removed the cover of the house piano and called Calhoun up to sit in on “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and the pianist jammed for the entire set. During intermission he was asked to join the Brownies.

They had found something special, but Brown was not done assembling his dream lineup. He hired classically-trained Cecil Brower to play twin fiddle- a new concept- with Ashlock at first, then Cliff Bruner. In late ‘34 came steel guitar genius Bob Dunn, who started off as a Hawaiian-style player, then found greater satisfaction emulating the sliding trombone of Vernon’s Jack Teagarden. But how could Dunn’s guitar, a Martin acoustic laid flat and played with a steel bar, be heard over this hot band? With “Taking Off,” recorded in Chicago in January 1935, Dunn had the distinction of being the first to record an electric guitar, played through a magnetic mic in the soundhole.

Brown developed the idea to play a jazz/pop repertoire with country music instrumentation, but Wills went bigger, adding drummer Smokey Dacus in 1935, then a horn section soon after. Wills and his 13-piece orchestra, with Brown’s replacement Tommy Duncan on vocals, did not see themselves as competing with the Musical Brownies as much as with national swing orchestras on tour. Filling every square of air in the enormous dancehalls and ballrooms of Texas and Oklahoma, the Texas Playboys eventually outdrew Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Like Milton, Bob could always get the top players, including slidemaster Leon McCauliffe, whose 1936 recording of “Steel Guitar Rag” was every bit as influential as Dunn’s ground-breaking work.

Ginell identifies four eras of Western swing. The first is the advent of Milton and the Musical Brownies and the second era is defined by the late ‘30s Tulsa residency of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who broadcast daily from Cain’s Ballroom on 50,000-watt KVOO. The Wills group maintained vitality through the next two eras, headed by Spade Cooley-Tex Williams in the ‘40s and Waco’s Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys in the ‘50s. The term “Western swing” wasn’t used until applied to Cooley, an Okie who had moved to California during the Dust Bowl. Trade magazines tried to call it “hillbilly jazz,” but the h-word was considered derisive.

The original Light Crust Doughboys, with guitarist Herman Arnspiger and Derwood Brown seated.

Wills is still the king because in April 1936, Milton Brown crashed his new Pontiac Silver Streak into a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway and was dead at 33. Band members surmised, because they’d seen him do it before, that Brown fell asleep at the wheel (giving name to the longtime Western swing upholders of Ray Benson.) His passenger, 16-year-old aspiring singer Katy Prehoditch, was killed instantly in the 3 a.m. crash. The recently-divorced Brown died six days later of pneumonia while still in the hospital. His ex-wife married Bob Wills.

Milton and the Musical Brownies left a rich recorded legacy- 16 sides for Bluebird in 1934, and over 100 for Decca, recorded in the 15 months before Brown’s death. But live is where they really took off, with the dancers spurring them on. It’s lucky for fans of Texas string band dance music that Wills and the Playboys were there to “take it away.” There was an abundance of overshadowing, but if the Texas Playboys weren’t so thrilling for so long, Brown’s vision wouldn’t have gone as far.

Painting by Tim Kerr from “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music”

Like Wills, Milton Brown grew up in rural Texas (Stephenville) with a fiddle whiz as his pop. But Milton was a singer, not a player. Back then, the house party band would be a fiddler and a guitarist and most tunes were instrumental. If there were vocals on fiddle music, they were country-raw, from the backwoods, while Brown’s vocals were smooth, from the ballroom. Milton listened to country blues, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby, but with the old-time fiddle tunes part of his makeup, he had a mindset to meld.

Everybody wanted that swing, pioneered by the 1920s Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet dancing all around the beat. In the ‘30s, Georgia-born Henderson sold arrangements to Benny Goodman, who took swing to new heights of popularity. Jazz-minded rural musicians wanted to play “that hokum,” too, and the Musical Brownies showed that Texas audiences also wanted to dance to it, just like the Yankee swells did at Roseland Ballroom.

The old Texas dancehalls, built by Czech and German immigrants in the years between the Civil War and World War I, were ready-made for this new exciting string band swing. The venues were so cavernous that bands had to use more instrumentation, because if there’s a word to describe what makes Texas music special, it’s “dancing.” The beat had to break through the chatter to give a template of movement to those out on the floor. It was a formula later followed by Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers (featuring Moon Mullican on piano and Leo Raley on electric mandolin) and Leon “Pappy” Selph’s Blue Ridge Playboys (Floyd Tillman, Ted Daffan), both from Houston, and San Antonio’s Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers. “Although I never had the pleasure of knowing Milton Brown, he and his band were my big inspiration,” Hofner told an interviewer. “They played jazz then, the same as New Orleans jazz, but without the horns. They did it with strings.” Even with his unfortunate first name, Hofner had the distinction of being the longest-tenured Western swing bandleader, mixing cowboy jazz with polka music from the late ‘30s until the early ‘90s.

Brown and Wills remained friends more than rivals after the singer departed the Light Crust Doughboys in 1932 because, at least, they shared a dislike of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the general manager of sponsoring Burrus Mill, who also appointed himself band manager. The conservative, authoritative O’Daniel didn’t want the Doughboys to play dances, where there was bootleg whiskey and all sorts of carrying on. That was enough of a bolting point for Milton, but his mind was made up when O’Daniel wouldn’t pay 16-year-old Derwood Brown, who’d been sitting in for free, but was newly-married. A steady paycheck from Burrus, where the Doughboys also worked as delivery drivers and salesmen, was a big deal during the Depression, but Milton knew there was more money to be made in the dancehalls and so he scooted right over to Crystal Springs and took his little brother with him.

Some music historians credit “Blues in a Bottle,” the 1928 OKeh ‘78 by Prince Albert Hunt and the Texas Ramblers (actually just guitarist Harmon Clem), as the first Western swing recording. The jazzy quality of Hunt’s breakdown fiddle had that swing, like the 1926 OKeh records by Philadelphia duo Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, but it was still just fiddle and guitar. True Western swing has a beat. It has musicians waiting their turn to “take off.” It has a dancefloor. But Hunt’s recording did help Texas music turn the corner with its embrace of black music, a key element of Western swing.

Born Archibald Hunt in 1896 and raised in Terrell, the son of an Irish fiddler, Prince Albert hung out with the black musicians in Deep Ellum and imitated them in blackface minstrel shows, as did Wills and the influential Emmett Miller of Georgia. Along the way he heard “Stingaree Blues,” written in 1920 by black Galveston songwriter Clinton Kemp, which Hunt refashioned into “Blues In a Bottle.” Jazz trumpeter King Oliver covered “Stingaree Blues” in 1930.

Hunt’s greatest innovation was putting vocals on fiddle music two years before Milton Brown did the same with Wills. Hunt also died tragically, at age 34, shot to death outside a dance at Confederate Hall in Dallas by the estranged husband of the woman he’d been seeing. That was in 1931, when Milton Brown and Bob Wills were playing every afternoon on WBAP as the Light Crust Doughboys.

The formidable pair met at a house party in Fort Worth in 1930 and joined forces, each bringing their own guitar player (Herman Arnspiger and Derwood Brown) to play Eagles Hall in Forth Worth as the Wills Fiddle Band. The quartet added Sleepy Johnson on banjo, and became the Aladdin Laddies when the Aladdin Lamp Company sponsored their WBAP radio show in the summer of 1930. After that deal expired, they shilled for Burrus’ Light Crust Dough, first on KFJZ, then the more powerful WBAP. In the early years of radio, record labels thought airplay would actually hurt sales and forbid most of their ‘78s to be played, so almost all of the music on radio was from live performances.

Brown and Wills recorded only one ’78 together, as the Fort Worth Doughboys, for Bluebird in Dallas on Feb. 9, 1932. But Brown original “Sunbonnet Sue” and a cover of “Nancy Jane” by the Famous Hokum Boys (featuring Big Bill Broonzy and Georgia Tom Dorsey) didn’t further their career. Seven months later, Milton was no longer working with Bob, who left the Doughboys 11 months after that. Wills initially moved to Waco, where he called his band the Playboys. But the jilted O’Daniel, who would go on to become Texas governor in 1939 and U.S. Senator in 1941 (defeating Lyndon Baines Johnson), did everything in his power to drive Wills out of the state. O’Daniel sued Wills for billing his band as “formerly the Light Crust Doughboys,” and lost, but filed appeal after appeal. While based first in Oklahoma City and then Tulsa, the Playboys added “Texas” to their name and became the swingingest country band in the land over the next 30 plus years.

Sometimes what you go out and accomplish on your own surpasses the benefits of collaboration. Even if everyone has forgotten. Milton Brown was the Edison of Western swing and yet, perhaps because he was a singer, not an instrumentalist, he’s not suitably honored today for his mammoth musical innovations. He fell asleep at the wheel and has been unjustifiably slept on ever since. But Bob Wills went to his grave in 1975 knowing that, at least in the beginning, his Texas Playboys followed what the Musical Brownies were laying down.

Michael Corcoran is the author of All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press). This is a chapter from his new  book Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music on TCU Press.

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