Milton Brown – the Father of Western Swing
On the evening of September 19, 1932, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies broadcast their first show on Fort Worth’s KTAT Radio. Brown had played his last show as a member of Fort Worth’s Light Crust Doughboys only two days earlier. Over the next four years, this group would create the style of music we now know as western swing.
In 1932, the Light Crust Doughboys were Texas’ best known string band. Their daily noontime broadcast on Fort Worth’s WBAP radio and their numerous personal appearances throughout the state as representatives of the Burrus Mills and Elevator Company‘s Light Crust Flour brand had made them, in less than two years, a household name throughout the state. The Doughboys brought an exciting new sound to Texas combining Bob Wills’ breakdown fiddle style with the beat of New Orleans style ‘hot bands’ with its heavier rhythm and more contemporary sound. Most Texas string bands of the time were instrumental groups, so Brown’s smooth, sophisticated vocals were a major departure from both the string band tradition and the ‘dry and dusty sound’ of the original cowboy singers most often heard on local radio programs.
Despite the presence of Milton Brown and Bob Wills, there are a couple of reasons that the original Light Crust Doughboys should not be considered the first western swing band: a defining element of Western Swing is improvisation – and while Bob Wills was a fine breakdown fiddler who loved jazz, he could not improvise. (The Doughboys later developed into a fine western swing band, of course, and Wills’ later groups invariably included fiddle players who were adept improvisers). The other reason is that western swing is dance music, and the Light Crust Doughboys did not perform in bars or dancehalls. Their employer, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel felt that it would give Light Crust Flour a bad name if the group was associated with those types of places. (This didn’t mean that the members of the Doughboys didn’t play dances – it simply meant that they didn’t play dances as the Light Crust Doughboys. O’Daniel’s stricture against playing for dances was a bone of contention between the musicians and their employer, and O’Daniel’s edict played a role in both Brown’s decision to leave and, some months later, in Bob Wills’ departure.
The Musical Brownies built on the Doughboys’ string band tradition but added a number of seemingly disparate elements – old fiddle tunes, the popular music of the day, ethnic music from Texas’ German, Czech, and Hispanic communities, blues and jazz from the African-American tradition and above all, a strong dance beat – melding them into a unified whole. Above all, the Musical Brownies also added the element of improvisation, the lynchpin of western swing, to their performances.
The Musical Brownies developed not only the instrumentation that would characterize western swing as we know it, they developed the basic repertoire of the style. The Musical Brownies were the first string band to add a piano (Fred “Papa” Calhoun in the fall of 1932), the first to use twin fiddles (Jesse Ashlock and Cecil Brower by early 1933) and the first to use an electric steel guitar (Bob Dunn, in late 1934).
The songs that the Musical Brownies performed at their dances became the standard repertoire for the western swing groups who followed (and in many cases, emulated) Brown’s band, including “Right Or Wrong”, “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, “Some Of These Days” and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You.)” According to Milton’s brother Roy Lee Brown, Milton and his Musical Brownies were the first western swing group to record these songs and dozens more. Even songs that folks today think of as ‘Bob Wills songs’ like “Nancy Jane”, “Bring It On Down To My House”, “Corrina Corrina” and “Yes Sir”, were recorded by the Musical Brownies before they were recorded by Wills and the Texas Playboys or by any of the other western swing groups that appeared in the early 1930s.
As western swing matured in the 1940s and 1950s other musical genres - the music of the big bands, western music as popularized by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and groups like the Sons of the Pioneers, pop music of the day and even the birth of rock and roll - had an influence on western swing, and western swing has in turn had an impact on those genres. While western swing groups recorded big band and pop songs like “How High The Moon” and “Across the Alley From The Alamo”, artists as disparate as Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley have recorded Bob Wills songs. Without the seminal contributions of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, western swing (or something much like it) would still have developed, but it would certainly have developed along other paths.
At the time of Milton Brown’s death after an April 1936 automobile accident, the Musical Brownies were Texas’ preeminent western swing band, and Brown was making plans to expand the group’s reach beyond its Fort Worth base. He had been working on a deal to make a number of short films (similar to today’s music videos) with the Brownies, and perhaps most important, he had been in negotiation with Republic Pictures about appearing in the upcoming Gene Autry movie “Oh Susannah!” (After Milton’s death, the Light Crust Doughboys were hired for the movie.) Though the Musical Brownies continued to perform and even recorded after Milton’s death, the group disbanded within a year. The loss of Milton Brown’s voice, stage presence and business acumen were too much for the group to overcome. Had Brown lived, it’s likely that the history of Western Swing would have been much different. Brown richly deserves recognition as “The Father of Western Swing”.
The most complete source of information about Milton Brown is Cary Ginell’s “Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing” (available through Amazon).
The complete recordings of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies can be found at www.originjazz.com