Milton Brown (September 7, 1903 - April 18, 1936) was an American band leader and vocalist who co-founded the genre of Western swing. His band was the first to fuse hillbilly hokum, jazz, and pop together into a unique, distinctly American hybrid, thus giving him the nickname, "Father of Western Swing". The birthplace of Brown's upbeat "hot-jazz hillbilly" string band sound was developed at the Crystal Springs Dance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas from 1931 to 1936. Brown's music inspired the great string jazz musicians from Europe, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli who in 1935 formed the Hot Club de Paris quintet.
Along with Bob Wills, with whom he performed at the beginning of this career, Brown developed the sound and style of Western swing in the early 1930s. For a while, he and his band, the Musical Brownies, were more popular than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Brown's career was cut short in 1936 when he died following a car accident, just as he was poised to break into national stardom.
Born in Stephenville, Texas in 1903, Brown moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1918. After graduating from Fort Worth's Arlington Heights High School in 1925, he worked as a cigar salesman, but he lost his job when the Great Depression hit in the late '20s.
Brown began his musical career in 1930, when he met Bob Wills at a local Fort Worth dance. The Wills Fiddle Band was a fiddle band made up of Wills on fiddle and Herman Arnspiger on guitar. They were performing at a local Fort Worth dance and Brown joined the group on a chorus of "St. Louis Blues". Wills was impressed with Brown's voice and immediately asked him and his guitarist brother, Derwood, to join the band. The Wills Fiddle Band played medicine shows around Texas and landed a regular radio spot on WBAP, where they played a show sponsored by Aladdin Lamp Company, which had the band change its name to the Aladdin Laddies.
Light Crust Doughboys:
In early 1931, the group was hired by the Light Crust Flour Company--which was run by Burrus Mill and Elevator Company--to appear daily on the radio station KFJZ. The company, which was managed by W. Lee O'Daniel who also hosted the radio shows, had the group rename themselves the Light Crust Doughboys. The Doughboys were an instant success, and soon O'Daniel moved them first to another radio station, then syndicated the program statewide. The Doughboys were playing cowboy songs, jazz, blues, and popular songs--a repertoire so diverse that the band's audience continued to expand. In February 1932, they recorded a single for Victor under the name the Fort Worth Doughboys. The band was playing dance music and wanted to play at dances, but O'Daniel was reluctant to let the group play outside of their radio shows. He also was hesitant to pay them much money, which greatly angered Brown. In September 1932, in need of additional money to support his aging parents, Brown left the band after he had an argument about money with O'Daniel.
After leaving the Light Crust Doughboys, Brown formed the world's first Western swing band in Fort Worth, Texas, the Musical Brownies. The first incarnation of the Brownies featured Brown, guitarist Derwood Brown, bassist Wanna Coffman, Ocie Stockard on tenor banjo, and fiddle player Jesse Ashlock. Shortly afterward, pianist Fred "Papa" Calhoun and fiddle player Cecil Brower (who replaced Ashlock) joined the group. Like the Light Crust Doughboys, the Musical Brownies played a mixture of country, pop, and jazz, but the Brownies had a harder dance edge than their predecessors. Almost immediately, Brown and His Musical Brownies were a huge success. The group had a regular spot on the radio station KTAT and drew large crowds to various Texas and Oklahoma dance halls. Their home venue, Crystal Springs Dance Hall in Fort Worth, was sold out nearly every Saturday night from 1933 to 1936. Brown and Wills remained friends; and Wills' Waco, Texas-based band, the Playboys, was modeled after the Musical Brownies.
In April 1934, the band recorded eight songs for Bluebird; and then another ten recordings for the label in August. Brown and his talented group of musicians were responsible for numerous innovations, notably in late 1934, the Brownies added the true pioneer of the world's first electrically amplified steel guitar--Bob Dunn. Dunn was a jazz guitarist who first heard electric steel guitar played by a down and out blues performer on the Coney Island boardwalk--Dunn's innovative steel guitar solo riffs singlehandedly created country & western's most recognized solo instrumental sound. His upbeat "Taking Off" instrumental is an excellent example of his Jack Teagarden-inspired solos; a towering inspiration to many Western swing, country and even rock guitarists in the years to follow.
In January 1935, Brown's band signed with Decca records and recorded 36 songs for the label with Brown singing lead vocals on most all of the tracks. Released as singles over the course of 1935, the songs helped establish the band as the most popular Western swing band in Texas. In March 1936, Brown and his Musical Brownies travelled to New Orleans to record their second set of sessions for Decca. By this time, fiddler Brower had been replaced by Cliff Bruner. At these sessions, the Brownies cut about 50 songs, which were issued throughout 1936 and 1937.
In April 1936, Brown suffered a horrific car accident, which may have been attributed to his habitual falling asleep at inopportune times, possibly narcolepsy. Although he survived the impact and was expected to recover, he died five days later from pneumonia. Brown's single car accident occurred on Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway after the car he was driving hit a telephone pole. A 16-year-old girl who slipped away from her house without her parents' knowledge to go to Crystal Springs Dance Hall with friends was killed in the crash. Brown had agreed to give the girl a ride home. Brown was taken to Fort Worth's Methodist Hospital where his injuries were initially believed to not be life-threatening. However, one of his broken ribs had punctured a lung and pneumonia set in and he died five days later. The site of the crash was in the southbound lane of Jacksboro Highway directly across the street from the Avalon Motel which is still standing today.
Following Brown's death, Derwood Brown kept the Musical Brownies together for two years, recording a dozen sides for Decca in 1937. At the time of his death, Brown rivaled Bob Wills in popularity. Although he never became as famous, he was vitally important in the development of Western swing--simply put, without Milton Brown, the genre would likely not exist.