Picking up from where we left off last week in our quest to find as many blues performers with the name Brown as possible, let’s begin with the ladies.
There’s not a lot on record of Ida Griffin Brown, as far as I can tell just two sides, “Jail House Blues” and “Kiss Me Sweet” from 1924 credited to “Ida G. Brown and her Boys”. Probably born in New Orleans around 1900, by 1919 she was in Chicago starring in the musical comedy “This and That” and later the same year at The Lafayette Theatre in New York City in “Baby Blues” followed by appearances in a string of musical reviews, including “Broadway Rastus of 1920”, “Alabama Bound”, “Dancing Dandies” and “Blackbirds of 1933 and 1934”.
Ida was also known as Baby Blues, Flora Dale and Sadie Jones. There’s little else known about her, though some believe that the Roosevelt Sykes composition “Miss Ida B” does refer to her.
Blues and Vaudeville singer and pianist Ada Scott Brown, born in Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas in 1890, was said to have made the first Kansas City blues recording in 1923 with her “Evil Mama Blues” for Okeh Records. She worked the dance halls and clubs around KC through the 1920s and in 1926 made her last recordings, this time for Vocalion, which is probably why critic Derrick Stewart-Baxter referred to her as “one of the forgotten ladies of the blues”, though her career didn’t stop there.
Ada Brown reputedly appeared in clubs in Paris and in Germany, toured with revues through the 1930s and early 1940s, sometimes with Bill Bojangles Robinson, appeared with Fletcher Henderson at The Grand Terrace Café in New York and starred at The London Palladium as well as appearing in films including “Stars In Stripes” and notably in “Stormy Weather” where she sang “That Ain’t Right” with Fats Waller. She became an original founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America in 1936 and continued to work, billed as Queen of The Blues, through until her death in Kansas City, Missouri in 1950.
Kitty Brown was a classic blues singer during the 1920s and 1930s. Born in New York City as Catherine Brown in 1899, she sometimes used the pseudonyms Bessie Williams, not the only blues girl to use that one, Jane White, Dixie Gray, Rosa Green and Mazie Leroy. Almost all of her recordings were made in 1923 and 1924, many of them with sexual innuendoes, including “I Wanna Jazz Some More” where the jazz word does not refer to the music. Her various names probably came about to side-step her recording contracts and subsequently it is difficult to compile her discography. She was last heard of living in a Manhattan nursing home in 1990.
John Henry Brown, sometimes known as Bubba Brown, sang and played guitar, bass, piano and violin. Born in 1902 in Brandon, Mississippi he played local parties through the area at weekends with the likes of Tommy Johnson, Cary Lee Simmons, and The Chatmon Brothers, while holding down a day job outside of music.
He relocated to Los Angeles in 1963 where he recorded for Flyright in 1967. In 1972 he recorded Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat Blues” and two years later, the Charlie McCoy / Bo Chatmon song “Corrina”. His son is blues singer and guitarist of note, Mel Brown, on whose recordings John Henry sometimes guested as John H.
Mel Brown was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1939 and is best remembered for his 10 year stint in the band of Bobby Blue Bland. He started his career backing Sonny Boy Williamson ll before signing up for his first spell with The Johnny Otis Show which led to touring with Etta James. Tiring of life on the road, he returned to L.A. and to the Otis band.
Mel backed Bobby Darin, played on T-Bone Walker’s “Funky Town” and was offered a record deal by ABC, where he was produced by Bob Thiele, firstly on the 1967 Chicken Fat album. He did some memorable work with The Oliver Nelson Big Band, but he is most remembered for his extended guitar feature “Eighteen Pounds of Unclean Chitlins and other Greasy Blues Specialities” on BluesWay.
Through the 1980s and 1990s Mel was the leader of the house band at Antone’s Night Club in Austin, Texas. He died in Kitchener, Ontario in 2009, but he is celebrated in the documentary film, “Love, Lost & Found: The Story of Mel Brown”.
Andrew Brown was a singer and guitarist who must have been hot stuff, influencing as he did, Freddie King, Magic Slim and Little Milton. Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1937, moving to Chicago where Earl Hooker taught him guitar licks, he established a formidable reputation around Chicago only to slip from sight when Uncle Sam required his services from 1960 to 1962. He returned to Chicago when discharged but things had changed.
He moved out to the Harvey suburb, couldn’t make a living playing music and took a job in a steel mill. A heart attack and a back injury forced him into retirement. It took a while, but Andrew Brown wasn’t a man to give up easily and made his recording comeback with three tracks on the 1980s Alligator album “Living Chicago Blues” series, volume 4 which led directly to a recording contract with Dutch label Black Magic.
His 1982 debut album “Big Brown’s Chicago Blues” won a W.C. Handy Award. He followed up in 1985 with the album “On The Case” for Double Trouble but died of lung cancer around the time of its release. Along the way, Andrew Brown had worked with Little Milton, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, Shakey Jake and Freddie King.
I always had a soft spot for singer and guitarist Hi Henry Brown who recorded six tracks for Vocalion in 1932, including the excellent “Titanic Blues” and “Preacher Blues”. Though there’s not a lot known about him, except that he is not to be confused with the pianist Henry Papa Brown, born in Troy Tennessee in 1906 and also known as Charles Henry who worked rent parties and bars in the St. Louis area, recorded for Paramount and Decca. Hi Henry was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II where he served in Special Services entertaining U.S. troops in England. Around 1965 he was featuring on the riverboat Becky Thatcher, out of St. Louis.
Lillian, sometimes Lillyn, Brown was born in 1885 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father was Ben Erie, an Iroquois Indian. She was reciting poetry by the age of three and performing in public at eleven, becoming a singer, dancer and sometime male impersonator. Billed as The Kate Smith of Harlem or The Original Gay 90s Gal, at various times she used the names Fannie Baker, Elbrown, Mildred Fernandez, Lillian Delmont and Maude Jones. As E.L. Brown to conceal her gender, she would take the stage wearing top hat and tails, singing as a man, before creating something of a sensation by revealing her long hair and singing, it is reported, as an 11 year old girl.
At one time she worked with an all-girl white string orchestra where she was billed as The Indian Princess, toured with The Queen City Minstrels featuring as The Youngest Interlocuter In The World through Vaudeville theatres nationwide. It was claimed that she was the first professional vocalist to sing the blues in front of the public. That was in 1908. Lillian died in Manhattan in 1969 aged 84.
It would be something of an understatement to say Amanda Brown, also known as Violet McCoy, was a curiosity. What can be said with certainty was that she was an unusually good singer in the classic female blues tradition. She recorded prolifically from the early 1910s until the late 1930s but that in itself is curious in the extreme.
As Amanda Brown she recorded for Columbia, Perfect and Pathe, it was Daisy Cliff for Guardsman, Susan Williams for Lincoln and Gladys White for Variety. Along the way she also used Gladys Johnson and Violet McCoy. She was born Amanda Brown around the year 1900, in either Mississippi or Memphis, went on the road with The Georgia Smart Set in 1917, settled down in Albany in 1938 where she died in 1956.
Robert Brown, aka Smoky Babe was born in Itta Bena Mississippi in 1927. Born and raised on a farm, he became a migrant worker, hoboed through the south singing and playing guitar at house parties, small dives and bars, tonks, picnics and suppers in Bessemer, Alabama, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He recorded for the labels Folk, Lyric, Storyville and Bluesville. An exuberant and joyful performer.
Not a lot is known about pianist and guitarist Lee Brown, and what is known isn’t all flattering. He recorded between 1937 and 1940 with two more tracks in 1946. It is said that his theme song was “Little Girl, Little Girl”, recorded as “Little Girl Blues”.
Brown worked with Sleepy John Estes who also played on his first recordings. Jimmy Rogers referred to hm as an “irascible paranoid” and Hammie Nixon recalled that they met as hoboes when Brown was on the run from a murder charge. It is very possible that the Woody Guthrie song “Bad Lee Brown Cocaine Blues” refers to him.
Not many bluesmen graduated from the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College, but Gabriel Brown did just that in 1934 and the next year he was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. He then seems to have strayed into theatre, spending a few years at the Federal Art Theatre where Orson Wells was producer. Born in Eatonville, Florida in 1910, Gabriel played Piedmont guitar, sang and worked as a solo. He played the New York Greenwich Village cafes in the early 1940s, recorded for the Joe Davis Label, MAM / Coral, and remained active as a street singer in NYC through the 1950s. He drowned in a boating accident in Florida 1972.
Guitarist and singer Richard Rabbit Brown, so-called due to his diminutive stature is hardly known outside New Orleans which is a pity, as his flamenco finger picking guitar and meaningful songs are extremely interesting. Born around 1900 and raised in James Alley, the notorious gang-fighting slum neighbourhood that produced Louis Armstrong, he plied his trade working for tips on the streets and in the brothels and nightspots of Storyville.
Rabbit recorded six sides for Victor on the eleventh of March, 1927, including the remarkable “James Alley” narrative about a local kidnapping, subsequently recorded by Bob Dylan. At one time he worked as a singing and rowing boatman on Lake Pontchartrain. In years to come he became the centre of debate among blues historians with the release on a compilation of tracks credited to a Blind Willie Harris who sounds remarkably like Rabbit Brown.
He died in poverty in New Orleans in 1937. He sang “I done seen better days, but I’m putting up with these”, which I always found meaningful.
Confusingly, there appear to have been several bluesmen born with the name William Brown. The most obscure seems to have been the rather unkindly nicknamed Little Willie Brown, a harmonica player and singer born sometime around 1921, he recorded as Little Willie Brown and The Cameos and died in East St. Louis in 1981. Those Browns don’t come much more obscure than Willie Lee, born in Clarksdale in 1900. Not a household name by any means, but he certainly was there, mixing it with the best.
He worked with Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson at Webb Jennings Plantation from 1916, moving on with Patton to Will Dockery’s in the early 1920s where they teamed with Son House and Robert Johnson going on to play juke joints and plantation dances. Willie Lee did record on two occasions, both Library of Congress field recordings, firstly in 1930 in Huntsville, Texas, State Penitentiary where he was doing time for some misdemeanours, imagined or otherwise, and again in 1942 on Sadie Beck’s Plantation when he cut “Mississippi Blues”. Little more is known of him, although it was said that he was a major influence on Robert Johnson and is immortalised in Johnson’s “Crossroads” with the line “You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown, I got the Crossroad Blues this morning, Lord, babe I’m sinking down”. Willie Brown died in Tunica, Mississippi in 1952.
Thomas A. Brown, born in 1931 in Lumpkin, Georgia was a songwriter, dancer, drummer and comedian, but most importantly, a hit making Rhythm & Blues singer known as Tommy Brown. He formed his first band in the 1940s, working the clubs around Atlanta and in 1949 recorded “Atlanta Boogie” on the Savoy Records subsidiary, Regent. Two years later, he hit pay dirt as featured – and credited – singer with The Griffin Brothers on Dot Records, making the R&B Top Ten with “Weepin’ and Cryin’” which led to his nickname, Tommy Weepin’ and Cryin’ Brown, although he was also known as Little Tommy Brown and Cryin’ Tommy Brown.
That same year Uncle Sam came calling and Brown found himself in The U.S. Marine Corps, inexplicably only for a 6-month spell. On release, he joined Bill Doggett’s Band and claimed that he co-wrote Doggett’s big hit instrumental, “Honky Tonk”. Over the following years he recorded with Big Walter Horton as well as for a number of smaller labels including T&L which he set up with Liz Lands, his wife. Tommy spent much of the 1960s and 1970s working as a comedian, releasing two live albums of his comedy act, “I Ain’t Lyin’” and “I Ain’t Lyin’ Volume 2”.
In 1977 Tommy set up his Landmark Personal Care Centre in Atlanta, providing care services and advocacy to people with mental health issues, the elderly and AIDS sufferers. Twenty odd years later, he returned to the music biz, not only playing locally but also at important festivals including Blues Estafette in Utrecht, Holland; Rhythm Riot in England and The Chicago Blues Festival. In December 2003 his house was destroyed by fire, along with all of his belongings, but the blues world rallied around him with an event at Blind Willies in Atlanta and support from the international blues world and Brown was settled into his new home in Jonesboro, Georgia in the following March. Tommy Brown died in 2016.
You might well think that a guitarist and singer who enjoyed a 73-year career, was house musician at Duke and Peacock Records, recording uncredited with Lightnin’ Hopkins, and appearing with Amos Milburn, Ruth Brown, Bobby Bland, Lavelle White, Buddy Ace and Junior Parker deserves to be better know than was Texas Johnny Brown. Born John Riley Brown in 1928 in Ackerman, Choctaw County in Mississippi, he cut his teeth as a 12-year-old playing on street corners alongside his father, who had been blinded while working on the railroad.
The family relocated to Houston in 1946 beginning his long association with Texas, which led to his stage name. He was in the Aladdin Chickenshackers with Amos Milburn, recorded three tracks in 1949 for Atlantic under his own name, “The Blues Rock”, “There Goes The Blues” and “Bongo Blues” which re-surfaced on the 1986 album “Atlantic Blues Guitar”. He served with The U.S. Military for three years, leaving in 1953 to hook up with Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Life wasn’t always plain sailing for Texas Johnny. At various times he had to supplement his income from music, by driving a truck, working as a mechanic or landscape gardener or operating a fork lift truck but in 1991 he formed his Quality Blues Band which he played with until the end. He recorded his albums for Choctaw Creek Records, which might have been his own label, “Nothin’ But The Blues” in 1998 and “Blues Defender” four years later.
He was named Blues Artist of The Year at The 2001 Big Mama Blues Festival in Houston and in 2011 The Mississippi Blues Trail laid down a Historical Marker in his name in Ackerman. Best known for his composition “Two Steps From Heaven” which became the title of Bobby Bland’s debut album in 1961, Texas Johnny Brown died of lung cancer in Houston in 2013.
So here we are, some thirty-odd Browns later, and there are still some missing names and more than a little confusion. There seems to be little known about B. Brown & His Rockin’ McVouts, for instance, other than his thinly-disguised shot at cashing in on the Buster Brown “Fannie Mae” hit with his “Fannie Mae Is Back” single, that he was backed by Wild Jimmie Spruill and Charles Walker and that he is often considered, incorrectly, to be one and the same person as Buster Brown. But could he also have been known as B. Daniel Brown who played with Noble Thin Man Watts in New York before decamping to Fort Lauderdale in Florida? Then there’s the currently active Keith B. Brown from Memphis and, I am sure, a whole lot more who have slipped under my radar.
I will be very pleased to hear about those who I have missed.