ROY LEE BROWN: The End of an Era

Submitted by johnnycase on Mon, 07/03/2017 - 12:58am

Roy Lee Brown passed away on Friday, May 26, 2017 at the age of 96, a few days after suffering a massive stroke. I had known him since the spring of 1987, when my wife Kitty and I attended "Brownie Day", held annually at the Gilbert Ranch west of Fort Worth. Why it had taken me so many years to attend I cannot say. I had known and loved the music of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies since first hearing reissued recordings on the Dance-O-Rama set Decca released in the mid-1950's. I will never forget first meeting Roy Lee, and being startled at the physical resemblance to his late brother whose photo was prominently displayed on the Decca record sleeve. Scholars of early country music acknowledge Milton Brown as the founding father of western swing music. In meeting Roy Lee, I already knew that he was the youngest and only surving brother of the great singer/bandleader whose vision and musical innovations in the mid-1930's would establish the model for Bob Wills and numerous others to emulate and reshape in correspondence to their own tastes, imagination and ambition. This was the beginning of a friendship and productive working relationship that would develop before the 1980's were gone.

My invitation to attend Brownie Day had come from my friend Billy Luttrell, a fine guitarist who owned and operated a music store in Fort Worth. He had invited me in previous years, but this time for whatever reason it felt right to go. The atmosphere: lively and friendly with a variety of scrumptious aromas emanating from the kitchen. A large table crowded with delectable food choices greeted all guests at this annual ranch house party. I recall sitting in for pianist Charlie O'Bannon, and playing with a small group of western musicians, but it wasn't until afterward that someone introduced  Kitty and me to Roy Lee Brown. He had perhaps sung before we arrived, but when we met him he was in an adjoining room to the one where music was being played. We were impressed with his warm smile and the apparent joy it gave him in welcoming us to the event, which had long ago been established to honor the memory of his brother and the enormous contribution made to Texas music by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. We also met Roy Lee's wife Ellen, whose manner was gracious and kind. They had been married for many years. Little did Kitty and I know that within a couple of years the four of us would become well acquainted, primarily from the shared desire to bring to the public an invigorated revisitation of the musical legacy that was Roy Lee's inheritance.

My mom, Floy Case, had recently become aware that Roy Lee sought performance opportunities, having retired from being a fireman with the Fort Worth Fire Department. He wanted to use his new free time to play the music he remembered so well from his teen years when he often accompanied his older brothers Milton and Derwood with the band on their numerous dance gigs. Roy Lee had served behind the scenes, changing strings for guitarist Derwood, as strings would invariably break during a long night of heavy playing. Floy Case encouraged her friend Johnnie High to book Roy Lee on his popular Saturday night Country Music Revue. Normally anyone desiring to perform on High's very professional show would be required to audition. My mom assured Johnnie that in this instance, no audition was nescessary!  Indeed, Roy Lee Brown performed in primo fashion, backed by the CMR house band including pedal steel guitarist Maurice Anderson, a masterful swing stylist in his own right. Needless to say, Roy Lee was invited back for future appearances on the popular opry-styled show. My chance to hear Roy Lee and to accompany his singing would be in a similar setting, when a special program entitled A Journey through Western Swing was produced at the Grapevine Opry a few miles north of Fort Worth. I still have a newspaper clipping (alas with no date attached) touting the event which featured Leon Rausch (who had gained popularity as a vocalist with Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys) along with Roy Lee Brown, vocals; Tommy Camfield and Bobby Boatright, fiddles; Tom Morrell, steel guitar; Billy Luttrell, rhythm guitar;  Lanny Long, bass; David Brown, drums and myself on piano. During Roy Lee Brown's segment of the show he spoke on the mic, addressing the wide acceptance of Bob Wills as the "King of Western Swing". He asked that if we give that distinction to Wills, then consider the importance of the prior innovations of Milton Brown and acknowledge Brown as the "Father of Western Swing". There was no trace of bitterness in Roy Lee's message, simply an intense need to educate those born too late to have experienced the Milton Brown phenomenon, and to implore aficionados of western swing to give credit where it was due. I was impressed with his performance of songs from the Milton Brown repertoire, and with his commitment to this musical mission.

The approaching summer of 1988 brought shock and sorrow to the Case family and to the many friends of Floy Case. She died suddenly in the early morning hours of June 14. The last several years of her life had been remarkably active, and her recently acquired friends spanned all age groups. Late in her life she told me that western swing was her favorite kind of music. I recalled that my mother attended the show I had played with Roy Lee Brown, Leon Rausch, Tommy Camfield and others. By mid-1989 I felt compelled to call Roy Lee Brown and ask if he would like to record a tribute to Milton. I got the sense that he'd been having similar thoughts. He and I agreed to do a co-op project and he kindly let me take responsibility for putting together the musicians I felt would be second to none !

Coincidentally, it was during this time period that mega-talented Tom Morrell had begun making occasional visits to my jazz gig at Sardines Ristorante Italiano. Morrell lived outside of Dallas, so whenever he was in Fort Worth for a gig or whatever purpose, he'd stop by. Most often it was on a night when I played solo piano, during the week. Tom would order an Italian dinner, listen to a set and then we'd talk on my break. I had known Tom since 1964. We'd first recorded together as sidemen in 1969, and in the 1970's I featured his jazz steel guitar styings on several albums on my own indy label, Priority Records. Ironically, it was because of my mom that I'd heard a recent (1980's) Leon Rausch album with some wondrous pedal steel guitar work by this masterful musician. I had long been aware there was no one better than Tom for western swing pedal steel. I also knew that he deserved to have his own album. The high regard with which I held his steel playing was such that my desire to record Roy Lee Brown was practically contingent on Tom's participation. I therefore asked Tom to cooperate with me on a 1989 co-op project between me and Roy Lee Brown with the understanding that the following year he and I would produce Tom's first album issued under his name. I assured Tom that it would be "his baby". He would be free to choose the musicians (with one stipulation for pianist!) and it would be his choice of tunes, arrangements,  tempos, sequencing, packaging...he would control all facets of the album. Tom agreed, so with assistance from guitarist Billy Luttrell, I began contacting the other players I had in mind to accompany Roy Lee Brown on his debut album.

During our phone conversations, it was clear that Roy Lee and I both wanted to approach the Brownie repertoire with a modern concept. After all, Milton Brown was modern in his day. Actually he was a musical trailblazer, and any attempt to "honor" him by playing in an "old timey" manner would miss the point or, worse... it would be insulting to Brown's innovative accomplishments.

There would be no attempt to emulate the original Brownies. The members of that historic assembly consisted of Milton Brown, vocals and band leader; Cecil Brower and Jesse Ashlock  (or later, Cliff Bruner) fiddles; Fred "Papa" Calhoun, piano; Bob Dunn, amplified steel guitar; Derwood Brown, rhythm guitar and harmony vocals; Ocie Stockard, tenor banjo and Wanna Coffman, bass.

Roy Lee advised me not to try to play like Papa Calhoun. He likewise did not wish for Morrell to play lap steel, which was Tom's inclination. Roy Lee was emphatic that his preference was for pedal steel, exactly as I had hoped would be the case. Twin fiddles (one of Milton's "firsts" in a western band) were of utmost importance. Also a two-four swing rhythm rather than the hard-driving four-four was a signature element in Brownie music. The easy, relaxed swing of the original Brownies could be quite hypnotic, and there's something magical in the chemistry of those particular musicians. The joy radiating from their unity is of a nature such as I've never heard in any other band. The primary point is: There will never be another band like Milton Brown's. The project ahead of us had another intent: Show that the music of Milton and his remarkable band is viable in today's context. I liked that this goal was important to Roy Lee, who so thoroughly knew this music and the men who had made it. The depression era needed a music that was uplifting, and its power to make folks temporarily forget their troubles may be at the heart of a musical freshness that remains unfaded by passing styles and trends through the subsequent decades.

I got to work on recruiting new "Brownies". In addition to Morrell, who would the other band members be? The great Tommy Camfield, fiddler extraordinaire (and perfect for this project) had recently passed away. My queries to Carroll Hubbard and Buddy Wallis were not productive. In the meantime, Billy Luttrell called to tell me that Leon Rausch would play bass and sing harmony vocals with Roy Lee. As rhythm guitarist, Billy Luttrell was an integral part of this emerging band. It was either Billy Luttrell or Roy Lee who suggested fiddler Randy "Snuffy" Elmore, whom I did not know. After Elmore confirmed his participation, he recommended Wes Westmoreland as his twin fiddle partner. Wes was also someone I hadn't known before, but the these two fiddlers provided the greatest and happiest surprise of the project. Randy Elmore and Wes Westmoreland play together as one, in their phrasing and with violin tones that are a perfect blend. There are no intonation problems with this team. I was amazed at how quickly they could create new arrangements for the tunes, some of which they had probably never heard before!  Elmore and Westmoreland are both lively and imaginative soloists. Elmore also plays great electric mandolin and contributes wonderful solos on both instruments.

David Brown (no relation to Roy Lee) was to be our drummer when we first began making plans, and I honestly don't remember exactly what happened. I remember that we had to find a drummer because David Brown was no longer in the picture.  When the name Bob Venable entered my thoughts, there was no need to look any further. I knew of him because he had sat in with my brother Jerry Case, who liked Bob's tasteful, swinging approach. Bob was from Chicago and had played a lot of dixieland jazz (including one night with trumpeter Bobby Hackett). After relocating in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, he found work playing with tenor banjo wizard Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery. Some of that work was in a dixieland context, and some was with the Light Crust Doughboys on their dance gigs. Marvin, whose career dated back to the beginnings of western swing, was a friend of Roy Lee Brown. The fact that Bob Venable was Marvin's first call whenever he needed a drummer was ample verification that he'd be great on our upcoming tribute to Milton Brown.

Roy Lee selected all the material for the recording. One song written by Ellen Brown was the only exception to the otherwise Milton Brown repertoire. Those selections were drawn from the huge number of songs Milton had recorded for RCA Victor and Decca, the latter being the label on which the vast majority of his recordings had been issued. As an added treat for Browniephiles, Roy Lee chose to frame the program with the opening/closing theme song, just as Milton had done on his daily radio broadcasts in the mid 1930's.

Every conversation I had with Roy Lee yielded interesting facts from the era still crystal clear in this man's memory. He valued accuracy to the maximum degree. He often spoke of the numerous inaccuracies he found in the widely-praised biography of Bob Wills ("San Antonio Rose") by Dr. Charles Townsend. Upon meeting the professor, Roy Lee confronted the author and cited poor research for "lots of mistakes" pertaining to the era through which Roy Lee had personally lived among participants written about in Townsend's book. My own narrow time frame of admittedly limited expertise (1964-1966) provided a point of corroboration regarding poor research: I found two mistakes and an inexcusable omission with the information pertaining to a single photograph!  I see full justification for Roy Lee's staunch disdain for misrepresenting history in the fact that Townsend's book, in numerous printings, has not been revised and continues to misinform readers who rely on praise bestowed by others ignorant of historical facts. Admittedly, not everyone appreciated Roy Lee's candid comments. I appreciated his determination to correct errors regardless of negative reactions from some who preferred their long-held beliefs, even if based on falsehoods. To those, he was apt to respond: "I can't help it if you don't like the facts, but we're talking about history and I believe in truthful representation." This quote is mine, but I remember so well his convictions I want to say these are the words Roy Lee Brown would speak.

During the months of preparing for the release of Roy Lee's album, he often spoke of his strong desire to tell Milton's story, and the beginnings of western swing. He in fact was already working closely with the respected writer Cary Ginnell, a Californian who had made trips to Texas in pursuit of the treasured recollections, not only of Roy Lee, but of music fans from the 1930's who still lived in the Fort Worth area and were eager to share memories of those early years. Roy Lee knew the resulting book would reflect the times in an authentic manner, as it would tell the story through chronologically sequenced oral histories by the people who were present when the music was an exciting new phenomenon. 

The 1980's witnessed the demise of the long playing record, or LP. I had issued four during the decade, the last of which was "Solo Guitar Artistry" by Jerry Case. Its first test pressing was unacceptable because it contained pops and other surface noises. After several failed attempts I finally received an acceptable test pressing and gave the "okay" for production. By the late 1980's, when the Roy Lee Brown project took place, the most common medium for recorded music was cassette tape. The compact disc had been introduced, but the cassettes were extremely popular, and more affordable than the new digital discs such as I would have preferred. The vertical front cover includes a photo of Roy Lee Brown smiling above the title "Western Swing Heritage". On the j-card inside the plastic case, there is an inscription following the descriptive notes which reads: "This album is dedicated to the ones who have gone before."

The finished product was issued in late 1989. News of its availability (in local record stores, or direct from its co-producers) circulated by word-of-mouth. This commonly ascribed "best advertising" brought in good local sales within the first weeks of the cassette's release. The print media in the city known as "The Cradle of Western Swing" chose to ignore Western Swing Heritage by Roy Lee Brown and his Musical Brownies. Although this dissappointed me, it came as no big surprise. I almost expected the slight even though a popular entertainment columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, prior to the album's release, had enthusiastically requested the copy we provided to him. I had already witnessed inexplicible behavior, some bordering on the bizarre, from this individual who was in a position to disperse, or withhold, music news pertaining to Fort Worth area performers. The lack of local coverage was nicely superceded by the glowing review that appeared in the March/April 1990 issue of Country Music magazine, with strong representation on the magazine racks in retail stores nationwide. Rich Kienzle, a noted music scholar and enthusiast, included Western Swing Heritage in the albums reviewed in his Buried Treasures segment of the magazine. Kienzle begins: "It's an established fact that Milton Brown and his band, The Musical Brownies, were the first real Western swing band. Their records for Decca through 1935 and 1936 were, in the eyes of many aficionados, better than Bob Wills' early recordings, since the Brownies included pioneer electric steel guitarist Bob Dunn and pianist Fred "Papa" Calhoun. This past summer Milton's brother Roy Lee, now in his seventies, recorded a Brownies tribute, Western Swing Heritage (Priority PTS-3001). This cassette-only release doesn't recreate The Brownies note-for-note, which would be impossible since most of its ex-members are dead, but even with its more modern sound, Roy Lee has revived The Brownies infectious joy and spirit".  Kienzle also acknowledges the individual participants and their respective instruments and cites some of the songs included, such as "Four or Five Times", "If You Can't Get Five, Take Two", "Texas Hambone Blues", Chinatown, My Chinatown" and "My Mary".

Roy Lee Brown assembled the same group of musicians for a second volume in 1991 and issued Western Swing Heritage II on his own label, Brownie Records. Some listeners prefer this release, as it seems to build on the strong group rapport that was very evident with the first album. Within the next few years, the complete works of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies were made available with the release of a five-disc boxed set of CDs. The Texas Rose label presented first-rate re-mastered original recordings with an accompanying booklet detailing the historical significance of the music. In 1994, the long-awaited book "Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing" by Cary Ginell (with assistance from Roy Lee Brown) was published by University of Illinois Press. It received an award from ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections) in the music research category. The book remains in print and is available through the most popular retailers online.

Although his death was noted only in his hometown newspaper and music journals such as Western Swing Monthly, Roy Lee Brown's passing marked the end of an era, as he truly was the last link to the originators of western swing music.