10/17/19 // By: Neill Caldwell // Courtesy of The Stokes News
To understand what Tony Brown does as a record producer, think back to the famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Christopher Walken orders “More Cowbell!” as Blue Oyster Cult records take after take of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Tony Brown is the “More Cowbell” guy.
“In movies, the producer is the guy who raises money for the film and a director actually makes the film,” says Brown from his Nashville home during a phone conversation. “So in the music business, the producer is like the director in the movies.
Brown explains that there’s a lot more to it than that, including discovering new talent, signing artists to your label, picking the studio to record, finding session musicians to play because normally singers don’t record with their regular band, and finding the songs.
“I did 19 albums with George Strait and before each album, I probably listened to 2,000 songs,” Brown said. “(I miss the days when albums were 10 songs. Now they’re like 17.) I just became really good at picking good songs. So being an A&R guy came me the same creative satisfaction as playing the piano and people applauding.”
Timeout: A&R stands for “Artist and Repertoire.” Now let Tony continue.
“I wasn’t good enough (on piano) to be a session player, so I decided I wanted to be an A&R person. It’s the best gig on a record label. You’re part of the creative process. If you have a gold record you get acknowledged for it. And in A&R you don’t have to wear a suit… it’s jeans and sunglasses.”
Brown said there are occasions where he might discover a new talent before anyone else does. But normally you stick with the tried-and-true.
“There’s a host of songwriters in town who write most of the hits. Really about five writers. So everyone’s butt is a sugar-shaker, everyone’s driving their pickup truck out in the county listening to Hank, Waylon, and Cash. (Which means they have to have Sirius XM because those guys are not played on terrestrial radio.) And they have a blanket in the back and they’re going to pull off and make love in a field… like they won’t get chiggers, I’m sorry…”
Talking to Brown is like watching Ken Burns’ “County Music” series on PBS; just about every name in the industry gets mentioned at one point or another, from Dolly and Reba to Luke Combs.
These stories will come in handy when Brown comes to Stokes County for a four-day celebration of his success as one of the most decorated producers in the music business, and not just country music.
The party starts tonight with a reception at Moore’s Springs Manor, then Friday night there’s a concert at The Arts Place in Danbury. Saturday there are a couple of book signings scheduled — Brown released a coffee table book about his career last year — and finally a Sunday afternoon concert in his hometown of Walkertown where he will receive more awards.
It’s all the brainstorm of Eddy McGee, the county’s Arts Director, who’s had this idea in his head since he first took the job. He’s followed Brown for years and decided it was past time for a major tribute.
Brown, of course, is honored to be honored.
“I’m excited and a little apprehensive, afraid that nobody’s going to show up. I’m looking forward to it. It’s kind of a cool feeling. My sister still lives in Winston-Salem so I’m sure she will be feeling pretty proud of me. She’s the only one who stayed there; I came to Nashville in ’69. My sister is really my only remaining connection to the area. I’m glad she’s going to be there; at least I’ll have one person show up.”
“I keep thinking of that Toby Keith song ‘How do you like me now?’”
Brown’s roots are very humble. He grew up in Walkertown but his family moved to Durham when he was in the tenth grade.
“My family was very poor. None of the cheerleaders or cool chicks would look at me twice. I was envious of all the jocks who played on the football team or the basketball team. Then there was always one girl in school who everybody thought was the prettiest … you wonder ‘what do they look like now?’ There’s a hope that I will run into somebody who was a close friend in elementary school days or junior high days.”
He also had a very strict religious upbringing.
“My father was an evangelist,” Brown recalls. “We were associated with the Baptist denomination but we played all around: Pentecostal churches, black churches, Moravian churches. So I saw a little bit of everything and I think that affected my taste in music. Churches are all a little bit different. I was only allowed to listen to gospel music so I missed Elvis – ended up playing with him – and when I was in school everyone had these little baseball cards of Elvis and I thought he looked pretty cool, but I just wasn’t allowed to hear that stuff.”
“When I was age 13 (but I looked about 8… my feet couldn’t reach the pedals) I started playing by ear. A lady at church heard me messing around on the piano and she said ‘I’m going to play you something and see if you can copy it.’ When I did she said ‘You have an ear.’ She said she would teach me a song that I could play with my family during our revivals. It was kind of a fast song and I just blew the roof off the church. But I thought ‘Now I need to learn another song.’ That’s when I got the show biz bug and started playing in all these talent shows and our family started winning all these awards.”
“Gospel groups were the coolest cats I’d ever seen. They were my Beatles. I met J.D. Sumner when I went to see the Blackwood Brothers at Reynolds Auditorium (in Winston-Salem). He was their bass singer. So I thought ‘if I could ever be in a group with J.D. Sumner that would be like hitting the lottery.’ And that actually happened. It all started there. J.D. nicknamed me Tarzan.’ I said ‘why do you call me Tarzan?’ and he said ‘because you’re a squirt and you’re nothing like Tarzan and it will be funny.’ Quartets had a little vaudeville thing going on, being funny. They would pick on each other.”
From playing for gospel groups, Brown got the break of all breaks. Through Sumner, he was hired to play for a gospel group called Voice, which was started by Elvis to sing in his homes when he wasn’t out on tour. Suddenly Brown was hanging out with the biggest entertainer on the planet in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs. Eventually Elvis decided that Voice should open his concerts.
“We went on before the comedian who was always before Elvis. We’d do two songs and then I’d go sit behind Glenn D. Hardin, who had played piano for Elvis for 20 years, just watching him play the show. Then one night Glenn D. turned around to me and said ‘hey, I just recorded with a new artist on Warner Brothers called Emmy Lou Harris and she’s doing a world tour, so I’m leaving (Elvis).’ And I said ‘hey, man, put my name in the hat because I can do this show.’ And that’s what happened. Played with him the last year and a half.”
Brown was playing piano for Elvis’ final concert, in Indianapolis, shortly before his death in August 1977.
“When Elvis played Greensboro when I was with him, my dad wouldn’t come see it because he didn’t like that ‘worldly’ music. But my mom said ‘I’ll sacrifice, I’ll go.’ … There are big Elvis fan clubs around the world. I never went (to a convention) because I was only with Elvis the last three years of his life. But I finally went to one and I had so many people coming up to me with bootleg CDs of concerts I had played in. And one was in Greensboro, and Elvis had given my mom a shout-out, mentioning that she was in the audience.”
Brown also got to be in the studio with “The King.” “I played on two records: when he cut an album called “Today,’ and there was a song called ‘Bringing it Back’ and I played on the demo (for the musicians to learn the song). When they cut the real record David Briggs told Elvis that I was playing on the demo and Elvis said ‘Come on, Junior. Hop on the piano.’ But the one I’m really proud of is from his last album, “Moody Blue,” and the single was called ‘Way Down.’ I think it was his last Number One record. We cut it in the Jungle Room (at Graceland).”
So, what was Elvis like?
“Elvis was like me and you, a Southern guy, really humble, the epitome of humility. When he got so big he was a victim of his own fame. So he couldn’t go out and lived a quiet life. Believe it or not, he was a regular guy. Although … he dressed like ‘Elvis’ 24/7. Even his pajamas had those high collars. He wore a big belt buckle around the house. I guess that’s why all my life I’ve dressed like a musician. Now that I’m a retired record executive I dress too young for my age, but it works for me. I get invited to some thing in town and I ask‘what’s the dress code?’ and they say ‘come as Tony Brown!’”
Brown says that he’s not ready to retire, but he has greatly scaled back on his workload. “It’s a young man’s world,” he says. “Now it’s all about hip-hop, all about youth and finding ‘the hooks.’ But I want to stay relevant, to stay young in my mind.”