Country Producer Tony Brown Shares Stories of Working With Elvis, Reba & George Strait
In the world of modern country music history, Tony Brown has earned a critical spot. As a one-time A&R executive at RCA Records, he signed Alabama – a group that helped to keep the label high atop most year-end lists throughout the 1980s. In fact, that dominance only ended by the time that Brown was at Nipper’s biggest competitor – MCA Nashville. He began his career there as a production understudy of label head Jimmy Bowen, but steadily rose through the ranks and eventually ascended to head of the company.
Along the way, he sat behind the glass on many of the biggest hits of George Strait, Reba McEntire, Wynonna Judd and Vince Gill. In his new coffee table book, Elvis, Strait, To Jesus, Brown details a career that began in Southern Gospel, eventually touring with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris, before transforming himself into one of the top creative minds of the past four decades in Nashville. Billboard recently asked Brown about some of the names he documents in his book, and what his memories of them are.
“At one point, my dream was to be in a group with J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. He was my Elvis. I got a job with him when I was nineteen, and then left him to go with the Oak Ridge Boys. They were using a full band, and J.D. just had a piano and singers. Then, J.D. gets the Elvis gig, and calls me and gives me a lot of grief about it. Then, he fires Donnie Sumner on the tour. Elvis calls Donnie personally – which was something he rarely did – he said ‘I love J.D., but I also love your singing. Let me get a couple of more guys and a piano player, and I’ll just pay you personally to come to my house when I’m off the road, and we’ll sing Gospel songs.' So Donnie calls me, and I get the job. They call and say ‘Come to the Holiday Inn in Hollywood, and we’ll call you when he gets up.' They did, and about eight o’clock, they would call – and we’d go there and sing with him for two to three hours. Eventually, they put us on the tour to do a couple of songs in front of the comedian. I would go sit behind Glen D. Hardin, who played piano, and watch him play the show. After a year and a half, they decided to let us go. Joe Esposito told Elvis ‘You don’t need that.’ I’m sitting behind Glen one night, and he tells me that he and James Burton just did this record with this new artist on Warner Brothers. Her name is Emmylou Harris. She’s going on tour, and I’m going to leave Elvis and do that gig. I told him if he did, to put my name in the hat. I can do the show. Of all the things I’ve done in my career, my time with Elvis has defined my life. It’s amazing. Nobody dominated a room when he was in it like Elvis Presley. Nobody. I’ve cut twenty Strait records, and when I’m doing an interview, someone will ask ‘Can I ask you an Elvis question?'”
“With Emmylou, all we did on the bus was listen to bluegrass, because she’s a serious bluegrass fan. She turned me on to country music. We stopped at a truck stop one time, and she would go to the jukebox and play George Jones, and then I discovered all of that. I had never auditioned for a gig before. With Elvis, I just sort of got it. I was thinking ‘What is she going to make me do?’ I had learned ‘Together Again,’ because it was one of her early hits. It had the F-Sharp, Glen D-style solo. That’s what she wound up calling out. I had an angel on my shoulder. She was a teacher to me. She would talk about Merle Haggard, and I would ask her who that was. She’d put a tape in the deck, and I would dig it. She’d tell me about Bonnie Owens singing harmony, and Glen Campbell singing the third part. I started reading liner notes after being with her. I didn’t realize that Glen was a session player. She taught me so much. She was so into music.”
“He made happen for me what I never dreamed that would happen – I cut a lot of hit records, and became president of a record company. Every record that was made at MCA when he was there, everybody got a CD the day it was mastered, along with a little pamphlet. You had to write what you thought of every song, and what you thought might be the singles. If you didn’t turn it in, he would just chew you out. He was a really smart man. He also told me to do five vocals after the track. Send the band out to the lounge, and do five vocals because the artist is in the zone. Then, you can comp it together. Nine times out of ten, you’ve got a vocal and he’s usually right. When I cut Cyndi Lauper, the first song that we did, she brought her engineer. The first song we do is ‘The End of The World,’ and the track was incredible. I asked her if she wanted to do her vocals then, because of the way I cut. She said ‘I just sang it.’ I told her that I knew everybody sang on the track, and she said again ‘I just sang it. Did it suck? That’s it.’ I said ‘OK.’ After that first session, the players all understood that they better not screw up the track because he’s doing her vocal one time... and that’s it.”
“Reba needed a new producer, and she said ‘Bowen trained him. Let’s use him.’ She was also a fan of Diamonds and Dirt, which I produced on Rodney Crowell. So, we began working together on the Rumor Has It record. About mid-way through it, she says ‘I want to cut ‘Fancy,’ do you remember that song?’ I said ‘I saw Bobbie Gentry do it in Oklahoma City when she opened for Glen Campbell. I love that song.’ She said ‘Bowen wouldn’t let me cut it.’ I said ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s become the staple of her career. I told Bruce Hinton we cut 'Fancy,' and it was a smash. He said ‘I was afraid of that.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He answered ‘Do you know what it’s about?’ I said ‘Yeah, it’s about a girl who leaves a poor family to make it big?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it’s about a prostitute?’ It had never occurred to me. Reba is really involved in her records. She knows the players she wants. She’d want me to take a lick out that an acoustic player had put in there in the middle of something. I told her I would when I sent the vocal comp to her. A couple of times, I left it in there. She’d call me up and say ‘Tony, that licks in there.’ I said ‘Oh, my gosh. Reba, I’m so sorry.’ She said ‘You’re a stubborn little poot, aren’t you?’ That’s her cuss word.”
“We were cutting ‘Blue Clear Sky,’ and I knew it was a hit. George said ‘I don’t like the title. It should be ‘Clear Blue Sky.’ Call up the writers and see if you can change that.’ I’m working for George, so I call up Bob DiPiero, and he said ‘Yeah, man, you can do that. I’m not going to tell George Strait he can’t do something, but that line came from Forrest Gump, and that line was what started us on the song. That was our money line.’ I told George, and he changed his mind on the spot. He said ‘That’s cool, now that I know that.'”