Six Brown Brothers

Six Brown Brothers. Vaudeville and musical comedy act in the forefront of the introduction of the saxophone into North American popular music.

Six Brown Brothers

Six Brown Brothers. Vaudeville and musical comedy act in the forefront of the introduction of the saxophone into North American popular music. The brothers William (b Ottawa 1879, d Chicago 1945), Tom (b Ottawa 1881, d Chicago 1950), Alec (b Ottawa 1882, d Jersey City, NJ, 1978), Percy (b Potsdam, NY, 1883, d New York 1918), Fred (b Woodstock, Ont, 1890, d Chicago 1949), and Vern (b Toronto 1887, d Chicago 1964) Brown were all in the act at various times, but probably never all at once. The Brown family lived in Lindsay, Ont, during the 1890s. Starting in 1903, precursor musical acts involving two to four Browns led to the 1908 formation of the Five Brown Brothers, multi-instrumentalists featuring saxophones: Tom (the leader and blackface comedian) and Fred on alto saxophone, Alec on baritone, Vern on bass, and Billy Markwith on tenor. The Brothers recorded for the Columbia and United States Phonograph Companies in 1911 and later that year expanded to a sextet, adding a second baritone saxophone. Vaudeville success led to two years (1912-14) of touring with Primrose and Dockstader's Minstrels, one of whose leaders was London, Ont, native George Primrose (1852?-1919). A tour of England and Scotland took place in the summer of 1914.


Then began a decade in which the Six Brown Brothers were a featured attraction in Broadway shows, starting with Chin Chin (1914-17). From that time, the Browns played saxophones almost exclusively and all but Tom wore circus-clown costumes. Subsequent shows were Jack o' Lantern (1917-20), Florenz Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic (1918-19), Tip Top (1920-3), and The Bunch and Judy (1923). From 1912 to 1921, the group usually consisted of Tom, Fred, William, Alec, Vern, and Polish-born US citizen Harry Fink (1889-1951). Starting in 1916, the instrumentation included two tenor saxophones instead of two baritones, and from 1919 Tom doubled on alto and soprano.


The group recorded extensively for the Victor and Emerson labels 1914-20, including such compositions as Tom Brown's "Chicken Walk," "That Moaning Saxophone Rag" (with Harry Cook), and "Bull Frog Blues" (with Guy Shrigley), and Shelton Brooks's "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Walkin' the Dog." They also appeared in a short 1927 Vitaphone film whose sound disc survives, though the film is lost. Fred Brown recorded as a soloist in 1916 for Columbia, and Tom recorded with His Merry Minstrel Orchestra for Okeh 1925-6. The Saxo Sextette, which recorded for Columbia 1916-17, was a distinct group, led by ex-Brother Billy Markwith.

Later Years

After the road-tour failure of Black and White Revue of 1924 (1923-4), which starred Tom Brown, his wife Theresa Valerio, and the Brothers, the group returned to Canadian, US, and Australian vaudeville (with interruptions) until disbanding in 1933. The cohort of real brothers in the group fluctuated during this period, but always included Tom and Vern Brown and often included the other three. Tom Brown resided in Toronto ca. 1939-44, where he found sporadic employment in music; he returned to Chicago for his last years.

Further Reading

  • Rust, Brian. American Dance Band Discography , 1917-1942 (New Rochelle, NJ 1975)

    Rust, Brian, comp. The Columbia Master Book Discography, vol. 2, Principal U.S. Matrix Series, 1910-1924 (Westport, Conn 1999)

    Vermazen, Bruce. That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze (New York 2004)