Brown, Tom (1881-1950) | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Brown, Tom (1881-1950)

Historical Note:

Tom Brown (1881-1950) was born on March 27, 1881 in Ottawa, Ontario. As the second oldest child of seven children, Tom grew up in a musical household. Tom first learned cornet at the age of four from his father Allan, who was a cornettist and band leader in both Ottawa and Toronto. In 1890, Tom began performing the clarinet in the 45th Battery Band of Bowmanville Ontario, a Canadian military band that was led by his father. Tom spent a large portion of his childhood attending musical events at the Opera House in Lindsay, Ontario, it was here that he witnessed his first minstrel show. In 1897, Tom received his first professional appointment as a musician performing as a parade clarinetest for the Guy Brother's Minstrels during their brief stay in Lindsay. Unlike other professional minstrel shows and circus bands that traveled up to 150 miles by train to each new performance location, the Guy Brother's minstrels was a"mud show" that traveled from town to town with a horse and carriage. After spending two years with the Guy Brother's show, Tom joined the Ringling Brother's Circus Band during its 1899 concert tour. By 1903, Tom and his brother Percy began to perform as featured soloists with the Walter L. Main Enormous Show Circus Band. It was during this year that Tom briefly met his future wife, an actress by the name of Theresa Valerio. Midway through the tour, Tom and Percy left the circus because Tom was offered the opportunity to become the leader of the Guy Brothers Minstrels.

Tom led the Guy Brother's Minstrels on a 1904 vaudeville tour of the American Midwest. Sometime during this tour, he renamed the ensemble the Brown Brother's Band. In 1906, the Brown Brothers were added to the Ringling Brother's circus tour. By 1906, the Brown Brothers began appearing as comedy trio with George "Doc" Healy, who was formerly a blackface circus clown with Ringling Brothers. In 1909, Tom renamed the ensemble the Five Brown Brothers. This ensemble included Tom as featured soloist and four of his five brothers, Percy, Alec, Vern, and Fred performing as a saxophone quintet. Their first major appearance occurred with the Broadway Gaiety Girls company of New York.

By 1911, Tom's eldest brother William had joined the group and the ensemble was renamed the Six Brown Brothers. During this time, the brothers performed in clown costumes with Tom in blackface. The group's stage costumes reflected Tom's time with both the Guy Brothers Minstrels and the Ringling Brothers Circus. At various points when the group performed as a sextet, the ensemble also featured some non-family members, including Billy Markwith, Harry Fink, and Matthew Amaturo. During this year, the Six Brown Brothers also recorded their first phonograph recordings for the United States and Columbia Phonography companies. From 1912-1914, the group traveled with Primrose and Dockstader's Minstrels. From 1914-1923, the ensemble was hired to play as the pit orchestra for several Broadway shows. These shows included Chin Chin (1914-1917), Jack o Lantern (1917-1920), Midnight Frolic (1918-1919), Tip Top (1920-1923), and The Bunch and Judy (1923). Many of these shows starred Theresa Valerio, who married Tom Brown after they appeared together in Chin Chin.

After performing for nearly a decade on Broadway, Tom led the ensemble on road-tour called Black and White Revue of 1924. Following this failed tour, the Six Brown Brothers took their vaudeville show to Canada and Australia. The Six Brown Brothers disbanded in 1933, but Tom Brown continued performing as a soloist until 1944. After WWII, Tom moved to Chicago, Illinois where he opperated the Tom Brown Music Company, a publishing company and music store that sold musical instruments. Tom Brown died on August 29, 1950 in Chicago, Illinois.

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