Photograph of Tom Brown, April 11, 1917

from the Bruce Vermazen Research Papers on Tom Brown

Tom Brown (1881-1950) was born in Ottawa, Ontario. His father, Allan Brown, was a cornetist and bandleader in Ottawa who encouraged Tom and his six other siblings to play music. At the age of 16, Tom began his professional music career earning eight dollars a week as a clarinetist in George R. Guy’s Mighty Minstrels traveling show. Two years later, he joined the Ringling Brothers Circus Band playing the clarinet and saxophone for eighteen dollars a week. He toured with both bands until 1909 when he took the helm of the Guy Brothers’ band and renamed it “The Brown Brothers Band.”  The Brown Brothers initially performed as a trio with Tom playing the soprano saxophone and his brothers, Percy and Vern playing the alto and the bass sax.  By 1910, Tom’s brothers Alec on alto and Fred on the tenor saxophone joined the ensemble to form a quintet. In 1913 Tom’s fifth brother, William, joined the band on tenor sax, but his brother Percy left the group and was replaced by Billy Markwith.  In addition, Harry Fink also joined the band on tenor saxophone.  

A photo of Tom Brown, in evening dress and holding a saxophone.

The Brown Brothers ensemble began its music career performing in the style of minstrel burlesque shows that featured slapstick plantation skits, music numbers, and comic exchanges.  During the ensemble’s early years, the band performed in military-inspired band uniforms and their performance style was modelled on the Musical Spillers, a mixed gender African-American saxophone sextet that played the minstrel circuit.   However, by 1914, the Brown Brothers transitioned to wearing exaggerated clown costumes, with Tom, as the band’s front man, appearing in blackface with ragged clothes, a large bow tie, and overly large shoes.  The Brown Brothers performed essentially as musical comedy act bridging the growing gap between minstrel and vaudeville entertainment.  Unlike the Spillers who were lauded by critics for their music prowess, the Brown Brothers performances initially earned them mixed reviews.  In spite of this, the Brown Brothers drew much larger audiences, and were able to secure lucrative recording contracts, Broadway performances, and endorsements from major music instrument manufacturers.