Brown, Tony 1933–
Tony Brown 1933–
Television commentator, columnist, filmmaker, social activist
As the host of America’s first and longest-running minority affairs show, Tony Brown has established himself as a leading voice on black issues. “Admirers have called him television’s civil rights crusader and a champion of black causes,” Keith Thomas wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “Critics have labeled him self-centered and cocky.” Whatever one thinks of Tony Brown, few will dispute that through his work as a television journalist on Tony Brown’s Journal (known as Black Journal until 1977), he has made major strides in helping to promote and solve the problems facing the black community.
Brown has not limited himself to one medium, however. Through the years he has taken many different avenues in an attempt to achieve black equality—as a syndicated columnist, educator, civil rights activist, lecturer, and movie producer. Yet it is his role as an independent businessman that has had the greatest impact. For Brown, the only color of freedom in America is green. “The formula for freedom is as follows,” he said in a 1987 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California: “Wealth (consumer power) equals power and power equals freedom in all of its societal forms: political freedom, educational freedom, social freedom and economic freedom.”
Brown’s steadfast approach to achieving equality began at a very early age. He grew up in a poor section of Charleston, West Virginia, where he was raised by family friend Elizabeth Sanford and her daughter, Mable Holmes. Brown realized early on that money could break the cycle of poverty that surrounded him in the community. After raising some money by selling soda pop bottles, Brown bought a hen and a rooster to start his own little poultry farm. It wasn’t long before he was peddling eggs and chickens to his neighbors. “I was first on the block to buy my own wagon,” he told Thomas. “But more importantly, I was doing something good for myself and for my community. We were all profiting.” This sense of dedication to the black community stuck with him.
Even though Brown knew that money was a key to greater success, he also realized that without an education his achievements would be limited. “I learned early in life,” he told Jessica Skelly von Brachel of Fortune, “that all I was going to have was what I was willing to work for.” So, when he graduated from Garnet High School, excelling in athletics and academics, especially drama and English,
Born William Anthony Brown, April 11, 1933, in Charleston, WV; son of Royal and Catherine (Davis) Brown; divorced; children: Byron Anthony. Education: Wayne State University, B.A. 1959, M.S.W. 1961. Politics: Republican.
Talk show host, syndicated newspaper columnist, film director, television and film producer. Detroit Courier, drama critic and city editor; WTVS-TV, Detroit, MI, writer, producer, and program host; producer and host of PBS’s Tony Brown’s Journal (known as Black Journal until 1977), 1970—; Tony Brown Productions, New York City, president, 1977—; screenwriter, director, producer, and distributor of feature film The White Girl, 1988; commentator for National Public Radio Network program “All Things Considered”.
Founder and dean of School of Communications, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1971-74; WHUR-FM Radio board chair; launched Black College Day, 1980, Buy Freedom Campaign, 1985, and Buy Freedom 900 Network, 1992. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.
Member: National Association of Black Media Producers, National Association of Black TV & Film Producers, National Communications Council, Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans (CEDBA; founder).
Awards: Emmy Award nomination, 1972; Communicator for Freedom Award, OPERATION PUSH, 1973; Frederick Douglass Liberation Award, 1974; National Urban League public service award, 1977; Solomon Fuller Award, American Psychiatric Association, 1989; NAACP Image Award, 1991; Black Emmy Award; Economic Empowerment Award, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Brown decided that he would have to attend college. After a two-year stint in the army, he completed his studies at Detroit’s Wayne State University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology in 1959, and then a master’s degree in psychiatric social work two years later.
It wasn’t long before he took a job in the communications industry as drama critic for the Detroit Courier. It was during this time that Brown began to take an active role in the civil rights movement in Detroit, serving as the coordinator of the “March to Freedom” with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963.
After working his way up to city editor of the Courier, Brown left the newspaper to produce programming at Detroit’s public television station, WTVS. He eventually became the producer of C.P.T. (Colored People’s Time), the station’s first series geared toward a black audience. From there he went on to produce and host a community-oriented program called Free Play.
In 1970 Brown was hired to be the executive producer and host of Black Journal, a minority affairs program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The show, which began in 1968, was being produced in New York City at WNET-TV and broadcast on public television stations across the country. The unique format of the program used interviews, commentaries, documentaries, dialogues, and surveys to explore social issues from a black perspective. Bettelou Peterson commented on the program in the Detroit Free Press, noting, “Black Journal is the only regularly scheduled program on any network produced by and for blacks with an uncompromisingly black point of view.”
Even though the program had achieved success with critics and other members of the broadcasting industry before he arrived—it won an Emmy, a Peabody and a Russwurm—Brown was concerned that its content did not reflect the national black community. He immediately set out to expand the focus and outlook of Black Journal. “We can’t sit here in New York and project this struggle which is national and international,” he told Charlayne Hunter of the New York Times. “The brother in California wants to know what the brother is doing in Chicago or New Orleans.”
Almost immediately after Brown joined the show, the program became the subject of great controversy and criticism. But his approach was obviously having some success: after only one year under his direction, the program expanded from an hour show once a month to a half-hour show every week. Having more time made Brown more determined to produce a program that spotlighted the positive aspects of black life. “In all our programs we want to show blacks how to work for themselves,” he told Peterson. “To be respected we must have something to be respected for. We should have learned long ago, we can’t depend on anyone but ourselves.”
To reinforce his belief in self-sufficiency, Brown committed himself to make it easier for other blacks to enter into the television industry. Besides insisting that the majority of his staff be from the black community, he sought out white production companies that would help train young blacks who were interested in entering the business. In 1971 he became the founding dean of the Howard University School of Communications to give blacks a better chance of succeeding in the communications field. The annual Careers in Communications Conference, which he initiated while at the university, has proven extremely successful in securing jobs for blacks in the industry. His philosophy, as quoted by Walt Belcher in the Tampa Tribune, centers on the idea that the “salvation of the black community is up to blacks who have succeeded.”
Throughout the early 1970s, Black Journal, which Brown continued to host and produce, was gaining national prominence by bringing even more controversial issues to its audience. Although the program drew praise from many blacks and whites, there were many politicians, industry professionals, and even leaders in the black community who attacked Brown’s provocative journalistic approach. His first confrontation with other minority leaders came when he decided that Black Journal was going to set up a bureau in Ethiopia to cover events in Africa. According to Hunter, a leading black newspaper “attacked the move” as an effort of the U.S. government “designed to make U.S. Blacks feel that Ethiopia’s [autocratic] leadership [was] worthy of support.” Even though Brown was pained by the attack, he defended his right to differ with other black leaders.
Unfortunately, the attention that the program received almost led to its demise only a few years later. When the CPB announced the programs that it intended to fund for the 1973-74 season, Black Journal was not on the list. Even though the program was not totally financed by the CPB, it needed the funds to stay on the air. James D. Williams, a member of the Advisory Committee of National Organizations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, thought both the program and the host were influential in the CPB’s decision. “Tony Brown had become a thorn in the side of the establishment with his often bitter attacks against what he described as racism in public broadcasting,” Williams wrote in Black Enterprise. It was also clear to Williams that higher powers were also influencing the CPB’s decision. “It was no secret that powerful forces in the White House were critical of Black Journal over what they regarded as its anti-administration attitude.”
However, feeling pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Urban League, and a coalition of fans known as “Friends of Black Journal,” the CPB reinstated funding for Black Journal. This protest also forced the CPB to strengthen its commitment to minority programming by providing more financial support for other programs and by allowing minority leaders to have more of a say in the type of programming that should be offered. The future of Black Journal was not as secure as many had thought, however. The 1973-74 season offered viewers about one third of the programming that had been offered during the prior season.
Brown eventually grew tired of the limits public television placed upon his show. In 1977 he renamed the program Tony Brown’s Journal, negotiated a deal with the Pepsi-Cola Company for sponsorship, and moved it into commercial syndication. The move proved to be successful at first. “Tony Brown’s Journal,” Essence magazine wrote in 1980, “is now syndicated to 85 cities and reaches a larger nonwhite audience than Face the Nation, Issues and Answers, or Meet the Press.” Even though the program had great ratings and he was enjoying equal success with his Tony Brown at Daybreak program that was being broadcast in Washington, D.C., on WRC-TV, Brown grew frustrated by the limited number of stations that carried the Journal and the odd hours they chose to broadcast it. In 1982 he moved his show back to public television.
It was also during this time that Brown began to verbalize his disgust with the portrayal of blacks on television. He called the very popular television drama The White Shadow —about a white basketball coach at an inner city high school—a disgrace and an insult to black people. According to Jet magazine, Brown said that the show “implies that Black people symbolically live in the shadow of White people, and that some patronizing White liberal traditionally will, and has always, come to ’Save’ us.” Black Enterprise revealed how even very popular sitcoms were not immune from his criticism. “If you can’t tell the difference between the old [stereotypical] Stepin’ Fetchit character or the Amos ’n Andy genre and J J on [the 70s comedy] ’Good Times,’ it’s because there is none.”
Even though many people accused Brown of being a cynic, his relentless drive to promote the black experience continued. In 1980 he organized a national celebration, “Black College Day,” designed to emphasize the need to save and support Black colleges. His one-man campaign received the full support of then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. The next year, Congress enacted a federally-sponsored program to help black colleges.
Brown’s dedication to bring about equality for the black community took an economic turn in 1985 when he formed the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans (CEDBA). The major thrust of CEDBA, the “Buy Freedom” campaign, asked black consumers nationwide to patronize black establishments that displayed a “Freedom Seal.” According to Kenneth Maurice Jones of Black Enterprise, “In displaying the seal, businesses indicate that they’ve agreed to a five-point program that stresses courtesy, competitive prices, discounts (when possible), employment opportunities as a result of increased sales, and active involvement in community affairs.” Brown called the campaign a simple “self-help” program, not a racist boycott.
In 1988 Brown tried to capitalize on the power of the entertainment industry by releasing his first motion picture, The White Girl. As writer, director, producer, and distributor of the film, Brown sought to tell the story of a black college student who gets sidetracked because of her addiction to cocaine. “I wanted to deal with two destructive trends in society, drug addiction and self-hate,” Brown told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post. “My premise is that one is largely responsible for the other. In my film the message is obvious. Yet every film makes a point and this one is, if you don’t love yourself you will hurt yourself.” Once again, Brown’s self-help approach for the black community was met with some resistance.
The first obstacle came when Brown asked the Motion Picture Association for a rating. The movie, which contained no nudity, sex or gratuitous violence, initially received an R rating. After appealing the board’s decision, the movie was given a rating of PG-13 without further editing. The second blow came when critics panned the movie. Washington Post’s Hal Hinson called it “harrowingly amateurish” and “a serious deterrent to movie-going,” while Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune considered it a “moderately inept anti-drug melodrama.” Caryn James of the New York Times did give Brown some credit, however, noting, “Mr. Brown’s use of a crew that was 80 percent black is more significant and effective than anything he has put on screen.”
Brushing off the criticism, Brown continued his fight for equality. In 1991 he faced his biggest confrontation with many of his fellow civil rights leaders. During the controversial confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Brown put himself in the minority by supporting the conservative Judge Thomas (who had been accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, a member of his staff at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) and lambasting his critics. Brown had criticized traditional civil rights organizations in the past and continued to publicly denounce the liberal philosophy of some of the most influential groups and their leaders, many of which advocate government intervention and public assistance as a means of improving the status of blacks in the United States.
Around the same time, Brown announced his decision to join the GOP (Grand Old Party—the Republican Party). In an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Brown justified his decision to join forces with the Republicans: “They initiated the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to former slaves, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1986.” More importantly for Brown was the Republican platform that suited his concept of self-help and economic empowerment. “The color of freedom is green,” he wrote. “True freedom can come only from an intelligent and humane use of the free market system. And the party of green enterprise, despite all its potentially reversible shortcomings, is the Republican Party.”
Tony Brown is a major force in the black community. He continues to work for social issues through his economic programs, the latest being the “Buy Freedom Network,” a 900 phone number that will direct callers to minority-owned businesses that sell the products they want. But it is very unlikely that Brown will ever give up the talk show that puts the important social issues of the black community in front of the American public. “I’ve never gotten the recognition other television hosts have gotten because I don’t go for the cheap thrill,” Brown told Thomas. “My shows deal with very serious subjects. I’ll leave the sensational and sleazy subjects for the other folks.”
No White Lies, No Black Lies—Only the Truth, 1993.
Atlanta Constitution, August 9, 1990; November 9, 1990; March 25, 1991.
Atlanta Journal, July 20, 1991.
Black Enterprise, January 1974; September 1979; February 1986.
Chicago Tribune, January 8, 1989; February 9, 1990.
Detroit Free Press, September 24, 1971.
Essence, October 1980.
Fortune, November 4, 1991.
Jet, June 18, 1970; February 15, 1979; January 24, 1980; September 11,1980; October 8,1981; February 29,1988; July 18,1988; August 15,1988; August 12, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1990.
New York Times, November 29, 1970; February 11, 1990.
Tampa Tribune, April 26, 1992.
Vital Speeches of the Day, April 15, 1987.
Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1991; August 5, 1991.
Washington Post, February 10, 1990.
"Brown, Tony 1933–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-tony-1933
"Brown, Tony 1933–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-tony-1933
One of the most sought-after and controversial speakers in the United States, Tony Brown (born 1933) also hosts "Tony Brown's Journal," one of the Public Broadcasting Station's longest-running shows. He hosts the syndicated radio call-in show "Tony Brown" at WLIB AM New York and his books include Empower the People and Black Lies, White Lies. Most of his efforts are geared toward encouraging African Americans to improve their economic destiny by helping themselves.
Rough Beginnings Gave Rise to Ambition
On April 11, 1933, in Charleston, West Virginia, William Anthony (Tony) Brown became the fifth child born to Royal Brown and the former Katherine Davis. His mother had been having children since the age of 16. There was tension in the marriage from early on due to the different complexions of Royal, a light-skinned mulatto, and Katherine, a dark-skinned beauty. (At that time, the lighter the skin of an African American, the higher his or her rank in society, and vice versa.) Royal's parents had opposed the union, despite the abundant accomplishments of Katherine's family. In addition, the ferocious racism of the small Southern town drove a wedge between the young couple. Unemployed and increasingly frustrated, Royal left with another woman for Philadelphia two months before his last child arrived.
It was into this turbulent world that Tony was born. Katherine was crushed by the desertion and may have suffered from postpartum depression after his birth. Virtually unable to care for the baby, she allowed a concerned neighbor, Elizabeth Sanford, and her daughter, Mabel, to take the starving two-month-old Tony to live with them. Although poor and uneducated, Elizabeth, whom Brown would always call "Mama," and Mabel cared for and raised the boy lovingly as though he were their own until they died within months of each other when he was 12 years old. Brown still credits them not only with saving his life, but with giving him confidence and a sense of self-worth.
Forced to rely on his mother again for support, Brown moved in with her in a housing project in a decrepit area of Charleston known as the Minor. Meanwhile, his parents had divorced. Although he had grown accustomed to poverty, Brown always dreamed of having enough food and clothes. He demonstrated his developing ambition and resourcefulness early on when he started selling soft drink bottles around the neighborhood. Through hard work and determination, he earned enough to buy a rooster and a hen and started a little poultry farm. Soon he was able to sell fresh chicken and eggs to his neighbors at a great profit. He also got paid for putting on shows with his friends at the nearby Furgerson Theater.
Excelled in School, Developed Love of Performing
Brown started in Charleston's public school system in 1939, when he was six. His first school was Boyd Elementary, and from there he graduated to Boyd Junior High. When he entered Garnet High School as a teenager, he joined the track team, running the 220-and 440-yard races and relays. An eager and attentive student, Brown did well in school but particularly in English and drama. His teachers in those subjects encouraged him enormously, realizing his potential. Despite a slight shyness and natural reserve, he won a leading role in the play Our Town, and just before graduation in 1951 he performed parts of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar on the local radio station.
After working for two years after graduation, Brown joined the army in 1953. He eventually made the rank of corporal before leaving in 1955 to study psychology and sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated with a degree in 1959 despite having worked part-time at a warehouse to pay for his education. Brown had become convinced that he could help fellow African Americans improve their generally dire economic circumstances and remained at Wayne State until 1961 to earn his masters degree in social work. His educational focus, psychiatric social work, meant that he was assigned some of the most tragic and difficult cases in the city, and by 1962 he had had enough.
Career in Social Work Yielded to Media Involvement
In the meantime, Brown had protested racial segregation during massive marches that he organized and that were led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on these experiences, Brown decided that the media would be the conveyor of his messages to black Americans. He found a job as a drama critic with the Detroit Courier and quickly moved up the ladder to city editor. In 1968 he left the paper to take a job as public affairs programmer for Detroit's public television station, WTVS. He soon became producer of the station's first show specifically for African Americans, "CPT," or "Colored People's Time." Meanwhile, Brown also tried his hand at hosting for the first time on the station's community program "Free Play."
While Brown worked at WTVS for the remainder of the 1960s, a program called "Black Journal" began airing in New York City. Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the show investigated political and social issues relevant to African Americans through interviews, surveys, documentaries, and editorial commentaries. "Black Journal" had won the Emmy, Peabody, and Russwurm awards by 1970.
Later that year, Brown was invited to work as executive producer and host of "Black Journal." He accepted, but within months his candor and unflattering commentaries on the government were igniting controversy and criticism from people at all levels of the broadcasting industry. His allegations of racism in public broadcasting were especially ill-received. The controversy, however, sparked interest in the show and its ratings skyrocketed. The station expanded "Black Journal" from its original once-a-month feature to a weekly, 30-minute show.
Aggressive Style Sparked Controversy
Although his goal was to emphasize the positive aspects of African Americanism, Brown occasionally ran into trouble with his viewers, who perceived him as arrogant, condescending, and out of touch with the experiences of the average black person. Brown's emphasis on self-help may have caused this reaction, but his purpose, to give African Americans self-respect, remained firm.
Brown was one of the first people to encourage blacks to enter the television industry, and most of his staff came from the local community. He located production companies willing to teach his trainees and help them find jobs in the field. His work led to his appointment as the founding dean of the Howard University School of Communications, and he used this position to launch the Careers in Communications Conference. This became an annual event that still helps students find work in the communications industry. Brown resigned as dean in 1974.
When the CPB withdrew its funding of "Black Journal" for the 1973–1974 season, the African American community responded with outrage. The corporation relented and agreed to fund the show but instead reduced its airtime. Brown took matters into his own hands in 1977. Determined to keep the faltering show alive and frustrated with the limits imposed by the CPB, he negotiated a contract with the Pepsi Cola Company to sponsor the show. Brown changed the program's name to "Tony Brown's Journal" and left the relatively sheltered world of public television. The syndicated show began airing in 85 cities nationwide, and he also started doing a successful segment called "Tony Brown at Daybreak" on WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. However, Brown soon became dissatisfied with the odd viewing times commercial stations offered "Tony Brown's Journal," so in 1982 he moved the show back to public television.
Campaigned Hard for Black Education
and Economic Empowerment
Throughout the 1980s, Brown was instrumental in improving the outlook and atmosphere for African Americans in the academic world. He launched "Black College Day" in 1982, in what was called a one-man effort to save and support colleges dedicated to serving blacks. In 1985, he founded the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans, whose motto is "Buy Freedom." The group's main platform is that blacks should patronize businesses displaying the "Freedom Seal," which signified a black owner who had agreed to be courteous, offer competitive prices, provide employment, give discounts, and stay involved in the community.
Brown's most inspired attempt to reach African Americans through the media came in 1988, when he released a cautionary film about cocaine abuse titled The White Girl. He wrote, directed, produced, and distributed the film himself, and while it was panned by the critics, it gave Brown a medium in which to address what he perceived as "two destructive trends in society: drug addiction and self-hate." Ignoring the negative reviews, he circulated the film throughout the black community for the next 18 months. Local groups showed it for a small profit, benefiting both Brown and charitable causes.
Became an Author to Reach Audience
In the 1990s, Brown began writing books to broadcast his message of self-help and self-respect to African Americans. His first book, Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown, came out in 1995. With its innovative approach to making the United State more economically competitive and suggestions of ways to solve the country's racial issues, the book was well received among blacks, although not reviewers. His next book, Empower the People: A 7-Step Plan to Overthrow the Conspiracy That Is Stealing Your Money, was published in 1999 and presented, as his publisher put it, as "a practical plan to reclaim our resources and institutions from a selfish and exclusive power elite." It has also enjoyed steady success despite some less than positive reviews. Brown's What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life appeared on bookshelves in 2003. Literally the story of his life, Brown uses himself as an example of what people can overcome and achieve with the help of self-empowerment.
Brown, a prominent and influential member of the Republican Party, lives in New York City, where he hosts a call-in radio program on WLIB AM and continues to host the now-syndicated "Tony Brown's Journal." He is an occasional commentator on the popular National Public Radio show "All Things Considered" and appears regularly on C-Span, CNBC, and other major networks. He is also the founder of Tony Brown Productions, Inc., which produces television programs and movies and markets videotapes from a collection called "The Library of Black History." Brown is a member of numerous boards and advisory committees, including the Shaw Divinity School, The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Talkers, the premiere radio trade magazine, has named Brown one of the top 100 most important talk show hosts in the country, and USA Today chose him as one of the top five U.S. experts on the status of African Americans.
Brown married in 1970 and had a son, Byron Anthony Brown, in 1971. The marriage ended in divorce in 1974.
Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research, 1992.
"Tony Brown," The Gale Group Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.gale.com (January 4, 2004).
"Tony Brown," Lordly & Dame, Inc. website,http://www.lordly.com (December 27, 2003).
"What Mama Taught Me: The Seven Core Values of Life, Introduction" Tony Brown Sites website,http://www.tonybrownsites.com (December 27, 2003).
"Brown, Tony." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brown-tony
"Brown, Tony." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/brown-tony
Record company executive, producer
In 1978, when Tony Brown left his keyboards behind and joined the artists and repertoire (A&R) ranks at RCA, few would have suspected that within 15 years he would assume the presidency of MCA/Nashville. But with Brown’s on-the-road experience and many hours spent in the recording studio, he had his hand firmly on the pulse of the average country music listener. Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, and Trisha Yearwood are only a few of the many artists he discovered—and all three have helped country music rise to unprecedented popularity during the 1990s. Brown’s understanding of the traditional country sound, combined with the pop influences of the present, have made him a significant force in determining the future of the Nashville recording industry.
Brown was raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, and grew up in a family heavily influenced by gospel music. He took to the piano as a child and played in his family’s gospel group; when he went on the road as a professional musician, one of his first jobs was as keyboard accompanist for the then-gospel sounds of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over time, Brown’s musical tastes broadened beyond the restrictions of gospel. He worked for a while with the Sweet Inspirations Band; then, in 1975, he played with the Stamps Quartet, a career move that allowed him an incredible opportunity: the Stamps were hired as backup vocalists by none other than Elvis Presley, and Brown was able to perform onstage in Las Vegas with the King himself. After Presley’s tragic death in 1977, Brown signed on with country-folksinger Emmylou Harris and performed with her Hot Band, a stop along the road to success for such high-caliber, innovative musicians as guitarists Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, and Vince Gill.
During the year that followed, Brown began to reconsider his role in the music business; he decided to try his hand at other facets of the recording industry. In 1978 he accepted a leadership role in the A&R department of Los Angeles-based Free Flight Records, a pop subsidiary of RCA. (A&R representatives are responsible for recruiting and nurturing talent at the record label.) When the label was discontinued two years later, he was given the option to remain in California or to transfer to RCA’s Nashville office. The choice was easy: Brown’s roots were in country music, so he returned to Tennessee, where he signed such talented acts as Alabama and Debra Allen to the RCA label.
After ayear in Music City, Brown decided to return to the studio as a musician. Along with Gill and bass player Emory Gordy, Jr., he played keyboards with the Cherry Bombs, the backup band for Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, who were married at the time. Working
Born c. 1947 in Greensboro, NC. Keyboardist for the Oak Ridge Boys and Sweet Inspirations; keyboardist for Stamps Quartet, Las Vegas, NV, 1975-77; member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, 1977-78; head of Artists & Repertoire (A&R), Free Flight Records (an RCA subsidiary), Los Angeles, CA, 1978-80; worked in RCA’s A&R department, Nashville, TN, 1980 and 1983; keyboardist for the Cherry Bombs, c. 1980-83; joined MCA/Nashville’s in-house A&R department, 1984, became executive vice-president and head of A&R, then served as president of MCA/Nashville, 1993—. Has produced records for artists including Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Wynonna, the Mavericks, McBride & the Ride, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Steve Wariner.
Awards: Country Music Association (CMA) Award for production on single of the year, 1991, for Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name”; producer of the year, Billboard, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993.
Addresses: Record comparii; —MCA/Nashville, 60 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37293.
full-time with such musical talent sparked Brown’s interest in the production end of the industry. Calling upon his extensive background knowledge of gospel music, he worked with gospel artist Shirley Caesar on three albums that would culminate in Caesar’s winning the 1984 Grammy Award for best female gospel/soul performance.
After proving his skills as a producer, Brown returned to RCA later in 1983. That same year he produced Steve Wariner’s hit single “Midnight Fire.” Then, shortly after signing former bandmate Gill to RCA, rival MCA/Nashville made Brown an offer he couldn’t refuse: he joined the label in 1984. “I wanted to produce,” he noted in an MCA profile. “MCA was then reorganizing, starting an in-house A&R department with in-house production. In hindsight, it was a good move on my part.”
If it was a good move for Brown, it was certainly one for MCA/Nashville. The list of stars he has signed to the label reads like a who’s who of “Young Country”: Rodney Crowell, Marty Brown, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Marty Stuart, the Mavericks, Tracy Byrd, Trisha Year-wood, Mark Chesnutt, and Gill—whom he wooed from RCA in 1989. And Brown has produced top-selling albums like Reba McEntire’s Rumor Has It; I Still Believe in You by Gill; Wynonna’s self-titled solo debut; Patty Loveless’s Honky Tonk Angel; Marty Stuart’s This One’s Gonna Hurt You; and western swing master George Strait’s Pure Country.
But Brown wasn’t always such a strong force in the country music industry. As Peter Cronin noted in Billboard, “The Nashville powers that be had Brown pegged as a bit too edgy for the mainstream” in his early days with MCA. Brown drew folksinger and songwriter Nanci Griffith to MCA in 1987 and produced Lone Star State of Mind, an album that would become her biggest country hit. Lyle Lovett was another of Brown’s finds; the idiosyncratic musician’s self-titled debut was produced on MCA’s Curb label in 1986. And songwriter-guitarist Steve Earle was signed by Brown in 1986; their work together on that year’s Guitar Town introduced one of the most exciting new Nashville-based talents of the decade. While each of these releases proved to be a watershed for the respective performers’ careers, they showed little, if any, movement on the all-important sales charts for MCA.
Brown, however, remained confident that his musical tastes reflected those of the record-buying public, particularly the country radio audience. “I really, really thought I could make an impact on country radio with those artists. I didn’t end up making an impact on country radio, but I did make an impact on country music.” Artists like Lovett, Griffith, and Earle helped blur the distinctions between country music and the genres of jazz, folk, and rock—and paved the way for an influx of new styles into the country music mix. Finally, Brown’s first big commercial production—Rodney Crowell’s Diamonds and Dirt in 1988—led to a succession of top-selling records that made the producer a key player in Music City circles.
After five singles from Diamonds and Dirt charted, more successes were quick to follow. Country crossover artist Lovett’s 1989 effort, the Tony Brown-produced Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, received that year’s Grammy Award for best vocal performance by a male country artist; Brown’s production of Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” won the Grammy Award for song of the year in 1990, and together the Gill/Brown duo took the same award the following year for “I Still Believe in You.”
In addition to expanding the boundaries of country music, Brown bucked the conventional wisdom that women buy records mainly by male artists who wear hats and look cute. Vocalist Wynonna—a member of the Judds until her mother, Naomi, retired from the duo because of health problems—made her debut album as a solo act with Brown’s capable production. Against industry tradition, Wynonna went double-platinum in 1993. The huge success of that album came on the heels of Brown’s third “producer of the year” award from Billboard; these back-to-back successes propelled him up another rung of the industry ladder.
In a contract maneuver that was preceded by a great deal of speculation in the music industry, Brown replaced Bruce Hinton as president of MCA/Nashville in 1993. While noting that Brown had been unhappy with his existing MCA contract, attorney James Mason told Billboard that the producer “wasn’t looking to leave the place where he’s been that successful.” Brown welcomed his additional responsibilities but made it clear that he would not leave the studio, explaining to Billboard’s Debbie Holley: “I’m not going to turn into such an administrative person that I will dilute my creative position.”
Many music critics agree that there is no overall “Tony Brown Sound.” The reason may be that Brown enters the recording studio confident in the instincts of the musicians he is producing. During studio sessions, he is noted for his light touch—his ability to give his artists the reins while offering subtle guidance. “For me, producing is a feel thing, and it’s contributing to what’s happening in the room,” Brown told Cronin. “Country music is not a producer’s forum like pop music is. Country is an artist’s forum.”
Respect and appreciation for a musical artist as just that—an artist—have earned Brown a reputation as both a sound judge and a prudent creative force in the country music arena. In 1994, with numerous gold, platinum, and multiplatinum albums to his credit, Brown was honored with a Grammy nomination for producer of the year, the first time a member of the country music recording industry had been in contention for that award since 1979.
Billboard, January 30, 1993; February 6, 1993; June 11, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, March 20, 1992; October 30, 1992; March 4, 1994.
GQ, May 1993.
Stereo Review, June 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by MCA publicity materials.
—Pamela L. Shelton
"Brown, Tony." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-tony
"Brown, Tony." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-tony