If ‘Nashville Cats’ is a song about musicians, Tony Brown is the ultimate ‘Nashville Cat’, who not only went from side-man, to running record labels, but also became one of the most legendary producers ‘in music history’ thanks to Jimmy Bowen and one of the most astute businessmen on The Row.
The cool part is… Tony remembers, cherishes and will share with you, every detail of every moment of his career, right back to his humble beginnings playing piano with JD Sumner & The Stamps, The Oak Ridge Boys, Emmylou Harris, The Cherry Bombs and Elvis Presley. And he does it with ‘hunk of burnin’ love’ and a huge sense of humor.
While serving as president of MCA Nashville, for nearly two decades, before departing to co-found Universal South Records, with Tim DuBois, Tony signed a plethora of newcomers to label deals including Alabama, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Todd Snider, Allison Moorer, The Mavericks, Shooter Jennings and more, while his iconic production discography came to include the likes of REBA, George Strait, Wynonna, Vince Gill, Sara Evans, Brooks & Dunn, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Streisand, Billy Joe, and Cyndi Lauper.
Tony’s historic achievements and contributions have been honored with 4 CMA Awards for ‘Single of The Year’ and 6 for ‘Album of The Year, 2 ACM ‘Producer of The Year’ Awards, an ACM ‘Vocal Event of The Year, 2 ACM ‘Single of The Year’, 2 ACM ‘Album of The Year’ Awards, 2 TNN Awards for ‘Single of The Year’ and 1for ‘Album of The Year’.
He’s been called the founding father of the Americana Country Movement, he received a Producer/Engineer Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Assoc., a Grammy nomination for ‘Producer of The Year, a Grammy for ‘Album of the Year’ for George Strait’s Troubadour and is accredited with producing 9 Grammy Winning Songs.
Over the course of his career, Tony has produced over 100 #1 singles with record level sales, exceeding the $100 million mark… And here are a few more accolades…
- 1972 – Best Gospel Instrumentalist – Gospel Music Association
- 1995 – Outstanding Creative Achievement – Record Producer – TEC Awards (Technical Excellence & Creativity)
- 1995 & 1997 – Outstanding Producer – Nashville Music Awards
- 1997 – “Pioneer Award” for “Distinguished Achievement in the Recording Industry: Country Crossover Music” – International Achievement in Arts Awards
- 2004 – “Dale Franklin Leadership Award” – Leadership Music
- 2009 – The Cecil Scaife Visionary Award
- 2013 – Inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame
But the truth is… He’d much rather tell stories than talk trophies. And his most recent are, as one would expect… iconic, to say the least.
After receiving a Grammy Nom for her TO MEMPHIS WITH LOVE blues album and a Tony Award for KINKY BOOTS, ‘Super Star’ Cyndi Lauper came to Nashville in 2015 to record a country album and you guessed it … Tony got the gig. Then, in 2016 Tony also produced Reba’s 16th # 1 album LOVE SOMEBODY, while preparing to launch Velvet Stone Management, with legendary attorney John Mason in partnership with Melissa Core & Rick Caballo, owners of Dead Horse Branding … All of whom, are gearing up currently, for the launch n release of Tony’s newly published coffee-table book ‘Elvis, Strait to Jesus’, a photographic journal of Tony’s illustrious career, accompanied by a documentary memorializing, the making of the book.
I once saw a list of the 100 most important people in ‘the music industry’. Tony Brown was on the list.
The Producer’s Chair: What led to your playing keys for Elvis?
Tony Brown: Donnie Sumner called me and told me J.D. fired him and he says J.D. doesn’t realize it but Elvis really likes me. Donnie says to grab my piano, bring it over, because Elvis wants to start a gospel group. One night, Glen D says hey man, I’m going to quit Elvis and go tour with Emmylou and the tour’s a year long. I asked him to put my name in the hat and I ended getting the job with Elvis. I was 30.
After Elvis passed away, Glen D was leaving Emmylou to go on tour with John Denver and I got that job. Then Emmylou gets pregnant and quits touring and so the old hot band becomes the Cherry Bombs. So we’re all living in L.A. and Rodney Crowell says, hey guys why don’t we start playing these clubs up and down Long Beach and San Francisco, charge at the door and see what we make. It got pretty big and then he married Rosanne Cash and she gets the record deal with CBS. We cut a bunch of big records (The Cherry Bombs with Rosanne). Now Rosanne gets pregnant and has to stop. So finally I go back to David Briggs and say man, I got to get a real job. As the side man, you’re only as good until the artist gets pregnant or dies. He tells me that Jerry Bradley is wanting to open up a pop label out in L.A. and he’s having a hard time hiring an A&R person. David told Jared about me and Jared hired me. I signed Alabama, I had no idea they would be so huge. Then Jimmy Bowen tells me that’s he’s secretly going to take over MCA and he wants me to be his A&R guy there. He said he could make me into a producer. So I got hired for the job and it changed my life.
PC: How many albums did you produce on George Strait?
TB: 19. I did 37 of his 60 #1’s.
PC: Congratulations on Reba’s 16th #1 on Billboard, LOVE SOMEBODY, this past year. What is your all-time favorite Reba song?
TB: Fancy’. It’s the staple of her music repertoire. I don’t think Bowen would let her cut it and Reba says I want to cut Fancy. I later found out they didn’t want her to record it because the song was about a prostitute and I didn’t know that.
PC: Was the Lionel Richie/Tuskegee album the first time you’d been approached by an artist from a different genre to do an album with a bunch of country stars?
TB: Yes. I also did one with Barbra Streisand. That was a total thrill. I also did another will Billy Joel, but they were not with country artists.
PC: How did you select the artists that were going to be on Tuskegee?
TB: Lionel and I both did. He wanted Lady Antebellum on there but they couldn’t do it because they were promoting their new album. So I suggested Little Big Town. We both talked about it. That was a blast to cut too. The only thing I didn’t cut was Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts, and Billy Currington.
PC: What was the most outstanding moment for you on that album?
TB: First session which was Darius Rucker, ‘Stuck On You’. He walked in and just killed me. Tim McGraw was killer. Lionel whispers to me, to tell Willie to get closer to the microphone, when he sings and neither of us knew him. I told Willie and Willie said I don’t think I sound that good. I said if you just sing like Willie Nelson, it will be good. So he pulled his chair closer and that was a take.
PC: Can you share one of your most memorable Elvis stories?
TB: We would go to Beverly Hills and play at his house or Palm Springs. We’ve never played at Graceland. One night in Palm Springs, they would say hey voice, check into Holiday Inn and when he [Elvis] wakes up and wants to sit in a room and sing, you be there. So Elvis was going to bed and everyone had to clear out so I asked if I could stay. I’m just there sitting on the couch and at about 5:30, here comes Elvis in his boxer shorts and he says, ‘Hey man, what are you doing here?’ I said I’m just watching TV. He said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ And he goes back to bed and I’m like okay I can go now, I just talked to the king.
The Producer’s Chair: Had you ever met Cyndi Lauper prior to producing DETOUR?
Tony Brown: Never. Her last record was about 5 years ago. It was a concept album about the blues in Memphis. It was sort of a cover album of that period. She wanted to do the same thing Nashville; songs from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. I convinced her to let me assemble an A-team here in Nashville. She and Seymour Stein came here and I was just as fascinated to meet him as I did her. He was just so famous. She interviewed with Cris Lacy at Warner Brothers and got her interviews with every current producer like Dann Huff, Paul Worley, Byron Gallimore, Nathan Chapman, and Frank Rogers, everyone currently making records in Nashville. Somehow I got on that list and when she hired me, I told her. “Please don’t tell me it’s because I played with Elvis Presley.” Cyndi said that was actually the reason and that I get the era of music she’s talking about. She grew up listening to those songs on the radio in Queens. She came up with the concept and her and I went through hundreds and hundreds of songs – anybody from back in the day.
She brought her engineer, Bill Wittman, who has been doing her records from the very beginning. I was about to fight her to use Chuck Ainley but, hat became a deal breaker and I said no problem. Thank God she brought Bill because he knew all of her quirks.
I’ve never worked with an artist who only does the track vocal. Jimmy Bowen taught me to do the vocals after each track. Do 5 or 6 vocals while the artist is in that zone. Some artists think ‘let’s wait until next week when my voice is fresh.’ After we cut, I asked did she want to do the vocals now or next week? She said; I just did it. I was just asking about the final vocal. She said that was my final vocal.
I started studying her singing and she’s a stylist. When you think of Cyndi Lauper, you think ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. She’s a great singer. I reminded the band that she’s going to go for it and you all have to go for it too.
PC: Considering the guests on the album, Emmylou, Vince, Willie, Jewel and Alison Kraus, there must have been several special moments. Can you share a couple?
TB: Getting duet partners to be on the same schedule is challenging, but it just so happened Willie Nelson was in town cutting a record with Buddy Cannon the same week. So we snagged him after he finished recording, to do ‘Night Life’. She had never worked with Willie and she held him on a pedestal. Like she had stars in her eyes. I ended up playing on that. You have to be good with no screw ups because time is money and when I came in to play, I was nervous but it was such a rush. Afterwards, I went back into the control room and it was such a thrill. Don Was told me to, every once in a while, play on a record and it will blow your mind. I called him afterwards and said Don I just played on a Cyndi Lauper’s record with Willie Nelson. It was so much fun.
On the original track of, ‘The End Of The World, there’s an arpeggio that was played. I said we got to have that arpeggio but it can’t be on piano because that dates it to sound old timey. Tom Bukovac who’s like the best guitar player in Nashville right now says; I got an idea. So he did the arpeggio on his guitar and turned on some of that old reverb in the finder amp and it was just … oh my God. When she finished singing, I was like in tears and she walked out of the vocal booth and she was crying. I thought that was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever heard. The rough mix from that track ended up being the final mix. It was one of those magic moments.
PC: Tell me about your new book and documentary. How did that come about?
TB: Rick and Melissa suggested that I write a book. I wanted to write an autobiography but the publishers in New York told me that it wouldn’t sell and I would probably waste 6 years unless I just really wanted to write one. I wanted to pull each person from a segment of my life.
So Melissa, Rick, and I have been going through my old pictures from all these different segments of my life. My first job as a musician was with a gospel group with J.D Sumner. If J.D. was alive, he’d be in the documentary, but I’m going to use his nephew, Donnie. Donnie represents that part of my life. I have pictures of me with The Stamps Quartet and Donnie Sumner. J.D. fired Donnie from the Stamps Quartet, Elvis hired Donnie to start a gospel group around his house. And that’s how I ended up working with Elvis.
Melissa and Rick are filming as people are coming into my house and sit down and talk and they’re interviewing everybody: Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Lionel Richie, etc. The documentary will be a combination of the videos and my book. We’ll probably wrap it by me doing an interview. Basically, the documentary is the making of the book in real time. It’s going to have pictures mainly of each person in the chair and a couple paragraphs of why they’re in that chair.
PC: Can you talk about your latest venture, Velvet Stone Management and your first signing, Mark O’Connor?
TB: John Mason, Melissa Core, Rick Caballo and I have been talking about doing this for a while and finally we were able to pull the trigger on it. It has to line up. I realize it, I think John realizes it. To me, for Rick and Melissa not to know who Mark O’Connor was to me was a real test to see if they would be bedazzled or just impressed a little bit. They were totally bedazzled. I know because Mark just blows me away. Rick and Melissa have great taste as far as branding, music, style, everything. They’re good people. We were thinking about having an artist that already has an established fan base but new. Mark was a session player, but he was a violinist. He won CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year 6 years in a row.
PC: How long have you known Mark?
TB: ‘Back-in-the-day’ at MCA, I went to Mark and he tells me that he already has a deal at Warner Brothers. Eventually, he moved to San Diego and started working with a symphony. He told me since you want me to be on your label, I got Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and myself – we have a combo called, Strength In Numbers, and we’ve been writing some songs. Let us do a record for you and I can be on MCA, in that band. So he did it and it was one of our biggest records.
Recently, he sends me an email telling me he has a band that consists of his family called The O’Connor Band. He says we’re playing at the City Winery … will you come out and see us? I say absolutely. I asked him could I bring along my partners, Melissa and Rick, and he says absolutely. They had no idea who he was but they were just blown away. After the show, we went backstage to meet him and everything just fell into place. Mark said he was so glad to see me and I was just amazed at their band. The O’Connor Band is actually up for a Grammy on their first record. I think they have a real chance at winning. The album is called COMING HOME. It’s in the Roots category under ‘Best Bluegrass Album’.
PC: Is Velvet Stone going to be doing artist development?
PC: Do you and John Mason go back, a long way?
TB: In the middle of my MCA deal when Jimmy Bowen left to go to Capitol Records, I was executive vice president and Bruce Hinton was the CEO. I hired John and he made me a deal that changed my whole life. He said if I had one second of hesitancy, he’d better not see it. I said; I totally trust you. The first record I did on George Strait, sold 6 million records. The record that Bowen was supposed to produce, was going to be on The Judds but Naomi got hepatitis. The record I got to produce was Wynonna’s first record. It also sold 6 million records. So John believed in my creative ability and I believed in his ability to make a deal. John likes to pretend he’s not a music guy but he totally is. He’s worked with Donna Summers, Brian Wilson, Frankie Valli, Reba, Jimmy Bowen – he’s been around great things. He knows the difference between bad, good, great, and the best.
Photo Credits: Dead Horse Branding