Bobby Brown -a legend in his own time
Bobby Brown playing at the Scottish Studies
Society's Tartan Day Celebration in 2006
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of the Scottish Studies newsletter "The Scots Canadian" sadly just a few weeks before his death.
As an individual performer, member of two Scottish country dance bands, musical director of the internationally renowned fiddle troupe The Cape Breton Symphony and current leader of The Scottish Accent, Bobby Brown has been a leading proponent of Scottish Country Dance and traditional Scottish music in Canada, the United States, Britain and Europe for 50 years. Moreover, he is actively engaged in the perpetuation and expansion of this Scottish Heritage by encouraging young Canadian musicians to learn and preserve the traditional songs and tunes to that heritage.
Robert Watt Brown was born in Dennyloanhead, Scotland in 1941. His father, John Brown, as a young man, spent time in Canada where he tried his luck searching for gold in the Yukon. Perhaps this early adventuring may have implanted some prenatal urge among his children to return to seek their pot of gold and rainbow's end in Canada, for Bobby and his two sisters, Christine and Jean, subsequently all made their homes in Canada. Bobby's second name, Watt, is a label to be worn proudly. A distant relative among his forebears was James Watt (1736-1819), whom everyone knows as the inventor of the steam engine.
Bobby grew up in a family devoted to the field of Scottish musical entertainment.
His mother, Jean Day, was widely known throughout Scotland as a concert soprano, often performing with Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe. His father was a fiddler, and several uncles were pipers and drummers. Uncle John Day formed one of the early dance bands. As children of a nationally known singer and a father who was a "passing fair" violinist, it is not surprising that Bobby and his sisters all had music lessons. As a wee boy, Bobby played the mouth organ, but later his instrument was the piano. It was not until he went to Canada and could only afford to buy an accordion that he learned to play one - mainly self-taught.
In 1957, Bobby Brown emigrated from Scotland to Canada where he joined his sister Christine. He brought with him his knowledge and love of traditional Scottish music, coming from a family of musicians. Starved for his native music, Bobby befriended pipers and drummers in the local pipe band and shortly after, began taking accordion lessons. Through his other sister Jean, he met a trio of Scots musicians who had begun to play for Country Dancing in Hamilton. Two of these, newly arrived in Canada also, were living in London, Ontario - Stan Hamilton and Bobby Frew. One thing led to another and soon Bobby Brown had been added to this trio as second accordionist. Up to this point in his life the accordion had been a plaything, now here was the challenge to become its master. Here too was the opportunity to delve deeply into the rich treasures of the traditional Scottish music that provides a unique setting for its national dancing.
What followed is part of Scottish Country Dance history. For the next seventeen years, the two Bobbies and Stan Hamilton, with an evolving back-row of bass and drum players (of whom Don Wood and Fred Collins are known as the most outstanding and still play with Bobby in The Scottish Accent band today) comprised 'the great band" known as The Clansman to become later The Flying Scotsmen. Despite a full-time career in the engineering industry, Bobby maintained a grueling schedule as an individual performer and as a key member of one of North America's most respected bands. This band made appearances at the New York World's Fair, Grand Bahamas hotel, Scottish Country Dance functions, Burns Suppers, Highland Games, Celtic heritage festivals across Canada and USA and on national television.
By the 1970s Bobby Brown was developing additional musical interests. He had become acquainted with many of the old-time fiddlers, who among other things, congregate annually at Shelburne, Ontario, not far from Bobby's home in Brampton. In 1973, he was invited to share with the celebrated folk singer and entertainer John Allan Cameron in arranging, producing and performing in a musical series on the national CBC television network and later on CTV. Bobby was instrumental in the formation of The Cape Breton Symphony Fiddlers, a unique group of four Nova Scotian musicians specializing in the Cape Breton style of Scottish fiddle music, who performed regularly on the show. They also appeared many times on other television variety shows, including The Tommy Hunter Show and Bob McLean Show, and at the annual Canada Day celebrations at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
Bobby has always had an affinity with fiddlers, enjoyed playing the piano and producing albums for them.
Other touring and broadcasting opportunities followed so that by 1976 Bobby made the crucial decision to become a full-time professional musician and to leave the Stan Hamilton band, to more easily schedule his own musical activities. Bobby was given the opportunity to become heavily involved in folk music (television and tours) as an entertainer manager, but it would mean leaving Scottish music, as there would no time to commit to dates.
Despite the lure of huge salaries and fame in folk music, deep down Bobby knew that he wanted to play the music he loved most - Scottish music. He took a huge financial risk, leaving a full-time management position and giving up folk music opportunities to pursue his one true love - Scottish music. Very soon afterwards, his own Scottish country dance band known as The Scottish Accent was formed. This band plays all over North America - from east to west and north to south - and travels extensively in all types of weather to bring live music to dancers. It has become the leading Scottish country dance band in North America.
The field of traditional Scottish and country dance music is outside the popular mainstream and few performers are willing to commit their careers to this type of artistic expression, which requires specialized historic knowledge and a high level of musical proficiency. Consequently Bobby and his band have traveled extensively to support a variety of Scottish cultural events with their authentic traditional live music in strict tempo. The band also contributes its considerable entertainment appeal to free concerts at senior citizens homes, community gatherings and fundraisers.
As a composer and arranger in his own right, Bobby maintains one of the few original manuscript libraries of traditional Scottish Music in the world. This is a rich resource, which is utilized constantly during preparations for both live performances and numerous recordings for which this individual has always demanded strict quality and integrity. Bobby has been involved in the production and arranging of over 100 recordings of Scottish Canadian Music by various artists. With his own band, The Scottish Accent and The Cape Breton Symphony, he has now recorded over 20 albums, with special guests including Alasdair Fraser, Graham Townsend, John Allan Cameron, and Christine Scott.
He has worked on stage with other Scottish and Canadian performers such as Moira Anderson, Andy Stewart, Hamish Imlach, Robin Brock, Alex Beaton, Peter Glen, John Carmichael, Billy Meek, Rita McNeil, Edith Butler, The Rankins, Ashley MacIsaac and has appeared on numerous television and radio broadcasts. His production company, Brownrigg Productions, also leased the rights to several popular Scottish LPs and manufactured and marketed them in Canada under his label. These included popular artists such as Jimmy Shand, Jim MacLeod, and Ron Gonnella. Bobby has toured Britain and parts of Europe with both The Scottish Accent band and The Cape Breton Symphony Fiddlers, and other artists to marvelous reviews.
As well, with grant support from the Canadian government, he has taken musical shows to West Germany and Ireland and has toured across Canada. In 1984 he was invited with supporting players to perform at the University Games in Edmonton, winning commendations from the honorary patrons of the occasion, TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales. He has shared his love for Scottish music with audiences at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, The Alaska State Fair, the Pan Celtic Festival, Scottish World Festival at the Canadian National Exhibition and numerous folk festivals and fairs across Canada. The Scottish Accent band was the first and only band in North America to broadcast live from Toronto for BBC's Take The Floor and was also the only band outside Scotland to record for the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
Still today, Bobby plays regularly for Scottish Country Dance events - workshops, dances, classes, candidate's exams and balls, across North America. T.A.C. (Teacher's Association Canada) annually runs a weeklong summer school, and Bobby Brown and The Scottish Accent provide music for both social dancing and for classes each year. His band is known for their unique sound and energy with a good drive and rock solid tempo. Bobby's encyclopedic knowledge and his love of traditional Scottish music make his work and his band's music stand apart.
His arrangements and settings have made The Scottish Accent band tremendously successful. Bobby has given many workshops for musicians during Summer School and Thistle School (North Carolina) as well as in various other places, providing leadership and encouragement to others to keep Scottish traditional music alive. He has accomplished this latter, by helping with the production of recordings of other musicians and has passed his love of traditional Scottish music and heritage to his son, Laird. Laird is now not only second accordion player for The Scottish Accent but is actively involved in playing for classes around North America and assisting his father in the studio with the production and arranging of various musical projects. Bobby has just recently produced Laird's first album as a lead player.
In the last few years, Bobby's great concern with maintaining the standards of "real" Scottish music as opposed to what many consider the real thing has encouraged him to take on the onerous job of tutor, teaching young musicians what makes for really good traditional Scottish music.
His real concern with maintaining the highest standard is beginning to produce some visible results in the United States. Other musicians who have played with him over the years in his band, or been under his tutelage as "apprentices" have gone on to become professional musicians or form their own band or be part of a band playing Scottish music, particularly in the United States. Including for example, Paul Langley (principal bassist of Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada), Jim Creeggan (bass of Barenaked Ladies), Rob Wolanski (principal bass of Hamilton Philharmonic), Steve Ozorak (accordion for Music Makars in USA), Barbara McGowan, Mara Shea, (both fiddlers in USA).
Understanding that cultural preservation is dependent upon the devoted cultivation and transition of knowledge, Bobby has encouraged and taught many young Canadians in their pursuit of excellence in the field of Scottish music. At workshops and classes, Bobby sets aside his performer responsibilities to become an engaging teacher and eagerly instructs participants in the subtle idiomatic nuances of traditional Scottish music. Recently he has started writing articles for RSCDS branch newsletters in the hopes of educating dancers about the music they are dancing to.
Bobby has always kept his finger on the pulse of music in Scotland. Besides the tours of Scotland he organized, he visits regularly. He also maintains constant contact with many friends in Scotland, who are also bandleaders and involved in Scottish music. His CDs are available in Scotland and are featured on BBC Scotland radio broadcasts, particularly Take The Floor. Many of the younger bandleaders are well aware of Bobby Brown's influence on Scottish traditional music, particularly dance bands.
Bobby has devoted his life to the playing, researching, recording and teaching of Scottish Dance Music. He loves playing and Scottish music is in his soul.
Ed: Thanks to John D. and Catherine Shaw for sending us this article.