The Six Brown Brothers were a sextet of Canadian saxophonists (or should I say a saxtet of Canadian sexophonists? Perhaps not) The group is largely credited with helping to popularize the sax, which (unlike most instruments used in western music which go back for centuries) had been invented in 1846. The father of this large brood (there was also a musical sister named Myrtle) all played multiple instruments. They performed in various numerical configurations in the early years, and they always shuttled back and forth between circus, minstrelsy and vaudeville.
The founder of the act that became the Six Brown Brothers was Tom, the second oldest (1881-1950), who dressed in a blackface** tramp get up. Four of them were performing as The Brown Brothers as early as 1906; by 1911 all six of them had joined (and at various times, other musicians were part of the act as well). In 1914, they put down their other instruments and concentrated on the sax, which they played with a lot of comedy, often dressed as clowns or a uniformed band backing up their blackface leader Tom. They used the squeaks and squawks of the sax as comical sound effects in addition to playing straight tunes. Their heyday saw them through vaudeville, Ringling Bros. circus, Primrose and Dockstaders Minstrels, and several Broadway shows. The act collapsed around the same time that vaudeville did, in 1933. For more information on them, see this wonderful essay. And listen to them below. After a few seconds, you’ll realize why they called this piece “the Chicken Walk”; the saxes sound kind of like a barnyard full of hens.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.