See Willie Brown’s Death Certificate, and learn more about the mysterious bluesman.
Below is a photo of Willie Brown’s Death Certificate, as discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow in 1965.
For general information on Willie Brown, including information on his final resting place, check out this post. If you are interested in visiting his grave, check out the location as noted on The Google Maps Project.
We all know the generals about Willie Brown. A great sideman who played with the greats, including Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson. We know where he lived and played. For the most part, we know his recordings. But, there is also some mystery surrounding good old Willie Brown. You know how we love mystery.
Even though he died in 1952, there are no known photos of him.
This one to me, is just a bit odd. I mean, as the Death Certificate lists above, Brown died in 1952. Why are there no pictures? The first 35mm camera was developed in 1913. By 1948, the Polaroid camera was introduced. How can it be that a man that died just a few years later has no photos? He performed with Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and more. We have photos of those guys. No one ever thought to snap a picture of this guy? I mean, we are talking about a performer who played with some of the greats. he went to recording sessions where other photos were taken of the performers. Where are the Willie Brown photos? There has to be some out there – maybe they just haven’t been identified yet.
He was listed to be notified in the case of Robert Johnson’s death.
According to an ex-employer of Robert Johnson, Willie Brown was the person to be notified in the event of Johnson’s death. It turns out, Brown was actually a mentor to Robert, and quite an established sideman and friend to Robert Johnson. Though it is difficult to track down the actual ex-employer, it is believed to be common knowledge that this was the case. What is strange is the fact that Johnson, who was legally married twice, didn’t choose to list a wife to be notified in the event of his death. Nor did he choose to notify his sister(s), or other family. Instead, he chose Willie Brown.
There are rumors circulating he recorded under the name Kid Bailey.
Whether you believe this or not is up to you. However, it is a fairly easy rumor to dispel. Some researchers have previously reported that the Kid Bailey recordings sound very similar – in fact too similar – to not be WIllie Brown. The fact of the matter is, Willie Brown never recorded as Kid Bailey. He recorded with Kid Bailey. Several witnesses, including Elizabeth Moore discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow, have said in interviews that they saw – first hand – Brown and Bailey playing together. Elizabeth Moore stated:
Well him [Brown] and that kid [Bailey] made music together sometimes. That fellow’s been with Willie Brown playin’ right there at Lake Carmen. I seed him in person. I don’t know where he lived at. I just know they’d be over there to the juke on Saturday night. …[Willie] where’s you been? and he say, ‘Me and Kid been out making some records.’
Elizabeth didn’t believe him at first, until she heard the recordings. She quickly identified “Rowdy Blues” as a song Willie Brown both played and sang. Being that Elizabeth knew Willie Brown since he was around 16, she seems to be a reliable witness. The fact that Bailey and Brown have near identical styles of play doesn’t help the matter. But Willie Brown is not Kid Bailey. They are two separate blues performers who happened to play together frequently.
There is more than one Willie Brown from the same place, doing the same thing.
This can make it quite confusing – but actually, there are three WIllie Browns playing blues throughout the delta. However, we can discount William Brown of the Sadie Black Plantation who lived and played in the Arkansas Delta. Even though Alan Lomax would later confuse him with one of our other Browns, he is not the WIllie we are referring to.
That leaves two Willie Browns. Want to be confused even more? They both were known to have played with Charlie Patton. That’s right – two Willie Browns playing with Patton. So who is who? Who recorded? What is going on? Well, one Brown was chunky, heavyset, and described as being 6 feet tall and about 230 pounds. He was described as having a big round face. The other Brown was described as being “No bigger than Charlie” or “smaller than Charlie”, weighing no more than 135. So how do we know which is which? Easy – we go to the music.
As we all know, there are reports of Willie Brown living and playing in Drew. But when Gayle Dean Wardlow played the Willie Brown recordings to Dick Bankston, a blues artist who knew and played with Brown in Drew, and he could not identify the recordings as being from the Brown he knew. Though the Brown he knew did introduce him to Charlie Patton in Drew in 1912. He also claimed that the Brown he knew didn’t make any records. He also claimed this Brown – the heavy set larger one – moved to Memphis and died around 1940. The other Willie Brown, the smaller one, the one that recorded, could not be the same man. Ernest Brown, a gambler turned preacher discovered by Steve LaVere, had known Patton, Johnson, and Willie Brown. He even stated he lived on the Peerman Plantation with a young Willie, and met him again later in Robinsonville. Reverend Brown said Willie lived on that plantation with him from about 1909 until 1915, and left when he learned guitar. This ties in with Willie Moore and Elizabeth Moore meeting Willie in 1916. So wait – how could Willie have been living in Drew in 1912 and living on the Peerman Plantation? He can’t – there must be two Browns.
More evidence there were two Browns who played with Patton:
At least nine different sources had two completely different physical descriptions of him;
Different people had different reactions to the recordings of Willie Brown;
The Death Certificate an statements from Son House about when the Willie Brown he played with died.
Willie Brown played a large role in shaping and developing delta blues.
Most people don’t realize how good Willie Brown actually was. He preferred to play “second” when he played, but he was a very skilled, and accomplished blues musician. He had a large knowledge of a wide variety of songs, and could play almost anything. He had a unique style, which he developed along side some of the greatest blues musicians ever to live including Johnson, Patton, House, and others. One would be hard pressed to find another delta artist as underestimated as Brown. Some local legends even have hom being the composer of several of Patton’s songs including “Pony Blues.”
Look to this site for more info, specifically concerning raising a marker on the grave of Willie Brown in Prichard, MS.