‘Papa Joe’ Brown memorial
Originally from Amherst, Nova Scotia, Joe Brown was a member of various country groups, starting with The Hillbilly Jewels in the early 1950s. After moving to Hamilton, and then Ottawa, he joined The Happy Wanderers, but by ’67 he decided to take it to the next level and form a group with himself on bass and vocals, his son Barry as the primary vocalist and guitarist, and daughters Tracey and Lawanda on vocals. Guitarist Dave Dennison and drummer Ron Sparling, who also served as the band’s manager, also came on board.
Both Dennison and Sparling had played with Joe previously, and they became regulars at The Plantation, did the local fairs, and took advantage of whatever other exposure they could throughout the Ottawa Valley. By 1970 they’d moved up to travelling across Canada, playing a mix of country covers and gospel standards. After releasing the ill-fated single, “Little Children” b/w “Cooky and Lila” under the name of Joe Brown And The Family on Solid Gold Records in ’72, they caught the attention of MCA Records later that year.
They were rushed off to the studios in Toronto and before the end of the year, released their self-titled debut album under the new monikor of The Brown Family, despite the existence of an American R&B group of the same name. The only single was “R.R. No. 2,” which made it up to #2 on the Canadian country chart.
After moving over to RCA, they followed it up with PORTRAIT in ’72. Three singles found their way on to the charts – the #3 “Family Love,” “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” and the top 20 “The Feeling’s Too Strong.” They were one of the first Canadian groups to cross over from the country chart to both the adult contemporary, as well as the gospel chart, and part of their burgeoning popularity was due to the fact they agreed to host a syndicated program on CTV earlier that year called “Call It Country.” Taped at the network’s Ottawa affiliate’s studio, the variety show featured the band and other musical guests (including Ronnie Prophet and Stompin’ Tom Connors, among others) in front of a live audience.
The show ran for 13 seasons, although the title was later changed to “Country Way,” and then “Family Brown Country.” Due to their commitment to the show, touring was much sparser than before, and that’s the way it would stay for the remainder of the band’s career. But they still managed to release their third album in early 1974, COUNTRY WAY, produced by Ollie Strong. There were no original songs, and they were actually studio versions of some of their most requested tunes to play live during the TV show, including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Stompin’ Tom‘s “Big Joe Mufferaw,” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskokie,” among others. No singles were released, but over the course of the year, three non-album songs were – “Ninety Acre Farm,” the #4 “Kids In The Kitchen,” and the top 20 “Love Is Simple”.
By the time they’d begun recording material for their next project, their TV show was ranked as one of the highest of its type in Canadian history, they’d made several trips across the country, they’d played for former Prime Minister John Deifenbaker’s 80th birthday party, and had even gotten involved in an effort to bring the NHL back to Ottawa, over 20 years before the Senators returned.
With new producer Jack Feeney, 1976’s I AM THE WORDS, YOU ARE THE MUSIC featured more songs written by the band (primarily by Barry) than on previous albums. Leaning heavy on the gospel side, it featured their first #1 single, “If You Keep Throwing Dirt.” Along with “A Touch of God” which cracked the top 20, the title track which crossed over onto the AC chart, and “Light At The End Of The Hall,” other tracks included the cover of Mac Davis’ “I Believe In Music” and “Stand By Me Jesus,” which was a minor hit in the US.
Although nominated for best country group or duo, they went home empty handed at the Juno Awards in ’75 and ’76, but did win back to back RPM Big Country Awards for top group in ’76 and ’77 (and also performed at the ceremonies). They would own that particular award for the next four years. Barry also picked up an RPM award in ’77 for best performance for “If You Keep Throwing Dirt.”
They followed it up with BELIEVE IN US in 1977, which made it to #11 on the Canadian country albums chart. With the exceptions of Guy Clark’s “Virginia Reel” and Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colours,” the bulk of the material was written by Barry, and scored them a pair of top 10 hits in “Jukebox Lover” and “Lovin’ Fool.” The lead-off single, “Sing a Song of Love” also made it to #11. The compilation, BEST OF COUNTRY GOSPEL followed in ’79, which peaked at #7 on the albums chart.
By the time FAMILIAR FACES/FAMILIAR PLACES had run its course later that year, “Love Was On Our Side” had spent over a month on top of the singles chart, while “You’re the Light,” “Love Is a Contact Sport,” and “Stay With Me” had also taken the band to the top 10, and “The Way I Love You” made it to # 26. The album rested at #9, and they were undeniably the top country group in Canada, enjoying their first ever gold album for 50,000 units sold.
In 1980 they released the compilation, THE BEST OF THE FAMILY BROWN, by which point Gary Spicer (steel guitar/banjo/fiddle), had come on board. Along with their biggest hits to date, it also included the band’s arrangements of a pair of traditional songs of faith – “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” both popular in the band’s live shows.
They had their highest charting American single ever in 1981, when “But It’s Cheating,” was re-released and made it to #30, after it topped the Canadian chart when it preceded the NOTHING REALLY CHANGES album. “It’s Really Love This Time” followed. And like “Another Broken Hearted Melody,” it made it to the Canadian top 10, while “Ribbon of Gold” reached #18. The American version was slightly different, with “Coat of Many Colours” added, as well as the previously unreleased “Antique,” “Sing A Song Of Love,” and “Old Rugged Cross.”
After making their first of several successful tours over the next few years to Europe, the hits kept coming in 1982, when RAISED ON COUNTRY was released. The lead single, “Some Never Stand a Chance” made it to #4 on the country chart, #27 on the AC chart, and was also a minor hit Stateside. It also took home a pair of CCMA (Canadian Country Music Association) awards that year. The title track and “Memorized By Heart” both also peaked inside the top 10 in Canada, and helped them earn a third CCMA, for group of the year.
Looking for new influences, they travelled to Nashville to record part of the next album at Music City Music Hall, working with new producers Norro Wilson and Tony Brown (no relation). Longtime producer Jack Feeney meanwhile oversaw the Toronto sessions. The result was 1984’s REPEAT AFTER ME, which featured all originals, although some session writers were utilized on a few tracks. The album won the award for album of the year, and they also picked up group of the year honours at that year’s CCMAs, as they watched “We Really Got a Hold on Love” and the title track both peak inside the Canadian top 5, and both also charted in the US.
“Did You Know and “Straight Forward Love Affair” meanwhile both also made it to the top 20 at home. The album was also one of their most popular, crossing over to the AC chart and scoring with both the title track and “Straight Forward Love Affair.” The album was certified gold in Canada, and also helped earn them their first ever Juno the following spring, for country group of the year, after six nominations, but never taking home the doorstop.
With new producers Neil Wilburn and Sam Durrence, FEEL THE FIRE in 1986 was another cross-border success, when the lead-off title track reached #22 in Canada and #66 in the US in late ’85. The following spring, “What If It’s Right” followed, peaking at #8 at home and #80 in the US, the last time they would see American chart success. “Wouldn’t You Love Us Together Again” made it to #46 on the Canadian chart, and before all was done, “I Love You More” found its way to #10 in early ’87. But 1986 was also a year of transition for the band, and the family, when Joe died as the result of a coronary aneurysm after a show in Chesley, Ontario that May at the age of 60.
With the TV show also having been cancelled, the family was at a crossroads, but decided to continue under The Family Brown name, with Tracey’s husband Randall Prescott joining. He also served as producer when they decided to go back to the studios in the fall of ’87.
The stand-alone single, “Overnight Success” made it to #21, and they returned with the new album, THESE DAYS the following spring. With less emphasis on gospel and leaning towards a more definitive pop/country mix, four more singles worked their way up the chart, led by the #1 “Til I Find My Love,” which also crossed over to AC chart, resting at #19. “Town of Tears” and “Let’s Build a Life Together” also made their way to the top 10, while “Sure Looks Good” stalled at #22 in early 1989.
Returning to television, the band agreed to be part of longtime friend Ronnie Prophet‘s new show, which was dubbed “Ronnie ‘n’ The Browns.” Like the Brown’s three shows, it was taped in Ottawa at CJOH’s studio and ran for two seasons, starting in 1989.
Partially a greatest hits compilation, their last album as The Family Brown was LIFE AND TIMES 1982 – 1989. They enjoyed chart success with two new singles – “Pioneers” (which earned them their last CCMA for single of the year) and “How Many Times,” which peaked at #13 and #3, respectively. Though they’d been nominated for ten Junos over their career, they won only their second award in 1990, again for country group of the year.
That same year saw their swan song album hit the stores, LASSOES & SPURS, but no singles were released. Following their disbanding after their final performance in September, 1990 at the Kanata Kountry Fair, Tracey went on to score a #6 hit with the duet with Terry Carisse, “Start of Something New.” Tracey and Barry then formed Prescott Brown & Lonesome Daddy, which morphed into Prescott-Brown. The trio charted nine singles in the early ’90s and was nominated for another Juno Award in 1995. Following that group’s tenure, Tracey then went on to a successful solo career, charting twice more.
The Family Brown meanwhile was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. Along with a pair of Juno wins and 14 RPM awards, the most of any Canadian artist or group ever, they also walked away with 20 CCMA awards, another record, while charting 43 singles in Canada, 24 of which made the top 10. ‘Papa Joe’ was inducted posthumously into the CCMA Hall of Honor in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Longtime manager and drummer Ron Sparling was inducted into the Hall of Honor in 1990. A street in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean was named Family Brown Lane in 1989.