Tony Brown ‘germed’ bully bruiser Charles Bronson and lived to tell about it
Short in stature but overflowing with intellect and determination, Elvis Presley sideman Tony Brown was bullied in school. Even as the third son of a fire and brimstone preacher advanced up the ladder into a MCA Nashville record label kingpin, his childhood tormentors were not forgotten. Vicarious revenge was attained through repeated screenings of Charles Bronson films. Serendipitously, Brown bumped knuckles with the twilight-approaching Death Wish action hero at a Whitney Houston fundraiser in New York City. To access the debut installment of Brown’s exclusive summit, detailing the time he nearly mounted surviving Bee Gee Barry Gibb’s Nashville comeback, go here.
The Tony Brown Interview, Part Two
Your father Floyd Brown worked at a dairy farm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, until he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live in 1953. He abandoned his job and became a born-again evangelist when you were six years old. Miraculously, for the next 20 years he hit the road preaching “come to Jesus” sermons inside churches of various denominations. The Brown Family Singers, also incorporating your mama Mattie and your three siblings, were melodically inspired and accompanied these worship services. African American congregations incorporated your favorite music. What was most striking — you went to gigs in the family station wagon with “Jesus Saves” painted on the trunk!
Dad painted free handed, and it was blue and yellow and pretty crude. I was so embarrassed. He’d take me to school, and I’d say, “Drop me off right here. I’ll just walk the rest of the way.” He’d counter with, “I want all the kids to see my sign.” He also made us carry a Bible to school every day. There was a Bible club, and I had to be a part of that. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have changed anything about the way I was raised.
Taking up piano as a 13-year-old adolescent whose “feet barely touched the pedals,” did you experience bullying at school?
Oh yeah. I’m five foot five, and I was always small for my age. Our family was very poor. I was bullied by the cool jocks. They used to come and do those little things where they would get a knuckle on your arm, bump it, and make it pop up. It made me feel frustrated, and I’ve always wished that I could get back at those people who picked on me. I don’t want it to sound like I’m bitter. I started liking Charles Bronson movies where he got revenge [laughs]. His films still resonate with me.
Coincidentally, I share a November 3 birthday with Bronson and was viewing Rider on the Rain, a transfixing French psychological thriller issued soon after Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the night before our interview.
I was at a party in New York City at David Gest’s penthouse [August 16, 1999]. The evening was a fundraiser for Whitney Houston’s Foundation for Children, and she and Bobby Brown were there along with a bunch of people like Trisha Yearwood, the Four Tops, Gloria Gaynor, Stephanie Powers, Jane Powell, Clive Davis, and songwriter Diane Warren. Michael Jackson was supposed to attend, but he failed to show. I was dumbfounded when in walks Charles Bronson!
I was so fixated on being in the same room as Bronson. Seeing him in that group was a bigger deal than seeing Whitney and Bobby just because I had always imagined, ‘I’ll never meet Charles Bronson in my life. Under what circumstance could such a thing happen?’ I remember going, ‘Oh my God, there he is right there.’ I germed him pretty bad [laughs]. That word means you go up to somebody important and kinda make a fool of yourself. I never met Prince. Or Michael Jackson. But if I had met them, what would I have said? With Bronson I probably trotted out the same old BS that he heard all the time — “I love your work!” He was not a big man, more of a regular-sized guy [5' 9"]. But he was badass in his movies. Denzel Washington has taken Bronson’s mantle and carried it admirably in the new millennium [e.g. Man on Fire, The Equalizer, The Equalizer 2, The Magnificent Seven — the original 1960 blockbuster was coincidentally a stepping stone in Bronson’s formative years — and The Little Things].
[Author’s Note: From Noon Till Three leading lady Jill Ireland, the true love of Bronson’s life, succumbed to breast cancer in 1990 after a six-year ordeal. Bronson grew fond of Kim Weeks, who had assisted Ireland in recording the audiobooks of her two memoirs. They became husband and wife in 1998. Family of Cops III: Under Suspicion ended Bronson’s career with a whimper. Filmed in the fall of 1997, CBS kept the TV movie under lock and key until a belated January 1999 screening. Bronson was still seen out and about with Weeks as late as November 2, 2001, the day before his 80th birthday when he attended the 118th National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. Paparazzi shots captured at such celeb-friendly events depict an uncharacteristically vacant-eyed, slightly agitated Hard Times protagonist. Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer finally got the best of the craggy-faced, weary-eyed assassin on August 30, 2003, at age 81].
If a movie opportunity had arisen, would you have considered acting?
I’ve done a couple of things where I had to do a bit part in a video, and I felt it came off unnatural. The director would say, “Hey man, don’t be so stiff. Just relax.” Then I’d get stiffer and stiffer. I’m going, “This is not what I do.”
When I see Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, or any singer-artist onscreen, it’s hard to separate the artistry from the character. Reba McEntire usually plays herself. George Strait followed a similar formula in Pure Country. I have no trouble accepting those kinda performances [Brown has worked extensively with both, producing their most durable hits. Pure Country was distributed in 1992 and is best known as “King George’s” sole acting effort. The soundtrack was coincidentally the origin of his partnership with Brown. Rumor Has It, Brown’s debut collaboration with McEntire, accommodates “You Lie,” “Fallin’ Out of Love,” and her show-stopping staple “Fancy”].
I love great acting. The HBO series Big Little Lies was a character study set in Monterey, California. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern reminded me of certain wives I know within the Nashville music industry, like Ronnie Dunn’s spouse. I can’t quite get into the Marvel superhero movies.
I can’t act decently, so I don’t wanna do it. I don’t think I could even host a late night show like Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon. When I talk, it’s not second nature for me.
Oh, come on. Your 2015 Elvis Week interview on the grounds of Graceland with SiriusXM deejay Argo is confirmation of a genuine raconteur.
Sometimes I really cringe when I see video interviews of myself, but I appreciate you saying that.
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© Jeremy Roberts, 2021. All rights reserved. The Tony Brown interview was edited for clarity and brevity and sequenced cohesively. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.