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Remembering Fauquier’s legendary Chauncy Brown

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Chauncy Brown was photographed playing the guitar in 1952 by C. Irvin Garrett for the popular “Familiar Fauquier Faces” feature in The Fauquier Democrat.

Known as the “Music Man” to two generations of Fauquier County and Washington D.C. audiences, Chauncy DePew Brown (1896-1974) was a major player in the social scene for many years, providing music for hunt breakfasts, cocktail and dinner parties, and debutante balls.

His five-piece band, Brown’s Society Orchestra, was appropriately named, often appearing frequently in the society columns of newspapers, where it was reported that “…Chauncy’s guitar and songs enlivened the social scene.” In addition to the guitar, Brown played the drum, saxophone and other instruments.

Brown’s band often opened with their theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a tribute to his wife and business manager, Georgia White Brown (1902-1982), whom he married in 1922. He was also known for his old ballads and country songs.

From 1930 to 1937, Brown frequently played with the legendary Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). As written by Mark Tucker in “The Duke Ellington Reader” (1993):

“Chauncy Brown was originally a drummer with good contacts in Virginia society. He worked with us, and sometimes we worked with him.  He was married and raised a family, but found enough time to play guitar and sing. He is the society musician right here in the middle of that society swirl in Warrenton. I wonder if I would have been that lucky if I stayed in Warrenton.”

Dual careers

While most people knew Chauncy Brown through his music, there was much more to his story.

Born near Middleburg, Brown was raised by his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Brown.  He became interested in music at a young age, and by the time he was a teenager, he took up playing the guitar.

Brown worked as a groom for Edward McLean of Twin Oaks, outside of Warrenton, and Joe Thomas, MFH of the Piedmont Hunt.  In his early 20s, he served in the U.S. Army, fighting in France and rising to the rank of corporal.  Upon his return, Brown worked at the North Wales Club.

In 1940, Brown went to work as a messenger at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D.C. During his 27-year career there, he got to know many top government officials, and they got to know him. “I met a lot of famous people in that job,” he said in an interview in The Fauquier Democrat in 1968. “I don’t like to name drop, but the culture these people gave me was immeasurable.”

Wherever he worked, Brown brought his music, either with his band or solo. He played for Richard Nixon when he was running for president in 1960, at events for Robert F. Kennedy, and at several parties hosted by Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey. When Humphrey’s grandson was married in Cleveland, he had Brown flown there to perform.

Recalling the legacy

One of Brown’s biggest fans was Warrenton native Harold R. Spencer (1933-2007), whose relationship with the Browns went back to his infancy, when Georgia Brown served as his baby nurse. Spencer followed Brown’s musical career over the years, and was quoted in an essay by historian Eugene Scheel in “Loudoun Discovered, Vol. 3” (2002):

“Chauncy knew how to be part of the crowd, strolling among dancers and onlookers as he sang and played his Gibson guitar to a steady jazz beat… When the crowd wanted to dance past Brown’s contracted time, he would say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to pass the hat.’ ‘Good Night Ladies’ ended the festivities.”

In May 1964, Brown and former band members from the 1950s held a reunion at Buchanan Hall in Upperville.  Spencer, by then an investment banker in New York, acted on an idea he had wanted to pursue for years: recording Chauncy Brown’s music.  Brown agreed, and Spencer rented a big reel-to-reel tape recorder and taped the four-hour performance. “To get better sound, Chauncy fastened his mic to my mic with duct tape,” recalled Spencer.

The tape ran out just before “Good Night Ladies” was played. “One of these days, 25 years after you’re gone, we’re going to have a hilarious party with your music,” said Spencer at the end of the evening. “Glad you’re going to remember me that way. Don’t forget me,” Brown replied. “Chauncy, we’ll never forget you,” Spencer responded.

The tapes remained basically untouched for 40 years, and as a fundraiser to restore Buchannan Hall, Spencer contacted the trustees, offering to edit the tapes and transfer the music to a CD. Titled “It’s Time to Pass the Hat,” the 55-minute CD was available for several years, with the proceeds going for the upkeep of Buchanan Hall.

Following his retirement from the treasury department in 1967, Brown’s focus was on his music and local affairs. He was an officer in the Fauquier Sportsman’s Club, and helped organize and promote their annual horse show, held at Chauncy Brown Park at Frytown. He was active in other civic projects, often performing in benefit shows.

Georgia Brown was also active in the community. She was an active member of the First Baptist Church since 1925, a charter member of the Eastern Star, and organized the annual Memorial Day parade and service. But her main interest was the William C. Taylor High School, where she worked tirelessly to raise money to buy school band uniforms and instruments.

Locally, Chauncy Brown’s music continued to be in demand.  On Saturday night, Nov. 10, 1974, he gave what would be his last performance at the old Travelers Inn at Calverton. He died in his sleep at home the following night.

Buchanan Hall has made new copies of the “It’s Time to Pass the Hat” CD available, which it is offering for sale for $20 each. For more information, email info@buchananhall.com, or call 540-592-3455. 

Contact John Toler at jtoler@fauquier.com 

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