May 29, 2006 – 40 years in V.I. radio? Now that's a "Good T'ing!"
It was May 9, 1966, when drummer and taxi driver Irvin "Brownie" Brown sat down at the controls at radio station WSTA.
Radio was new for him and he said it took about a week before he knew what all the sliders and buttons did. But Brownie already knew music, and he knew what Virgin Islanders liked to hear.
He came home in 1963, after 10 years on the Miami night club scene, to play with Milo and the Kings.
He began on the air with a midday show. "It was a calypso show. I was driving taxi at the time and I had to come into the radio station – it was in Frenchtown – every day from 12 until 1.
"I used to drop off my people at Bluebeard's Castle, then take that hour, come back down and then rush, go and pick them up. I was always late for them," he said.
With the help of some of the station regulars, Brownie learned the fundamentals of broadcasting, then went on to shape his show the way he, as an entertainer, envisioned it. By then music has long been a part of his working life, which began at the age of 12, shortly after his father died.
Brownie waited tables and tended bar at a place called the Magic Lamp, was driving taxis on the weekends by 14, and later joined the Lad Richards band.
And although his father played drums with legendary V.I. bandmaster Alton Adams, Brownie said he did not immediately take after the old man.
The drumming started to take shape in the 1950s in Florida, he said. "I was entertaining down here with the band, Lad Richards Band, on St. Thomas, for about two years," he said. "Then we went to Miami on a six-week engagement and we stayed for two years."
"On stage I used to do Limbo. I played drums, the regular set, played timbales, the congos, did solos, and I taught myself all of that."
On the off hours, after performing at the Millennium Lounge, Brownie hung around the Sir John Hotel, listening to Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Sammy Davis Jr. Listening to and appreciating their musical styles helped contribute to his own, he said. "They were jam sessioning every night. They finished their job on Miami Beach, they came over and they had a jam session."
"Anybody could fit in," he said. "Sometimes they didn't have a drummer and that's when I sat in."
But Brownie's entertainment also came with comedy, which he incorporated into his radio show back home on St. Thomas. He came up with a character named Walter, a quarrelsome fellow with a thick Tortola accent and a head full of fanciful schemes, most of which Brownie declares "Chupidd!!"
Walter is his radio alter-ego. Brownie said Walter was born after he tried out several real life sidekicks, but found he could think fast enough for two.
"I love comedy and there's a lot of things I do. And I notice I can think fast about comedy, but I needed someone who could think like me, and I don't have to write for," he said.
Brownie laughed when someone suggested that because was born under Gemini, the Twins, it was natural for him to appear, at times, as two people.
Did Walter stop in May 9 to congratulate his partner on his 40th anniversary? No, Brownie said.
"The rat! He was in Tortola, but he's down here now. I can't keep track of him."
There were lots of congratulatory calls last week, during the daily call-in segment usually set aside for birthday wishes. Brownie is still behind the controls, spinning calypso, soca and merengue, sprinkled with Virgin Islands quelbay and a dose of gospel music.
His 40th anniversary on the air came a few days after the end of Carnival 2006, where this radio perennial also has long roots. On stage at the Lionel Roberts Stadium during one of this year's pageants, Brownie was congratulated for 40 years on stage as an emcee.
He said the chance to emcee Carnival shows came now and then at first, but for the past 20 years Brownie has practically lived on stage at
Whether decked out in a sharp, double breasted charcoal suit for the Queen Show, in a bright and fruity shirt for the calypso shows, or relaxed under a baseball cap and T-shirt for the Toddler's Derby and Traditional Games, Brownie is always around.
"You don't have to be a comedian to be an emcee," he said. "There are lots of people who can emcee these programs. My daughter, Symra, she's a nut like me. She knows how to get out there and do things.
Brownie's also a veteran of the Carnival parade route, providing a constant stream of commentary through hours of live broadcasting for both the Children's and the Adult's parades. He has been honored as parade Grand Marshal for both events, and within the last year he rode on the back of a convertible, crowned V.I. Senior Man of the Year.
There's also a side of the host of the "Original Side of Walter and Brownie" that takes center stage as Santa Claus.
He recalled a time when he used to spend the mornings before Christmas visiting dozens of St. Thomas public schools. ""I like seeing the faces of our kids," he said. "When they see Santa coming they know something wonderful is going to happen."
Although there was one day when the jolly old elf wasn't so jolly.
Dressed as Santa, and in between stops at schools, a cop pulled him over in high day, in the middle of downtown Charlotte Amalie, and wrote him a ticket.
"I had the suit on and I was going to a school. I had just finished with three other schools, and I'm going to this other school, when the police pulled me over there by the Emancipation Garden. He pulled me out of the car. People started passing by and teasing me. That blew my whole Christmas right there," he said.
Brownie challenged the ticket in court and won. "I knew there wasn't anything wrong. They were just showing off. You don't do that to Brownie," he said.
And definitely not to Santa.
But whatever role he is playing – radio personality, hospitality provider, musician, father of six, Walter, stage host or Santa – Brownie said, "Just do whatever the character wants you to be."
And as he opens his daily show with the declaration, "I here!" – after 40 years, Irvin "Brownie" Brown looked back over his life and said, "I'm still here."
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