It looked as if a tornado had passed through the house, picked up the remnants of Arrow Brown’s strange, sordid life, and dumped them in the alley.
September 1990: Brown had been dead only a few weeks, but the passageway behind his two-story graystone at 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive was already a mess. His papers were scattered, riffling in the breeze, his 45s lay in a thousand jagged pieces, and all around, spools of master tape were reduced to tangles of black ribbon glinting in the late summer sun.
This was the fate of Brown and his empire, a tiny, illusory kingdom built on ego, deceit, and love–and one of the more bizarre, if little known, chapters in Chicago music history.
For a decade or so beginning in the late 60s, Arrow Brown was the head of Bandit Records. Although he never sang or played a note, he was the undisputed star of the label, tapping the talent, writing and producing the songs, and putting his imprimatur on everything from his groups’ names–the Arrows, the Majestic Arrows–to their stage moves. Between 1969 and 1981, Bandit released more than a dozen singles and one full-length. None of them came close to being a major hit, but Brown didn’t need airplay or sales receipts to keep going. He financed his label with the money he collected from the harem of women he lived with and lorded over. Brown juggled as many as a dozen ladies at a time, among them his wife, his longtime mistress, and a bevy of young girls he referred to as his daughters, lost souls he seduced with hollow promises of stardom. It was a soul-music commune of sorts–Motown meets the Manson family.
Brown’s outsize lifestyle matched his outsize character. He was rarely without his signature cigar, .38 special, and black homburg–a rogue image that even served as Bandit’s logo for a time. Among his other accessories was a wood-handled ice pick, which he would idly pull out and hurl at some target–a tree stump, a can. A simple backwoods boy to start, a migrant to Chicago from the small-town south, Brown saw in the big city all the things he was not–sharp, tough, powerful, glamorous–but wanted to become. With a silver tongue and an iron will, he carved a life for himself of little work and lots of pleasure. To some he was a predator, to others a protector. To many he was both.
Brown was not an educated man, but he understood the cruel verities at the core of the music business: looks fade, voices deteriorate, the weak are exploited, carefully tended dreams are stillborn. Savvier than many small-time operators, he surrounded himself with multiple generations of young people who could serve as the rungs on his ladder to wealth and fame. As his son Kevin recalls, “He dared to dream. Only he let that dream become a nightmare for everyone else.” In the end the nightmare would become Brown’s too: he died abandoned and unfulfilled, his life’s work to be strewn about like garbage.
A line about him from his memorial service is telling: “He knew no strangers, so he left a lot of acquaintances.” No one was ever allowed to really know Arrow Brown. As a result few remembered him in the decade after his death. He might have remained forgotten if not for a Chicago-based reissue label, the Numero Group, which released a Bandit anthology last fall.
In the liner notes to their painstakingly compiled CD, Numero principals Ken Shipley, Tom Lunt, and Rob Sevier write that the history of Bandit “could almost be fiction.” Unraveling that history, separating fact from tall tale, isn’t easy. Brown took much of his remarkable story to the grave with him. Many involved with him have passed away; others, like his longtime engineer Paul Serrano, who now has Parkinson’s, cannot recall their experiences with the man. Some, like Brown’s first wife, simply refuse to conjure up the memory of one who caused so much pain.
It’s a measure of the mystery Arrow Brown shrouded himself in that even his funeral program hedges about the city of his birth. What is known is that Brown was born on September 10, 1923, most likely in Merigold, Mississippi. A tiny, predominantly African-American community in the northwest part of the state just off Highway 61, Merigold is best known as a stomping ground for Delta blues legend Charlie Patton, whose 1927 tune “Tom Rushen Blues” name checked a number of local characters.
Brown was the youngest of 22 children. His father, a sharecropper, died when Arrow was young, during a botched attempt to remove his own appendix. Arrow and his mother moved to Chicago in 1929, just before the great stock market crash, settling on the city’s south side. A couple of his siblings eventually joined them in Chicago, among them his brother W. C., a Baptist minister. During Brown’s adolescence the Chicago papers were dominated by the criminal exploits of Al Capone. The image of the notorious mob boss would have a lasting impact on Brown, who in later years styled himself after Big Al.
Brown attended Wendell Phillips High School, and according to his family showed a gift for music. “He had an abundance of talent,” says his son Kevin. “He sang just like [jazz and R & B vocalist] Arthur Prysock. He could play just about any instrument: guitar, especially the double organ and keyboards.” Studio pros Brown later worked with, on the other hand, describe him as either marginally musical or completely tone-deaf.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Chicago’s nightlife underwent a renaissance that only intensified after the end of the Depression. “The south side and west side, the black neighborhoods, just erupted with bars and taverns,” says Chicago music and cultural historian Robert Pruter. “It was a thriving and exciting nightclub scene. There were live bands, mostly jazz combos, at all these places. The 30s, 40s, and 50s was the golden age of the black tavern, and a lot of people just soaked it up.”
Brown was one of them. “He got hold to the city, and then the city got hold to him, so he just took off with it,” says Kevin. But his was a wild, often violent environment where carousing could lead to bloodshed. “It was a rough time to be out in the street, I remember him saying that,” Kevin says. “It was razor-totin’ time.”
Brown soon learned to brawl and whore with the best of them. Although not handsome in the classical sense, he had a languid smile, bedroom eyes, and an unerring instinct for the slightest hint of invitation or weakness. He was a chameleon as well: he could act like a refined gentleman, a streetwise tough, or anything else the situation, or the lady, called for.
“He definitely had his way with the ladies. So whatever money they got hold of he would get,” Kevin says. “In all the years, I never saw him drive a rag. He always had a brand-new car.” Often the ride would be a shiny Cadillac that some woman–or women–had paid for.
The onset of World War II interrupted Brown’s leisure. He was drafted into the army and served a term overseas. Soon after returning in 1945, he met Mary Louise Tate around the school yard at Wendell Phillips. She was 15 years old and musically inclined, a skilled bongo and conga player. Brown was immediately smitten. They married the following year and had three children: Arrow Jr., Kevin, and Tridia, each born 14 months apart.
For a time Brown played the part of dutiful husband, settling down, getting a job at the Campbell’s soup factory on the west side, and bringing home a steady paycheck. But the lure of young flesh and barroom neon proved too great. He and Mary Louise split in 1953, with Tridia barely out of diapers. Although it would be more than a decade before the pair legally divorced, he rarely saw his family in the years to come.
It wasn’t long before Brown had hooked up with another young woman. Lilliane “Pepper” Powell, whom he would eventually marry, was a long-suffering but loyal spouse, giving Arrow the paychecks from her post office job and tolerating his obvious infidelities. The suspicion among surviving family members is that Pepper couldn’t have children and gave Brown carte blanche to have outside relationships. It was a freedom he took advantage of.
By the late 50s Brown had settled into the graystone at 4114 S. Park Boulevard (later renamed Martin Luther King Drive), which was apparently owned by his stepfather, Asabee Whitehead. Sometime around 1962 Brown befriended Johnny Davis and his young sister Mary Ann. They were introduced to him by their grandmother, whom according to family lore he’d saved from a violent attack outside a hotel. Johnny was a street-corner doo-wop singer, blessed with an elastic voice that could manage both the heights of Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto and the grittiness of Bobby Womack’s tenor. Bonding over music, he and Arrow became fast friends and running buddies. “They were like two peas in a pod,” says Mary Ann, who at age ten was entrusted to Brown by her alcoholic mother. Three years later she had the first of their three sons, Altyrone Deno.
By the early 60s Brown had begun throwing elaborate parties at the house on weekends, inviting friends and neighbors. He supplied the booze and the entertainment, a crude karaoke system where people would get up and sing to records with the volume turned down low. “He loved to party. Not meaning getting high, but he loved music,” says Mary Ann. “He loved entertainment. That’s how we was well-known, especially in the neighborhood. ‘Cause people came to the house.”
Through these weekend bashes Brown developed a network of local music biz contacts. Among those who dropped by were members of the Pieces of Peace and the Chi-Lites. Brown also discovered new talent there, singers like Allen “Po’ Boy” Stevenson and Larry Johnson.
As the decade wore on, Brown–still working at the soup factory–kept searching for a chance to harness his talents in a way that would yield big dividends. One tempting prospect was the independent record business.
During World War II, with the rationing of materials needed to produce shellac, major record companies lost interest in what was then called “vernacular music”–country and western, R & B, blues–and instead focused on the broader and more profitable pop market. Out of this vacuum independent labels were born, many of them specializing in black music idioms. Two of the biggest were based in Chicago: Chess and Vee-Jay.
The growth of such labels accelerated over the next two decades, abetted by the exponential increase in the city’s African-American population–from 8.2 percent to 22.9 percent–that came with the Great Migration. Seemingly anyone with a song and a band could be in business. “That was the beauty of the independent labels,” says Pruter. “All you needed was a few hundred dollars to record some tracks in the studio, press up 500 or 1,000 copies, and hope that lightning struck.”
That’s precisely what happened in 1962, when Chicagoans Carl Davis and Bill Sheppard recorded a song by Gene Chandler called “Duke of Earl.” The session cost $600, and they released it on their own Constellation label before the single was picked up for distribution by Vee-Jay. “Within a few weeks it had sold a million copies,” says Pruter. “Davis and Sheppard got huge checks for like $30,000 a piece. They went out and bought cars and everything. It was almost like winning the lottery. All of a sudden the city was awash with little entrepreneurs looking to get the big hit.”
Arrow Brown decided to jump into the fray. As he wrote in a short biography for a music awards ceremony in the mid-70s, “I have always loved music, so in 1966 I thought I could try a little bit at songwriting. I wrote some songs. . . . The problem was I had no one to sing them.”
Eventually inspiration struck and Brown put Johnny and Mary Ann Davis, Johnny’s wife, Linda, and Po’ Boy Stevenson together as a vocal group called the Arrows. He’d write and produce their music, then release the records on his own label. Ultimately, he hoped, he would expand to stage and screen.
Just as Bugsy Siegel, stuck on a Nevada roadside, looked over the vast expanse of empty desert and envisioned a neon-lit paradise called Las Vegas, Arrow Brown surveyed the nothingness of his own landscape and wrought a shimmering dream. As a nod to the outlaw image he’d been enamored of since the days of Capone, he named his new company Bandit.
Although he quit the Campbell’s factory in 1965 and would never work again, in his biography Brown claims he had to juggle two jobs to finance his label. This was patently false, according to family members. The seed money for Bandit came from Pepper’s weekly earnings and from the welfare money collected by the growing stable of ladies who lived in the graystone. By the late 60s there were half a dozen ranging in age from their teens to their 30s. Brown signed on as legal guardian for many of the younger girls, taking them from broken homes or from parents whom he promised stardom and riches. In at least one case there is evidence that he bought the guardianship of a 13-year-old girl outright.
Brown’s family was expanding rapidly. Over the course of the next decade he would have two more children with Davis and another two with Eileen Hughes. He would also have a child with Loretha, Hughes’s daughter from a previous relationship.
Before launching Bandit, Brown solicited advice from a handful of established artists and label owners, including Chi-Lites leader Marshall Thompson. Thompson remembers him turning up at the group’s rehearsal space. “He’d call on me for musical advice,” Thompson says. “I helped him as much as I could with some things, tried to get him with some major labels at that time.”
Thompson played drums on and helped produce the first Bandit single, the Arrows’ 1969 effort “We Have Love.” He remembers Brown as a “very nice” but aggressive character. “He pushed, pushed, pushed,” Thompson says. “But he was very smart because he always wanted to be around the ones that had success.”
Through a combination of persistence and bullshit, Brown managed to talk his way into working with some of the city’s major R & B players: the Scott Brothers Orchestra, Derf Reklaw of the Pharaohs, studio owner and engineer Paul Serrano, arrangers David Baldwin and Benjamin Wright. Of course, since Brown was circumventing the local musicians’ union, these players generally went uncredited on the records.
Wright–who would go on to have an illustrious career doing arrangements for everyone from Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson to OutKast and Justin Timberlake–had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in 1968 and soon found himself in demand as a session man. “When Donny Hathaway left town I was one of the cats that came up pretty fast as far as arranging went,” Wright says. “I was getting calls from quite a few independent record makers, and Mr. Brown was one of them. I did some work and he appeared to be happy with it, and it grew from there.”
The long-term associations with Wright and Serrano would prove crucial. Wright could take Brown’s rough ideas and lyrics and transform them into real songs, while Serrano was able to translate Brown’s poorly articulated studio suggestions (a running joke was that he referred to acetates as “agitates”) into enthralling, artful production.
Few among Brown’s music industry associates knew about his unusual domestic arrangements or how the label was funded. “I had been over to the house a couple times, but I didn’t know what Mr. Brown was doing and who all was involved and the whole bit,” Wright says. “But things did appear to be very close-knit over there.”
Brown’s son Kevin says part of his father’s talent was his ability to manufacture and sustain an image. “He made his ghetto family look like we were from Beverly Hills,” he says. “He could make us look like we was the greatest in the world, even though we was just raggedy little people.”
Those who didn’t buy the explanation that all the women in the house were Brown’s daughters didn’t bother asking questions. “No one said anything,” says Altyrone Deno Brown. “But I’m sure they did wonder what was going on. They probably wanted to know how did one man have so many women in one house. I wondered that myself. But by living there and seeing it, you figured it out. My father had an aura with women. That’s putting it politely. He just loved women, and back in the day he knew how to pursue them.”
“He was able to juggle eight, nine women ’cause they all needed something too,” Kevin says. “They needed shelter, they needed someplace to go, somebody to guide them. Plus he got them all right out of the cradle. So he nurtured them and took them to the point where he made them afraid to go out on their own. He made them dependent on him.”
Fear of disappointing or displeasing Brown was common among both his artists and his women. The Arrows had begun making live appearances at local clubs like the High Chaparral, and rehearsals were conducted daily, often turning into grueling rituals with Brown, a stern taskmaster, micromanaging every note and inflection. Recording sessions were similarly tense and drawn out. “It wouldn’t be no quick session,” recalls Mary Ann of the Arrows’ first forays into the studio. “It would always be a long session. We’d go in and do some parts and have to go the next day, be up till two and three o’clock in the morning doing stuff.”
After the Arrows’ debut Brown wrote and produced a pair of one-offs. A song called “My Heart Would Never Lie to Me,” by a woman named Sandy Cleveland, may or may not have been issued on Bandit–no copies of the vinyl have been discovered–but eventually appeared on the Chicago-based USA label. Brown also produced a single, “Glad About That” backed with “You’re a Hard Habit to Break,” for a new discovery, 16-year-old Linda Balentine.
Balentine, who was recently located by Numero Group researcher Rob Sevier, figured as a part of the Bandit scene only briefly. She was introduced to Brown in 1969 by members of a group she’d sung with called the Soul Providers, who were doing studio sessions for the label. “My impression of Mr. Brown as a teenager was that basically he was a user,” she says. “I was pretty afraid of him once I found out how he lived. In fact, my mother used to go down to the house with me most of the time because I was underage.”
Balentine’s funky, gospel-flecked single is a Bandit standout, but it was never commercially released–just pressed up as a promo. It may be that Brown lost interest in releasing the disc when Balentine fled, appalled by the notion of becoming another of his “daughters.”
Although the records weren’t selling in huge numbers, Bandit was slowly picking up speed and becoming a more regular concern, aided in part by the continuing influx of income from his women, of whom there were a dozen by the early 70s. In 1971 and ’72 Bandit released several more singles, variously credited to the Arrows or to Johnny Davis. The company hit its full creative stride with the Davis solo track “You Got to Crawl to Me,” a haunting revenge tune with typically evocative Bandit touches–a dark, slow-burn groove, persistent wah-wah guitar, and needling Morse-code organ. The label’s production would grow increasingly more audacious as the years went on.
“The Bandit stuff is unlike anything in soul in a lot of ways, it’s so grandiose,” says the Numero Group’s Ken Shipley. “I think [Brown] wanted it to be bigger, to set himself apart in a way. He didn’t care about the rules of how you make a hit. His thought process was, ‘People are going to hear this and be blown away by the sheer spectacle of it.'”
Davis was the label’s main attraction. But in early 1973 his body was discovered in a Dumpster where he’d landed headfirst after dropping a dozen stories off the roof of a south-side warehouse. Chicago Police Department files show that an investigation into the death was conducted, but the results were inconclusive: Davis may have fallen, jumped to his death, or perhaps even have been pushed. But with no eyewitnesses or evidence, a murder case was never opened, and no one was ever charged with a crime. Davis’s sister Mary Ann still insists it was murder. “Somebody hit him with a pipe and dropped him on his head, that’s what happened,” she says.
In the wake of the tragedy the Arrows fell apart. Davis’s widow, Linda, stayed on as Brown’s secretary; Mary Ann stopped performing, and Po’ Boy Stevenson faded from the scene. Davis’s death dealt an immense blow to Arrow Brown’s plans, but it wouldn’t mark the end of Bandit Records.
The last rays of afternoon sunlight are filtering through the windows of Tridia Brown’s Hyde Park apartment. As the traffic whizzes down the street below, she tunes the radio to WVON and pulls up a chair. She’s the spitting image of her late father, a man she barely knew for the first 21 years of her life.
Tridia’s earliest memory of her dad came at age four, when she recalls a large man playing the piano for her. “I grew up thinking he was Fats Domino,” she says, laughing. In the intervening years, Tridia got her first taste of showbiz, performing in a harmony group, the LaSonics, with her brother Kevin. She attended Kenwood High School, sang in church, and taught herself to play congas and bongos.
In 1969 Tridia joined a Motown-style girl group called the Au Naturals. After they won a talent show at the Auditorium Theatre, her mother suggested they go down to Paul Serrano’s studio to see if he would consider recording them. Unbeknownst to Tridia, Serrano was also working with Arrow Brown. “My dad was kinda distant at that point. We hadn’t seen him in years,” she says. “And I had no inkling at all where he was or what he was doing.”
The Au Naturals broke up after a couple of years. In late 1972, with Tridia desperate to break into the music business, her mother reluctantly told her that her father was producing records for his own label, Bandit. In fact Brown was living and operating the company just a few blocks away from them.
Scared to face him alone, Tridia went to the house with her boyfriend. They found Brown on the porch holding court amid a gaggle of women and children. “I wouldn’t get out of the car,” she says. “So my boyfriend walked up to him and asked if he had an older daughter named Tridia and told him the whole story. He got really excited and says, ‘Where is she?’ So I got out of the car and introduced myself. He hugged me . . . and that was the beginning.”
Tridia became a frequent visitor to the house. At one of the weekend parties she got up and did a rendition of a Gladys Knight song. “My father was actually shocked, ’cause he didn’t know I could sing,” she says. Brown was putting together a new act around the talents of Larry Johnson, a powerful tenor who’d made a small name for himself singing with doo-wop outfits like the Moroccos and the Persuaders. He’d christened the fledgling outfit the Majestic Arrows. “They were looking for someone else to join,” Tridia recalls, “so he asked me if I was interested. I said, ‘Yeah!'”
Tridia soon moved into an apartment across the street from her father’s house. She says she was initially oblivious to what was really happening there. “I’d mostly led a sheltered life, so it was a couple months before I figured out what was going on,” she says. “I didn’t tell my mom, ’cause she probably would’ve told me to stay away from him.
“I got along well with all the women in the house,” she continues, “but I didn’t like the situation, didn’t like the way my dad was living. But I didn’t say anything. I guess I was in love with the idea that I finally got with my father, ’cause I had missed that part of my life. And I really wanted to get into the music business. Plus, you know, dad was a charmer. He could charm the pants off of anybody, to put it bluntly.”
“More so than charming, he was cunning,” says Gloria “Poolie” Brown (no relation). Gloria was 17 years old, an attractive aspiring singer, when she met Brown and joined the Majestic Arrows. “My uncle’s girlfriend knew him,” she says. “He was looking for someone to sing background. I went and auditioned for him and ended up getting chosen.”
Since Gloria was underage and unable to travel to perform shows, her mother signed over guardianship to Brown. But she says she never moved into the house or became sexually involved with him. “Nooooo, I never lived there. Never spent one night there,” she says. “My mother wouldn’t let me, thank you Jesus!”
However, Gloria did see firsthand how Brown kept his label going. “The majority of money came from his ladies,” she says. “They were all on welfare and he kept all of their checks. They even gave him their food stamps. I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”
The ladies lived an ascetic existence, in contrast to Brown’s indulgence. “Oh, he had a joyous life,” Tridia says. “Dad had women that rubbed his feet, rubbed his back, gave him a massage, combed his hair, fed him whenever he liked. And it was like if he’s eating beef, you’re going to be eating pork. Believe me, that’s how dad was.”
Brown maintained order in his house through a variety of controlling methods. “He had intercoms set up in all the rooms,” says Tridia. “You’d have to really be careful what you said because he might be listening.” He also kept nude pictures of his ladies–“glamour shots,” he called them–pinned up around the house. It was a means of asserting his dominance.
For the outside world Brown actively cultivated his gangster persona. “He’d keep a gun handy during the parties, in case somebody wanted to get drunk and act the fool,” says Gloria. “And he would let people know he wasn’t taking no mess. He wouldn’t be very loud or anything, but he would let them know what time it was.
“Really, he was just afraid somebody would take his ladies away. I figured that one out,” she adds. “He was very protective of them. And they were very attractive ladies, a few of them anyway. [He] would get mad if they flirted with men. He was always trying to be a tough guy.”
Some in the neighborhood took Brown’s persona seriously, calling him “Godfather” and asking him for counsel or a quick loan. Brown could be generous, but he was a bad person to be indebted to. “If you borrowed money from him and you couldn’t pay him back it was awful,” says Gloria. “It was something to hold on to you with. He preyed on weaker people.”
On Sundays, after the weekend’s partying was over, Brown would dutifully take his entire brood over to Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church, where his brother W.C. had served as pastor. Even in the house of God he remained an outlaw. “We’d be in church and dad would lean over to pray, and I’d see he’d have a gun under his coat in a holster,” says Tridia, shaking her head. “I’m thinking, How you gonna come to church with a gun?”
In 1973 Brown came as close as he ever would to having a hit, a tune he’d written and recorded with Larry Johnson called “The Magic of Your Love.” The Majestic Arrows–Larry Johnson, Tridia, a singer named Palario, and the recently arrived Gloria Brown–began performing on a small circuit of south-side clubs and featured the song in their sets. Brown and Mary Ann’s son Altyrone Deno Brown also made his recording debut that year. The cherub-cheeked Deno was a natural theatrical talent, his impassioned performance carrying the song “Sweet Pea” and its pleading B side, “If You Love Me.”
Brown’s vision of an entertainment empire was finally starting to take shape–or at least that’s how he saw it. “He wanted it to be like a Jackson family thing. Like how they started in a small house and then developed and got big,” Tridia says. “Deno was going to be his Michael Jackson, and then he was going to build all his groups from there. He had big plans for all of that.”
The sound of Brown’s raised voice coming from the basement of the house, which doubled as Bandit’s rehearsal space, was not uncommon. “There was a lot of yelling,” Deno recalls. “He was a yeller, for sure.” But there was a flip side to Brown’s temper. He could often be found at the piano, gathering his family at his feet to work out a new song or idea. In the midst of a bleak and sometimes rough neighborhood, he instilled in his odd family a sense of community and a defiant pride in their talents. “He made you think all of the success was really going to happen,” says Tridia. “He had us convinced.”
Outside the confines of his house and neighborhood, however, Brown was not the figure of unquestioned power and authority he strove to be. During the summer and fall of ’73 “The Magic of Your Love” slowly grew in popularity. The Majestic Arrows were invited to perform the song on Soul Train, and the track got regular airplay on a number of local stations. But although “The Magic of Your Love” sold as many as 5,000 copies, Brown was hard-pressed to get any money back on it, unable to force the hand of unscrupulous distributors. And when DJ Herb “the Cool Gent” Kent played the song on WVON, he spoofed its long intro by rapping a lengthy dialogue about wild-west train bandits over the opening.
Around this time Brown formed a company, Brown Productions, and signed on to release a single by an up-and-coming local act called the Chosen Few, a rerecording of Elvin Spencer’s hit on the Twinight label, “Lift This Hurt.” It was an unusual project for Bandit, as Brown had nothing to do with the writing or production, and not a successful one. While touring in support of the record the group was unable to find copies anywhere; Brown hadn’t gotten them into stores. “He didn’t understand distribution,” Sevier says. “He was an island unto himself. He was insulated and didn’t grasp the business at all really.” The Chosen Few severed ties with Brown and ended up reissuing the single on their own label.
Brown spent much of the next year working to complete the Majestic Arrows’ album, the only Bandit full-length ever issued. Among the few surviving documents from the label is a cassette capturing him at work in Paul Serrano’s studio during an overdub session for the song “Going to Make a Time Machine.” In the course of a few minutes he charms and chides a late-arriving Benjamin Wright (“I would shake your hand, Ben, but you got a cup in it”), scolds singer Larry Johnson (“You gonna have to do a new vocal”), and at one point, when Serrano jokes “You know a man could sell 18,000 records in one minute,” cockily shoots back with “Less than that, Paul–30 seconds.”
The Magic of the Majestic Arrows was finally released in 1975. The cover art features a hand-colored drawing of the group members caught in the swirling cyclone emanating from a genie’s lamp.
The image was apt. Despite their apparent potential, the end for the Majestic Arrows came abruptly just a year later, when an infuriated Brown discovered that “one of the girls was fraternizing–as dad called it–with one of the guys in the group,” says Tridia. “Secretly, I think dad liked her himself. That kinda made him jealous.” Brown decided to disband the group then and there. “We were getting quite a bit of attention, but dad got angry about what was going on, so he blew up the whole thing,” Tridia says. “That was it.”
“He had the right instincts when it came to the creative side of things,” says Sevier. “But he had this overwhelming need for control. It was a double-edged sword: it served him well when it came to keeping his little kingdom together, but also was the thing that destroyed him as far as the business went.”
“He was a power monger and needed to be in control,” son Kevin agrees. “As good a singer as Larry was, the Majestic Arrows really should have been something big.”
At the time the loss probably seemed negligible to Arrow Brown. He already had a new meal ticket.
In the lobby of the Merchandise Mart’s Apparel Center, the marble floors echo with the sound of commerce. Behind a large reception desk, clad in a two-tone security guard uniform, is Deno Brown. He looks a good decade younger than his 39 years. But his skin is darker, his features are more chiseled, than in publicity photos of the chubby child prodigy from the 70s.
As he makes his way up the escalator and past the food court, Deno moves with the confident air of a star, waving and glad-handing nearly every shopkeeper he passes. Beyond a door marked employees only he reaches into a metal locker and pulls out a weathered leather portfolio with the initials ADB embossed in gold. Flipping through the tattered pages, Deno pores over the vestiges of his showbiz career–newspaper stories, theater programs, head shots, movie stills. Yellowing clips hail him as the next Michael Jackson; one headline improbably proclaims, “Watch Out Dylan, Here Comes Deno!”
“I was about four when I started singing,” he says. “That was the beginning stages of my father trying to train me how to carry my voice and things like that. He saw the talent in me, so he wanted to invest a little bit and see where it was gonna go.”
Unlike Brown’s other charges, Deno actually went places in a hurry. Response to his debut single was muted, but as a child actor he quickly graduated from small parts in cereal commercials to movie roles. Brown, serving as his agent and manager, orchestrated plans to turn his son into the next Rodney Allen Rippey, best remembered now for his Jack in the Box commercials.
Deno spent his days auditioning for parts and his nights serenading patrons at south-side clubs, which left little time for normal childhood pursuits. Publicity photos show him with friends laughing and playing; he now admits the shots were all staged, that he’d never met any of the other kids. “As I look back now, there’s a lot of childhood missing,” he says. “I don’t regret it, but I would like to know what it would’ve felt like to do some children things, to grow up as a child. I had to grow up fast.”
In 1974 Deno beat out several hundred other children in an open audition to win a role as a youth gang leader in The Monkey Hustle, a blaxploitation flick starring Yaphet Kotto and Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore and filmed in Chicago. In 1975 he scored the lead part in a Broadway touring production of Raisin, a musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun that starred Tony-Award-winning actress Virginia Capers. Deno dropped out of grammar school, got a tutor, and spent the next two years traveling across the country with the show.
In Chicago, especially in the black press, Deno’s every move was covered in detail. “I didn’t know the word celebrity back then,” he says. “I just knew I was well-known, and I loved it.”
Deno’s success–and the money he brought in–allowed his father to expand the family business. He leased a penthouse office suite on West Washington and made Bandit Records a “subsidiary” of Brown Productions. (Since Brown never established any formal businesses, or even paid taxes, these divisions were window dressing.)
During this period Brown brought his son Kevin on as vice president. Kevin had been pursuing music on his own as the leader of a successful 15-piece funk outfit called Ultimate Power. “I worked for Brown Productions until dad tried to do something slick with my band,” he says. “He wanted me to sign them to his label, and I didn’t trust him.” Kevin left the job after just a few months.
Meanwhile, with so much riding on him, Deno felt tremendous pressure to keep on earning. “Dad was real hard on him,” says Tridia. “Deno could get anything he wanted, but he was hard on him at the same time.” According to her, Brown favored Deno heavily over his other sons with Mary Ann, K.K. and Delbert. Deno, in his father’s words, was the “money machine.”
No one is sure how much Deno made during this period, or where his acting income went. “What I was hearing is that, from the movies, he was practically a millionaire,” says Tridia. “And the money got squandered because of mismanagement on dad’s part.”
What is certain is that after years of working and touring, Deno ended up with no trust fund or savings. “I don’t know what happened to it,” he says. “I guess it just went to maintain [Brown’s] regular lifestyle or whatever. I wish I could ask him that question myself.”
Eventually, as Deno grew into an awkward adolescence, the roles stopped coming. His final film appearances were as an extra in The Blues Brothers and a bit part in Bad Boys, with Sean Penn.
Still, Brown held out hope that the big time was within reach for his son. Benjamin Wright, who’d left Chicago for LA to become musical director for the Temptations in 1975, would frequently get calls from Brown. “He was still trying to pursue his record thing, but I was too busy to come back and work with him anymore,” says Wright. “He’d send me videotapes of [Deno] performing, but there was nothing I could do to help.”
“It was all selfishness,” says Kevin. “If it wasn’t for his selfishness Deno would’ve made it. If he had left Deno alone and given him to another manager and just took a piece of it, Deno would’ve been big. There’s no telling how big.”
At 15, Deno was all but out of show business and enrolled in high school. By age 17 he was a father himself. “I had my first child, so I had to come into my manhood. Get a job like a regular person,” he says. “My father was on his way out as far as the business went. There was nothing too much he could do for me, and I wasn’t too keen on how I could pursue my career. So I just let everything fall away.”
Brown did make one last attempt to try and revive Deno’s career, a forgettable synth-laden R & B cut, “The Eclipse of Love,” that he recorded in 1981. The track was the final Bandit release. Unopened boxes of the single can be found in record shops on the south side even today.
The demise of his son’s career marked the beginning of the end for Brown. “I was his last big chance,” says Deno. “And when I failed, that crushed him.”
In the last decade of Arrow Brown’s life, his little empire was slowly torn apart. Tridia continued to sing at her father’s parties and with the Touch of Love, an all-female Bandit group that included her cousin Regina Brown and another of Arrow’s “daughters,” Gwendolyn Hughes, Loretha’s sister. But starting in the mid-70s Tridia had been discreetly encouraging the ladies in Arrow’s house to take their children and leave. “I loved my father with all my heart, but I didn’t approve of the way he lived,” she says. The birth of her daughter in 1978 made her even more determined to put an end to the menage. “There wasn’t no age limit. Ten years old was the start. That’s what turned me off. Ten years old? I mean, c’mon, dad.”
“Arrow didn’t try and fight it,” says Sevier. “What was he going to do? He didn’t have a job, he was running this bizarre commune, he was helpless to stop it.”
One by one, the women left, their departures devastating for Brown. “I think deep down Arrow Brown probably had a very strong sense that none of it–the label, the records–was ever really gonna be successful,” Sevier says. “All he wanted was to have this little world of his that he controlled. When that fell apart that was the end.”
By the late 70s the ladies at the Bandit house had been replaced with an array of hangers-on. Among them was the “Birdman,” a cabdriver and musician named Steve Byrd, whose group the Michigan Avenue Sound Orchestra released a single called “Poontang Thump” on Bandit. “I don’t remember much about him, except that he was different,” says Tridia. “He wasn’t your average type of person, let’s say that.” Among the items Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley found when they searched the abandoned house last year was a 1981 receipt recording a transfer of guardianship of Byrd’s two children, one of them a daughter, to Brown in exchange for $100.
Eventually someone robbed the house, taking much of Brown’s musical and recording equipment. That seems to have been the last straw for Brown. The rest of his days were spent in bitter moods and bad health. In the late 80s he suffered a heart attack and series of strokes.
“He just lived day to day until he got really sick the last year before he died,” says Tridia. “I remember looking at him as he was laying in the bed near the end. And he gave me this half smile like ‘I’m not dead yet.'”
Even Gloria Brown made a final visit to the ailing Bandit patriarch. “I really didn’t want to, but I did it anyway, out of respect,” she says. “He was by himself then. A lot of the ladies had gone. There was maybe a couple left.”
“He had a leaky valve in his heart that needed to be fixed,” Tridia says, “but he was too old and weak for the operation.” Arrow Brown died at home in bed on August 30, 1990. He was 66.
The memorial service, held at Gatling’s Funeral Home, was a lavishly staged production. Deno and Kevin sang, as did cousin Regina; Paul Serrano spoke; a minister from Zion Travelers provided the eulogy. “I was too broken up to do anything but cry,” says Tridia. “It was a packed funeral, though. He was quite popular, and unpopular at the same time. It was a mixture of feelings towards him, but there were a lot of people there.”
A month later Tridia Brown was visiting some friends near the graystone. They told her that in a fit of rage Deno’s little brother K.K. had tossed all of their father’s belongings–including the Bandit master tapes–out behind the house. “All of dad’s papers, records, everything was sprawled down the alley,” says Tridia. “People picked some of the [45s] up, and the rest of the stuff . . . the rest just blew away.”
In the years after Brown’s passing the peculiar history of Bandit Records was lost. Linda Davis and Po’ Boy Stevenson had faded from sight. Larry Johnson and Lilliane “Pepper” Brown died, and Regina Brown and Gloria Brown left the state.
In early 2003 Ken Shipley and Tom Lunt, co-owners of the fledgling Chicago reissue label Numero Group, were looking for their next project. They’d just completed work on their first release in a series called “Eccentric Soul,” an anthology of the tiny Ohio R & B label Capsoul. “With these small independent companies, people built them up with their hands,” says Shipley, who ran his own ill-fated indie label, Tree Records, in the 90s. “When we saw what these people went through it struck a chord.”
They decided to tap independent music researcher Rob Sevier to compile a similar collection focused on a Chicago imprint. In the summer of 2003 Sevier brought a box of old indie-label singles to Shipley’s apartment. Among the 45s were copies of Deno Brown’s “Sweet Pea” and Johnny Davis’s “You Got to Crawl to Me.” “It just blew me away,” says Shipley. “And we realized there’s got to be more of this stuff out there.
“It became a hunt in a way,” he continues. “We wanted to turn up more records, but we also wanted to find the artists and find out about the history of this weird little label. We thought, Let’s not just find these people and get the rights to their records, but let’s get their stories as well.”
The problem was that hardly anyone knew anything about Bandit or Arrow Brown. “And what little knowledge we had about the label was all false,” says Shipley. “For one, we thought that Arrow Brown was the lead singer of the Arrows and Majestic Arrows.” Shipley and Sevier managed to get a partial label discography from local collector Dante Carfagna, but their research turned up more dead ends than leads. Even Chicago soul experts like author Robert Pruter and collectors like Robert Stallworth proved unable to help.
The pair eventually did the obvious: they searched the phone book, which yielded a number for an Arrow Brown, who turned out to be Arrow Sr.’s nephew. He referred them to Regina Brown, who was living in Las Vegas and singing backup for Gladys Knight. Shipley contacted Regina, but she put him off for months. The Numero crew spent nearly a year searching for other leads, to no avail.
Desperate, Shipley began calling Regina and her husband daily until the couple finally cracked and gave him a local number for Tridia Brown. “We really had no idea who she was,” he says. “But we rang her up, and two days later we were at her apartment talking.”
Tridia was immediately able to clear up some of their misconceptions about the label, but it wasn’t until their second or third meeting that the subject of her father’s unusual living arrangements came up. “We kept hitting these dead ends in our conversations that made no sense to us,” he says. “We kept asking, ‘Well who were all these women, what was their relationship to Arrow?’ She was hesitant: to her, to the family, it was a big deal that all these women lived in the house. It wasn’t normal, and they were probably a little embarrassed talking about it at first. Finally we just had to ask, ‘Well, was he a pimp?’ And she was like, ‘No, he wasn’t a pimp, but he was like a pimp.’ Out of that more and more information started coming out.”
The Numero Group crew’s next step was to explore the house at 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive. “Which was a totally tenuous, scary thing,” says Shipley. The property, now owned by a funeral home but abandoned since shortly after Brown’s death, had been stripped and torched years earlier and was in a state of total disrepair: the front staircase missing, the interior a mass of collapsing woodwork. Shipley and Sevier managed to salvage a single shoebox full of Brown’s letters and papers, mostly odds and ends: a shopping list, an insurance card, a receipt book.
After negotiating the rights to the label’s catalog with the Brown children, the Numero Group team began the arduous task of tracking down pristine copies of the singles, since the masters were long gone. Some 45s were readily available, while others–like the Linda Balentine track, of which only two copies are known to exist–proved elusive. Numero digitally cleaned up those it could find.
During their search Tridia Brown remembered that she’d saved a pair of cassettes, boom-box recordings of Majestic Arrows rehearsals and various other audio snippets, including Arrow’s telephone conversations and studio chatter. The tapes yielded several stunning a cappella versions of Bandit material, including a song called “I’ll Never Cry for Another Boy” that Tridia says she wrote and her father took credit for. Three of these takes are on the Numero Group CD as bonus tracks.
Released last November, Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label has gotten rave reviews in Mojo and the Onion and landed the Numero Group on NPR’s Next Big Thing and in the New York Times. The continuing mystery surrounding the Bandit label is part of the allure for many. “We’ve been getting responses from people like Greil Marcus: he doesn’t quite know what to make of the music but he’s so caught up in what the story is,” says Numero’s Tom Lunt. “Jonathan Lethem sent us a note saying, ‘This is a great thing. It’s like a little novel.’ The Bandit record has its own life story, as a musical collection and as an object. And the great thing is, the story isn’t over. It could go on forever as we turn up more little bits.”
Indeed, since the CD was released a few months ago the label has already discovered several other Arrow Brown and Bandit-related works, including the Sandy Cleveland single and tracks by the Michigan Avenue Sound Orchestra. The Numero Group plans to add these to a new deluxe version of the Bandit disc slated for release sometime next year.
For the surviving members of the Brown family, initial wariness about the project has given way to pride in seeing a piece of their past restored and presented to the public. “I honestly welcome it,” says Tridia. “I don’t have hate in my heart. I may be upset about some things that happened. But what can you do? It’s over; it’s all water under the bridge. I wish the other members of the group could be here and see what’s being done.”
“I’m ecstatic about it,” Deno says, “just to know there’s people interested in what I was. That was a big chapter that was left out of my life for a long time.”
Deno, who has four children now, has moved back in with his mother, Mary Ann. It’s his sixth year working security at the Merchandise Mart. It’s a good job, he says, but it’s clear he still pines for more. He’s optimistic that his story will have a happy ending. “I hope someone would get inquisitive hearing the CD and want to meet the people behind the music and see what they’re about now and what they’re capable of,” he says. “‘Cause I’m very interested in tasting the world again. I’m thirsty for it.”
These days Tridia spends most of her time at home caring for her 17-year-old son Erik, who has an inoperable hydrocephalic cyst at the base of his brain, but she too would like to make music again. “I still have dreams of singing myself,” she says. “I still write. I’ve got a couple tunes I’d like to give some famous people to record.” In the meantime she hopes interest in the Bandit project will help her 26-year-old daughter Toika, an aspiring singer: “The other day she asked me, ‘If they make a movie on granddad and the company, can I play you?'”
A few days after Brown’s passing, Tridia recalls, a couple of friends and neighbors swore that they’d seen him standing on the porch of the graystone. The family decided to spread his ashes and some of his possessions in the yard where so many used to gather. Today under the crumbling roof of 4114 S. Martin Luther King Drive, a single relic remains: a dusty Baldwin organ. Outside the streets and alleys stretch out, silent and bare.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.