Music is in her blood – niece to “Godfather of Soul” James Brown and a music industry pioneer in her own right, Edmonds resident Billie Brown is hoping to travel to Texas to be part of a proclamation ceremony honoring her family legacy.
In addition to being James Brown’s brother, Billie’s dad, William “Boy” Brown, was a well-known DJ for KJET Radio in Beaumont, Texas, where he spun records for 17 years. He was a beloved part of the local music scene, and discovered, nurtured and brought to fame an array of artists, some of whom rose to become stars in their own right including Barbara Lynn and Zydeco great Clifton Chenier.
Over the years, Billie maintained her contacts in Beaumont – her brother Roderick Jay Brown still lives there – and she was recently invited by Mayor Becky Ames to be one of 15 honored guests at a ceremony on Dec. 8 proclaiming and establishing it as “Boy Brown Day” in the city. The mayor noted that the day not only honors Brown, but also “the original disk jockeys of the legendary KJET radio station.”
Due to the social distancing restrictions necessitated by the current pandemic the ceremony will be limited to 15 people, but an overflow area will be provided where others can view the livestream.
Born in Beaumont, Texas into a family destined for fame in the music industry, Billie grew up watching a parade of stellar recording artists pass through her home, share family dinners, and find a welcome place to stay while in town.
“Back then they called it the chitlin circuit,” Billie explained. “When Black entertainers came to town, there weren’t many places where they could stay, so my parents opened our home. It was no big thing for me growing up to see famous entertainers sitting at the table– it was like they were part of the family. There were so many – Ike and Tina Turner, BB King, Johnny Taylor – so many. BB King took a particular liking to my sister Regina – it was like she was his kid – she even called him ‘Daddy BB.’”
To transport the artists in style, the family worked out an agreement with a local funeral home.
“There was no limo service for Black entertainers in Beaumont, and the Mercy Funeral Home allowed us to use their ‘family car’ [used for family members to follow the hearse in funeral processions] to bring them to the performance venues,” she explained.
And speaking of cars, among the many guests in their home, Billie particularly recalls her uncle James Brown as “a big man in a pink Cadillac.”
But when Billiei was only 15, tragedy struck the family.
“In 1972 my dad had an altercation with the Beaumont police,” she relates. “An officer put a full nelson on him and broke his neck, paralyzing him and making him a paraplegic. It was horrible. One day I saw him driving off in his pretty car, and the next day he was paralyzed.
“This really changed our whole family structure,” Billie continued. “Dad was sent to the Texas Institute of Rehab and Research in Houston, and my mom would drive up every day to see him. If my grades were good, she’d let me come along. Uncle James came to see him often, and tried to arrange specialty care, but it never worked out.”
Boy Brown died four years later.
In the ensuing years, Billie moved on, capitalizing on her intimate knowledge of the music scene to work as a DJ in places including Little Rock, Mobile, Lake Charles, Houston and Gulfport-Biloxi.
“Women DJ’s weren’t too common in those days and were usually put on the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ‘girls shift’ when no one is listening but housewives,” she laughed. “But I was put on the afternoon drive-time shift, which is the prestige job. Drive time became my main job – I always did it.”
But in August 2005, fate took another turn. Billie and her sister Regina were living in New Orleans, right in the path of Hurricane Katrina.
“It was devastating,” she recalls. “So many people had nowhere to live and had lost everything.”
Evacuees were put on buses, sometimes with no belongings or even identification, and transported to other locations. The priority was getting them somewhere safe as quickly as possible. Regina ended up in Boise; Billie in Houston.
But Houston was not to last either.
“I was in Houston about two weeks when Hurricane Rita hit, and I found myself displaced again,” she explained.
Through a chance encounter on a Houston street, she was given her sister Regina’s contact information and was able to reconnect. That brought her to Boise, where she and her sister stayed for three years.
“We didn’t feel exactly welcome in Boise – it’s only 3% Black – so Regina and I started investigating places to relocate,” she said. “Now I’ve always been a Seahawks fan, so we decided to take a look at Seattle. We drove up here, explored the area, and it just felt right. Regina found a place to live in Lynnwood, and I found my spot in Edmonds.”
The sisters kept themselves busy with different things. Regina, “a natural computer whiz,” started a blog called Regina’s Gossip Fix that attracted more than a million followers. Billie combined pet sitting with providing online updates on the local Seattle blues scene. Sadly, Regina died in 2019, in the middle of the big February snowstorms. Billie continued to live in Edmonds, keeping up with her various pursuits. Despite suggestions she move back to Beaumont, she’s happy where she is.
“I really love Edmonds,” said Billie, who has lived here for 12 years. “I like the peace and quiet, the climate, the water and the mountains. I’ve been in the same apartment for nine years. Even though I have family in Texas, I don’t want to go back there.”
And then the call came from Beaumont, inviting her to be part of the official Boy Brown Day proclamation.
For Billie, this recognition is a long-term dream come true. Over the years, she has written letters, put in proposals, and tried to garner support for recognizing her father and his role in nurturing the Beaumont music scene, and his place as a beloved member of the community.
In a recent email to the Beaumont mayor, Bille said the recognition “will bring some closure to Boy Brown’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren from the tragic event. It will bring healing and comfort to the music industry, the Black community and still-living friends of Boy Brown. It will also give cause for celebration, recognizing that the City of Beaumont and Southeast Texas as a whole is growing, changing and moving forward.”
But with limited resources, the cost of the trip is a challenge. Friends have established a GoFundMe site with the modest goal of $2,000 to cover expenses for Billie to attend the proclamation ceremony to honor her father. You can learn more and donate here.
— By Larry Vogel