Toni Brown: A Life of High Notes
By Donna Kelly
To say The Grateful Dead set the course of Toni Brown’s life isn’t an overstatement.
Brown’s career began with a deep-seated fascination with the legendary band’s cross-genre music – rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, reggae, country, jazz, and psychedelia – that was planted the first time she saw them in concert. Her life has revolved around music ever since.
She’s dated musicians, including a member of the rock band Kiss before he was famous, worked as a roadie for The Flying Burrito Brothers (post-Gram Parsons), hung out with music legends, helped grow a Grateful Dead fan newsletter into the second-largest music magazine in the world, and promoted music events all over the country – all before she began playing guitar professionally at age 40.
Now 60, Brown is performing and recording music inspired by The Grateful Dead, and lending both her musical talent and promotional skills to the music community in Polk County. She shares the stage with Ed Munson, her husband of 7 years. Their Davenport home is warm and welcoming, much like its owners, with no signs of pretention despite the recording studio and music industry memorabilia, including an impressive number of framed publishing, recording sales, and promotion awards spread throughout the home.
“I’ve been really involved in making things happen in my life – some are huge successes and some are failures,” she says, a smile tugging at her lips. “But I give it my all.”
Now she’s ready to make things happen in Polk County.
Her School of The Grateful Dead
Soft spoken with a slightly husky voice, Brown doesn’t sound like she was born and raised in Bronx, N.Y. With long, light wavy hair and youthful, mischievous eyes, she doesn’t appear to be old enough for the Woodstock Generation, either. But her career was influenced by the music of the time. She was a 15-year old on her way to the historic musical free-for-all in August 1969, but the traffic jam getting on the freeway to Bethel, New York motivated her to head back home. But that didn’t matter: Her musical “ah ha moment” had already come a month earlier when she’d attended her first Grateful Dead concert in New York. She was already a ‘Dead Head.’
“In 1969 I saw the Grateful Dead and said, ‘Wow, there are other people like me,’” Brown says. “I didn’t go to school. I saw the Grateful Dead and I knew that was my path.”
She fell in love with the band’s music and the camaraderie of its fans.
“The Grateful Dead were not the greatest musicians coming out of the gate, but they brought so many types of music together – blues and country,” she explains. “They were a country rock band with blues.”
Music became her world. Three years later while her former schoolmates entered college, Brown and a friend hit the road with the Flying Burrito Brothers, a country rock band.
“My friend was dating a band member. I did a lot of (the band member’s) roadwork, like keeping fans away from the dressing room,” she explains.
Although she’d been familiar with Winter Haven native Gram Parsons, who had played with the Flying Burrito Brothers, she never met him because he’d left the band just before she joined the entourage.
“That was my introduction to the world – working with the band,” she says.
The Relix Legacy
In 1979, Brown joined a fledgling Grateful Dead fan tape exchange newsletter that morphed into Relix, the second longest running music magazine next to Rolling Stone. The following year she became the editor of Relix and married the magazine’s founder, Les Kippel.
“She just took off running when she assumed editorship of Relix, as if she’d been born to do that job,” says Jeff Tamarken, music journalist and author of “Got a Revolution? The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.” Tamarken was editor of Relix when Brown began working for the magazine. After he left the staff because of creative differences with Kippel, he continued to work with Brown as a contributor.
Music was changing in the 1980s and the magazine expanded beyond its Grateful Dead roots and began featuring other musicians. Brown interviewed a wide range of musicians, from jazz great Cab Calloway to Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead frontman.
Brown says it was difficult to say who gave the most memorable interview.
“Every issue had its challenges and magic,” she says. “I remember Stevie Ray Vaughan’s humble nature in this interview in the early days of his career. Sitting next to Bob Weir fresh out of a dip in the pool had me mesmerized by the trickling water running down his body and pooling in his belly button.”
And then there was David Bowie.
“Possibly the most incredible experience I had was with David Bowie during his Broadway run as Elephant Man. He premiered a few sets exclusively for a few major NYC papers, and me,” Brown says. “For his Q&A, he came out in a bathrobe, pulled his chair up to my first row seat, and we had a wonderful chat about theater, music and whatever else I lost in those moments. This interview was special because it was outside of my general interest, but Bowie made me a fan that day.”
The company grew, adding a merchandizing division and then a record label. In addition to interviewing some of the most popular musicians of the time, Brown was constantly on the road selling merchandise and promoting the record label.
“In my career, in my life, it’s always been about the fans. Talk to your biggest fans – a lot of them become your managers,” she says. “I’m all about helping musicians – connecting musicians together, music to music, musicians to fans.”
Whether she was traveling, interviewing musicians, meeting magazine deadlines, managing thousands of contributors, she had one goal in mind. “I was always working to help musicians get their works out,” she says.
Tamarkin describes Brown as a dedicated and capable visionary who is, “… one of the most genuinely kind and likable people I’ve ever known.”
“I’ve worked with many editors over my nearly 40 years in the business, and many of them have egos and tempers the size of Jupiter,” says Tamarkin. “Toni always comes across as laid-back and open-minded, and that’s a rare commodity. I can’t remember her ever being upset, and she had good reason to be at times.”
Brown, he says, transformed Relix “from a marginal fanzine into a full-blown music magazine” by using her instincts rather than a college degree in journalism.
“Toni just knew what that magazine wanted to be and how to get it there. She was a natural,” says Tamarken. “And perhaps because she was not a trained journalist, she was able to maintain a low-key feel within the pages–when you read Relix during Toni’s tenure, you knew that it was being produced by and for music fans.”
Tamarken says the high standards Brown applied to the publication – the quality of writing, the art, and photography – set it apart from many other music publications produced by fans, and allowed it to flourish.
“Toni was able to draw contributors who ordinarily would steer clear of something that wasn’t what we might call a major publication, say Rolling Stone,” says Tamarken “She even managed to get the once-very-skeptical insiders of the Grateful Dead community to accept and respect Relix, where in the beginning they’d shunned it.”
Happy to be the magazine’s longest-standing contributor, Tamarken maintains that today that Relix is one of the highest-quality, most readable general-interest music magazines in the world.
“It would not have gotten there without Toni’s work,” he says.
Brown and Kippel divorced, and they sold the magazine in 2001. They have an adult autistic son who lives nearby in Celebration, Florida.
“I loved the magazine,” says Brown. “I was always so happy to see a musician start out on his path.”
Music was a part of Brown’s life long before her first “Dead” concert and continues to be her world in the post-Relix years.
“Mom and Dad were into music. Dad was very much wanting to be a singer. He had a lot of charisma, but he was a smoker and that damaged his voice,” Brown explains.
Brown’s family included two sisters and a half-sister. “We were all musical in our own way,” she says.
One sister trained in voice and the other picked up Toni Brown’s guitar and learned to play. The sisters’ interest in music was heightened by a group of relatives who gathered for jam sessions to play bluegrass music with guitars and banjoes. “That would amaze me,” she says.
But it was Grateful Dead song writer Robert Hunter – described by Brown as “an amazing lyricist and historian” – who encouraged her not only to write about music performed by others, but to make her own. Hunter suggested starting a Relix record label and the magazine released his single, “Jack O’ Roses” in 1980. She was handling publicity for the record label.
At the time, in the early 1980s, Hunter was using a guitar that had belonged to Jerry Garcia.
“Robert’s guitar broke and he told me, ‘I’m going to give this to you and I want you to learn to play it’,” Brown says. She did what he suggested and it changed the course of her career.
“It meant everything. It gave me my life. This guitar motivated me to take (music) further,” she says. “When he gave me the guitar, it felt like a cosmic commitment to me.”
When asked whether she still has the guitar, Brown hesitates a split second, shakes her head, and explains she lost it in her divorce settlement. “I don’t have the guitar, but I still have the spark and the inspiration it brought me,” she says, her face peaceful. “It’s why I came out with the book, to have closure.”
The book Brown refers to is, “Relix the Book: The Grateful Dead Experience,” a compilation of selected articles and art from the magazine’s first three decades. Brown and Munson worked on the project for two years. She did the writing and editing and he took care of the layout.
The original magazine was largely black and white. When the book’s publisher, Backbeat Books, required color on every page, Brown and Munson found a way to add it without changing the traditional feel of the publication.
The book was challenging, but it provided the catharsis Brown needed to take the best of her past and move into the future while leaving the worst behind her.
After two years of reliving memories, the volume was published in 2009. It is available through the Toni Brown Band website, ToniBrownBand.com, and Amazon.com.
“It really is a fun book,” says Brown.
On Stage in Polk County
“Because of Robert Hunter and his encouragement, I started playing music professionally and that gave me my life back,” Brown explains.
She started playing the guitar in the late 1980s and formed her first band in 1995.
“The music thing gave me that one place where I can keep my spirit alive,” she says. “I was lucky after I sold the magazine that it was just me, my own personal music.”
For about a decade, Brown continued to run Relix while touring the country on the festival circuit with The Toni Brown Band. She’s been touring for 20 years, sharing the stage with many noted musicians, including Hot Tuna, Vince Welnick, Jazz Mandolin Project, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. She’s performed with members of the Grateful Dead, David Nelson Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Great American Taxi.
“I’m very much into finding that moment onstage that transcends the music where everyone comes together. Not everyone can find that,” she says.
Her debut album, “Blue Morning,” was released in 1995 shortly after moving to Central Florida, and was followed by “Dare to Dream,” 1998; “Rabbit Hole Soul,” 2002; and “State of Mind,” 2009.
Her last two albums were recorded at Harlyn Studios in Celebration, Florida.
“Toni’s music is a combination of folk music and jam band music with some blues,” says owner Paul Harlyn.
Of the musician, he says she’s sweet, generous and talented.
“She goes with total feelings. If she comes in with something and it doesn’t go where she wants it to go, she moves somewhere else,” says Harlyn.
Upon completing the book in 2009, Brown and Munson, a guitarist, jumped into the local business and music scenes, which were thriving. They tour together as Toni Brown and the Lunar Mountaineers.
They perform in a number of Polk County venues, including Tuesday afternoons at Jackie’s Art Café in Haines City; Lundyville, a listening room at Lake Juliana Boating and Lodging in Auburndale; and various Friday night music events in Winter Haven’s Central Park.
She’s also played The Derry Down, first at the June 28 event to kickoff of the renovation and preservation of the listening room that launched the careers of Gram Parsons, Jim Stafford and Les Dudek, among others, and later she and Munson opened an Oct. 18 concert for Jon Corneal and Ian Dunlap, who performed with Parsons in the Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
She was thrilled to meet Parsons’ former band mates from his Winter Haven days, as well as those from his time with the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Submarine Band.
“I have all these Burrito roots,” Brown says. Her first album included the “Burrito” tune, “Sin City,” and Burrito Brother John Beeland produced her second album. “I always kept up with the Burritos and I played their songs.”
Gene Owen, a Lakeland businessman and music enthusiast who supports local events, sees Brown as a valued addition to the local music community as both an artist and promotions expert.
“She has a `storyful’ happy voice,” says Owen. “She gets your attention.”
Her repertoire includes folk and rock classics that Owen describes as “Grateful Dead and Grateful Dead derivatives.” But she’s no copycat.
“She’s developed her own style, maybe out of the Grateful Dead and Riders of the Purple Sage, but she throws in the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons as influences,” he explains. “She manages to get booked and get paid.”
If Polk County has been good to Brown, she’s returned the favor by sharing her experience in event promotion to publicize events.
“She has the potential to consolidate the music community in Polk County,” says Owen. “We have kind of a big music scene umbrella. There’s no coordination and consolidation.” Her music promotion plan involves connecting people.
“I love promoting events. I love bringing bands together,” Brown says. “What I’d really like to do in Polk County is keep people connected – through Lundyville, the Ritz, the Derry Down.”
She’s thrilled to be connecting with notable professionals like Jim Stafford, Jon Corneal, Ian Dunlap, Les Dudeck, and Jim Carleton, as well as emerging musicians who frequent Lundyville and will soon find a stage at the Derry Down.
“It really is about putting it out there. It’s about energy – anything we can do to feed the energy is important,” she says.
Brown enjoys recalling memories from each stage of her life and remembering the musicians she’s worked with over the years, both onstage and off. She’s always willing to impart knowledge and wisdom she’s learned along the way.
“It’s definitely been a cool life. Ed and I just play music. We’re in a good place,” she says. “I’m kind of lucky – I get to live my life.”