Al Brown's Legacy Is The Madison

April 04, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

If you grew up dancing The Madison, thank - and remember - Alphonso "Al" Brown, whose 1960 recording of that line dance still earns royalties. Al Brown died of liver failure March 19 at Northwest Hospital Center. He was 79 and had been a part of Baltimore's music scene all his adult life.

Al led the Tune Toppers, a nine-piece group that included his brothers, Charles (alto sax) and Donald (trumpet and vocalist), who played at Pennsylvania Avenue's Club Tijuana.

I met his brother Charles this week when a mural of Baltimore's jazz legends was dedicated not far from where he played. Al Brown is one of the portraits that now looks down on the scene.

In his day, he was big. Al's band backed the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Clyde McPhatter, Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, and Little Anthony and the Imperials on summer tours that visited Southern cities.

Born in Fairmont, W.Va., Al Brown was the son of Alphonso Brown Sr., who played with the Don Redman Orchestra.

The senior Brown trained his sons, and when the family moved to Baltimore in the 1940s, they took jobs along Pennsylvania Avenue - initially at the Club Casino - and later appeared at West North Avenue's Rail Inn and the Clover Club at Fayette and Wolfe.

As a young man, Alphonso Jr. was a Baltimore Transit Co. streetcar motorman.

Al Brown became Mr. Madison and shares much of the credit for a line dance craze that first hit Baltimore and other cities nearly 50 years ago. The dance grew in local legend after being heavily promoted on the Buddy Deane Show and later found a place in both the film and Broadway Hairspray. A vintage Madison video clip is posted on YouTube as well.

I've read differing accounts about how The Madison got its name. (It is not from the Baltimore thoroughfare.) Many sources say it's from Columbus, Ohio, and others say New York City's Madison Avenue.

A 1960 Sun article said that Baltimore Colts halfback and disc jockey Claude "Buddy" Young (others credit Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb) brought the song here from the Midwest during the fall of 1959.

"First teenagers and younger children began dancing the Madison in the aisles of a record store (General Radio) in the 500 block of North Gay Street," The Sun reported in 1960. "Then they danced it on the sidewalk in front of the store, inventing new steps by the score."

The Madison once got some of its fans in trouble. A May 1960 Sun news article said police were called out to the 1800 block of Rosedale St. to break up a crowd of 2,000 assembled for a Madison dance contest sponsored by a radio station.

Al Brown and the Tune Toppers cut a record of "The Madison" on a small label, Amy, which came out about 10 days before a rival version, "Madison Time," played by the Ray Bryant Combo - and vocal calls by WEBB-AM radio disc jockey Eddie Morrison. whose dance instructions included "Hit it," "It's Madison time," and "Give me a big strong M." The recordings competed with each other.

Enter Buddy Deane, who featured the dance on his television program. A record company hired two of his featured dancers, Joan Darby and Joe Cash, to make a short promotional film.

"The black community came to us and taught us the dance," said Cash, who now has thoroughbred horses at his Folly Quarter Stables in Howard County.

"By far, The Madison was the most popular dance that ever came off the Buddy Deane Show."

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