Louisville Magazine

MAR 2012

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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[ People ] Emperor of the Emporium Y ou might wonder, just who is this Jimmy Brown, this South End kid who, to borrow one of his old mar- keting slogans, grew up to become a seller of guitars to the stars (and regular folks too). Te Jimmy Brown story does in fact begin in the South End, in the Southview Terrace neighborhood where Brown was raised, the younger son of Frankie and Ce- cil Brown, an electrician everyone called Brownie, with one brother, Billy, four years older, who turned young Jimmy on to rock 'n' roll, the way a good older sibling should. Te tale starts to crystallize about the time Brown, now 57, hits puberty, and although it includes familiarities like long hair and muscle cars, there are counter- intuitive twists. For, although the wispy young kid became, as Kentucky Head- hunters guitarist Greg Martin recalls, "this wild-looking, longhaired hippie, which we didn't see too much of in the South End back in those days," there was growing within him even then a rare clarity about his life's purpose. Brown had watched how hard his father worked and knew he could not match it. So he studied hard at Doss High School with visions of a college scholarship and a business career. He was also into rock 'n' roll. After get- ting cut from his middle school basket- ball team, he had resumed taking guitar lessons and reconnected with friends in a garage band called Frost. Frankie told her son the band thing was fine as long as he kept up his grades. He made A's, and she stuck to her part of the bargain and abetted his musical activities, letting him skip class occasionally and driving him across town to buy musical gear with money he earned mowing lawns. (Acting on something his grandfather heard about a Gibson guitar >>By Cary Stemle Photos by John Nation For the past four decades, big-name musicians coming through Louisville have known the guy to call if they're looking for a hard-to-find vintage guitar (or a ready-to- sub-in bass player): ax aficionado Jimmy Brown. for sale, she once let him take a Greyhound bus alone to Pikeville.) Te salesmanship started with a used cherry-red Gibson SG Junior, a six-string guitar popular with the teen bands of the day. Jimmy had coveted it because it looked like his Epiphone EPO bass guitar, and bought it for $75. Ten someone offered him $150 for it. He made the deal, taking note of the profit/effort quotient relative to grass-cutting. He kept buying, selling and learning about guitars. His friend Jeff DeMarco was working at the old Doo Wop Shop on Bardstown Road when a Neil Young tour stopped in Louisville. Young was looking for an ear- ly 1960s Gibson Les Paul Standard. Doo Wop didn't have one, DeMarco said, but his friend Jimmy Brown might. Te Young entourage had moved on to New Orleans. Brown got a call. Tere was no deal — Brown had owned one but already sold it. Te brief encounter, however, planted a seed. He was not yet old enough to drive, and he was about to start hobnobbing with British rock stars. Te film Almost Famous was not about Jimmy Brown, but it could have been. G uitars are a uniquely American icon. Granted, it was a German who moved to the United States in 1833, C.F. Martin, who propelled the instrument to mass popularity, but it was Americans Leo Fender, an electronics technician who started his own electric instrument compa- ny in 1946, and Ted McCarty, a music-in- dustry veteran who led the Gibson Guitar Corp. from 1949 to 1966, who pioneered the futuristic shapes and twangy tones that helped define a cultural movement. Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965, and in 1969 a South African brewing conglomerate took over Gibson. Anyone who recalls American automobiles from the cost-cutting 1970s knows it was not the heyday of U.S. manufacturing. Discerning guitarists knew the older instruments were far superior (and cheaper, too). In 1971, during Brown's senior year at Doss, a popular British hard-rock band called Uriah Heep was touring stateside and asked Brown to bring some of those vintage guitars he'd acquired to Miami. At 17, he took his first jet airplane ride and spent three decadent days in South Florida. Soon enough he was dropping in on every rock band that performed at the old Ar- mory downtown and getting phone calls from English rock stars on a regular basis. His burgeoning new career notwith- standing, Brown had planned on attend- ing the University of Kentucky. But one summer night after high school, his friend Dennis Ledford (current and longtime guitarist for Nervous Melvin and the Mis- takes) couldn't get off work in time to make a country-club gig with Diane Mohr and the Superstars. He asked Brown to fill in. Brown obliged and got an invitation to join full time. He never made it to Lexington. In 1975, Brown's friend Bill Hawkins opened a small storefront at 969½ Baxter Ave., which he called the Guitar Empo- rium. Brown put some of his instruments into the inventory, and when Hawkins got divorced and had to get a real job, Brown bought him out the following year, then proceeded to live off his earnings with the Superstars and another cover band named Anxiety. "I didn't take any money out of the Guitar Emporium for the first two years," Brown recalls. "Not one red cent." By the early 1980s, Brown had devel- oped a national reputation as a vintage- guitar expert. He'd also been working as a runner for Sunshine Promotions, which is 3.12 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE [35]

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