Blues musician Willie Lee Brown was born on 6 August 1900 near Clarksdale. The son of sharecroppers whose identities are unknown, Brown, a noteworthy guitarist, is best known for his association with the legendary Mississippi bluesman Charley Patton. Brown traversed the Mississippi countryside and beyond, playing music at a wide array of venues ranging from fish fries to formal studio recordings. Friends and acquaintances called Brown, who was small in stature, Little Willie Brown or simply Little Bill to distinguish him from the physically larger Mississippi blues guitarist known as Big Willie Brown. Many of Patton’s acquaintances who were still living in the 1960s recalled the larger Brown because of his boisterous, outgoing personality; the smaller Brown had a quiet, diminutive personality. Although both men were traveling and musical partners of Patton, another legendary Mississippi bluesman, Son House, and a handful of other acquaintances recalled that Little Willie was more closely associated with Patton than was Big Willie.
Prior to World War I Brown lived and worked as a sharecropper on the Alex Peerman Plantation in rural Sunflower County. During these years he honed his skills as a guitarist and developed a distinctive playing style characterized by what fellow bluesman Willie Moore described as a “slapping of the first bass string.” According to House, Brown was an excellent sideman who was reluctant to play a musical lead. Moore also recalled that Brown preferred not to sing while playing his guitar. Nonetheless, he developed a penchant for performing for his fellow sharecroppers on the plantation. Brown and Moore formed an itinerant musical duo soon after meeting and provided entertainment not only on the Peerman Plantation but also on neighboring plantations and on street corners. However, their musical career was put on hold when they were drafted into the US Army in 1918 at Camp Shelby. The war ended while they were still in basic training, and the two men set about becoming professional musicians.
The life of a professional bluesman of the time often consisted of traveling, drinking, and gambling. Both Moore and House recalled that Brown developed a love of alcohol, and he would repeatedly sing and play a tune known as “Old Cola” when drunk.
Although Brown met Patton prior to World War I, their professional relationship did not begin until the early 1920s. The two men, often in the company of Moore and House, performed at places such as the Will Dockery Plantation in Dockery and the Webb Jennings Plantation in Drew. Despite their long professional acquaintance, Brown and Patton bickered almost constantly over playing styles. Brown accompanied Patton and House to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for Paramount Records in 1929–30. Brown chose to remain a sideman during these sessions and waxed no known solo 78s under his own name. Brown subsequently returned to his itinerant ways, eventually drifting to the Memphis area, where he performed with House, Tommy Johnson, and Memphis Minnie. Careful listening to Robert Johnson’s legendary “Crossroads Blues” reveals a mention of Willie Brown, though it is not known whether Johnson was referring to Little Willie or Big Willie.
In 1941 Brown made his last known foray into music when he was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. Brown likely chose to give up actively performing when his former musical partner, House, moved to New York in 1943. After the Library of Congress sessions, Brown returned to sharecropping near Tunica with his common-law wife, Annie Lee Brown. He died on 30 December 1952 from coronary thrombosis brought on by acute alcoholism.
- Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlaw, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (1988)
- David “Honeyboy” Edwards, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards (1997)
- Sheldon Harris, Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (1981)
- Gayle Dean Wardlaw, Chasin’ That Devil’s Music: Searching for the Blues (1998)