This article appears in the March 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit Lou.com
ou might wonder, just who is this Jimmy Brown, this South End kid who, to borrow one of his old marketing slogans, grew up to become a seller of guitars to the stars (and regular folks too).
The 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 Cecil 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.
The 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 counterintuitive twists. For, although the wispy young kid became, as Kentucky Headhunters 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 getting cut from his middle school basketball 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 for sale, she once let him take a Greyhound bus alone to Pikeville.)
The 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. Then 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 early 1960s Gibson Les Paul Standard. Doo Wop didn’t have one, DeMarco said, but his friend Jimmy Brown might. The Young entourage had moved on to New Orleans. Brown got a call. There was no deal — Brown had owned one but already sold it. The 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. The film Almost Famous was not about Jimmy Brown, but it could have been.
Guitars 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 company in 1946, and Ted McCarty, a music-industry 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 Armory downtown and getting phone calls from English rock stars on a regular basis.
His burgeoning new career notwithstanding, Brown had planned on attending the University of Kentucky. But one summer night after high school, his friend Dennis Ledford (current and longtime guitarist for Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes) 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 Emporium. 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 developed a national reputation as a vintage-guitar expert. He’d also been working as a runner for Sunshine Promotions, which ishow he met the Rolling Stones, who became regular customers.
The client list through the years has been a who’s who of rock, names such as Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, Robert Plant and U2. (The store gets a shout-out in the liner notes of U2’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.) Brown recently helped find a rare Fender amplifier and a Beatles bass for Bob Dylan. (He didn’t deal directly with Dylan — stars usually have people to take care of such things — but he did get the Bard’s autograph.) And while they never made a deal, Brown found Joni Mitchell most impressive and remains a huge fan.
His wife and business partner, Mary Jane Aboud, 58, still gets a little fan-girlie about those interactions (Ryan Adams once gave her a hug at the store!), but Brown has long taken them in stride. He does acknowledge that his life and career trajectory seem a bit surreal.
“People ask me to sum up this thing,” Brown says, “and I ask if they’ve seen Almost Famous. It was like that was my world, and it just carried on.”
The ’80s were pivotal for Brown. Around 1983 he began to get his personal life in order after getting too cozy with the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “I got real involved in that, real involved,” Brown says. He finally completed a business degree from the University of Louisville, which helped him realize that running a guitar store was exactly what he wanted to do, now that he’d grown up. After meeting Aboud during a gig with the band Murphy’s Law at Air Devils Inn, he bought the old F.W. Woolworth Co. store at 1610 Bardstown Road. Built in 1910, it’s been the Guitar Emporium’s home since 1990.
The entrepreneurial side of Jimmy Brown, he says, is secondary; he is a musician first and foremost. Today he plays in multiple bands — Bodeco, a hard-charging roots-rock group that is on its latest hiatus, the bluesy Mr. Jimmy (formerly Hellfish and named for frontman Jimmy Garner), and the Stray Cat Band, a revolving assortment of blues-based musicians who perform periodically.
On the sales floor, Brown is soft-spoken, but onstage he turns into something else altogether. Arguably, it is with Bodeco that this stage persona is most acutely observed. Bearing his prized cream-colored 1965 Fender Jazz Bass, his instrument of choice, or perhaps an upright bass, Brown is kinetic. He struts, his own truncated two-step, and seems to float on his tiptoes. He folds at the waist, his torso nearly horizontal. When Bodeco crests into its signature groove, frontman Rickie Feather may be wielding the sword, but Brown is the gleeful catalyst.
He can’t explain the store-to-stage transformation. “All I can tell you is, I was born that way and I can’t do it any other way,” Brown says. “People will comment, for better or for worse, about how I act on a bandstand.”
Surely no one could take issue? He laughs. “I have had people ask me about it in ways that make me wonder.”
In October, during the annual Garvin Gate Blues Festival in Old Louisville, the Kentuckiana Blues Society presented Brown the annual Sylvester Weaver Award, named for a Louisville bluesman who recorded in the 1920s. Brown was caught off guard — the award typically goes to a frontman or a hot instrumentalist. Speaking to the audience, he became emotional as he recalled the moment he finally accepted himself as a musician.
He’d been playing with the blues guitarist Duke Robillard, known for fronting Roomful of Blues and for playing with Dylan in the late 1990s. Robillard was about to start a lengthy tour. Brown was busy, with a wedding in his future and the new store location. He thought he should exit the band and not keep Robillard hanging.
They met at Uptown Cafe and Brown broke the news. Robillard was having none of it.
Brown tried again, telling him, “Besides, I only know three notes.”
Robillard countered: “But they’re the right three notes. I want you to keep playing in my band.”
Most musicians, Brown says, battle some measure of insecurity and talent envy. “That was my eureka moment as a musician,” he says. “I would see many other players who are more accomplished, and I decided I’m just gonna be who I am.
“When I received that award,” he says about Garvin Gate, “it truly was this . . . stamp of approval that you are OK.”
It’s not easy running a local retail establishment, iconic or not, in a big-box/Internet world (just ask ear X-tacy’s John Timmons), particularly for a couple of business introverts like Brown and Aboud. Guitar Center, the Home Depot of guitars, opened a 17,500-square-foot store in St. Matthews early last year. And price-conscious shoppers know they can get 40 percent off from any number of online retailers, who typically offer free shipping and don’t collect sales tax. That is hard on mom-and-pops’ margins. Still, Brown and Aboud provide fully paid health insurance for their staff.
“In the wake of John Timmons,” says longtime Emporium employee Steve Cooley, “I’m shocked at how many people say,‘You know, he’s made a million bucks on that.’ I’m puzzled why someone would think an independent shop owner selling goods that compete with any major chain would have some vast amount of riches set back.” (Similarly, Cooley debunks the fantasy that Brown must have a massive humidor at home filled with vintage guitars.)
Brown says his only advantage is providing great service. He leans hard on his staff, a half-dozen long-serving employees who give the store its personality. Some visitors find them curmudgeonly, for better or worse. They also tend to play in bands, which gives them credibility with customers and empathy for one another when it comes to needing time off for a gig. “Consequently, you may find yourself manning the store by yourself,” employee Jim Schweickart says, “but we all know at some point in the future it will be your fault.”
Brown is hands-on but trusts his staff’s instincts and abilities — “I try to stay out of their way,” he says with a grin, “which they’ve asked me to do a lot” — doing everything from placing orders to writing checks for vintage guitars. “When people come in to sell a guitar, it’s not fact-finding,” Schweickart says. “You have to act or you won’t make the deal. We’ve all bought things that didn’t work out, but (Brown) doesn’t lord that over you.”
Each staffer has a specialty. For Cooley, who plays banjo with the bluegrass band Hog Operation and guitar with the honky-tonk outfit Johnny Berry and the Outliers, it’s banjos and mandolins. Schweickart is particularly adept at troubleshooting. Eric Whorton, formerly with the band El Roostars, is into guitar pedals — you know, the boxes guitarists step on to modify sound — something Brown couldn’t care less about, and convinced the boss it was a niche they could fill. “Not everyone can afford a $3,000 guitar,” Whorton says, “but we found that a lot of people can afford a $150 pedal.” (Whorton credits “Screamin’ John” Hawkins, a former employee and the son of Emporium founder Bill Hawkins, with softening up the boss on the pedal issue.)
And Brown, of course, is the vintage guy. He simply loves the old guitars, though he admits the collectible aspect can obscure the fact that the instruments were built to make music. Schweickart says he likes to tease Brown about his careful attention to original equipment; from year to year, guitars often had variations, and Brown knows full well which Gibsons, for example, had chrome tuners and which ones were nickel-plated. “If he sees a vintage guitar that comes in and the knobs or tuners are wrong, it will drive him insane,” Schweickart says. “My vision of him at 90 is him sitting at home with a box of tuners and knobs.”
The matter of what constitutes vintage is somewhat subjective. The older models from the famous makers clearly qualify because of their inherent quality and finite supply. “It’s been a long time since they made guitars in 1945, 1955 or 1965,” Cooley says dryly. But there’s also an emotional side, Brown says, because people tend to identify with their musical heroes. So if Taylor Swift suddenly began playing a garden-variety Sears guitar from the 1940s, prices would spike.
Vintage is a smaller part of the Emporium’s mix than it once was — prices are down about 30 percent since the economic collapse of 2008, which has killed some speculators, and many of the rock stars and baby boomers who were buying them years ago have their collections filled out. Brown has long sold a wide range of products, starter kits included, found in most music stores.
And though guitar stores can seem like museums, he engenders a welcoming environment. Part of that, Brown says, is due to the store’s shotgun layout, which precludes any sort of velvet-rope approach. The guitars hang freely on the walls, acoustic on one side and electric on the other, and visitors are encouraged to pick them up and play. That’s led to a few scratches and dings, which the store has to eat, but Brown thinks the trade-off is worth it.
The Kentucky Headhunters’ Martin, who makes a few guitar deals a year with Brown, says the seller is known as a straight shooter. “If he says it’s a good guitar or a good price, that’s the way it is,” Martin says. “He has an innate feel for it. I heard someone say years ago that when you buy a guitar from Jimmy, he makes you feel good about it.”
As Brown nears his 40th year in business, the elephant in the room concerns his succession plan. He is a bit of a Steve Jobs figure, but he believes his staffers are more than capable of keeping the store going if he decides to sell.
Whether that day is fast approaching is up for speculation, but what seems certain, regardless, is that Brown has pulled off something unusual and significant. He has made a living from loving guitars. The longhaired hippie who made good grades but got ostracized from the National Honor Society can claim the last laugh.
“It is really challenging to run a small business,” he says. “There are days I want to close the doors and say I’m going back to cutting grass in the neighborhood. But I do love it. I could have made a lot more money doing something else, but I’m still one of the wealthiest men in town, because this has been fantastic.”
Photo Courtesy of Louisville Magazine