In 1945, he picked up his first set of sticks at age five, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Alex Brown, or Eck as he is better known, can take much of the credit for raising the bar on pipe band drumming in Western Canada. A player, competitor, teacher, mentor and judge, Eck Brown was to make an indelible mark on the Canadian drumming scene.
He was born on the 27th of March 1940 to George and Elizabeth Brown of Bowhill, in the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland. Fife had long been recognized as a resource rich area. Rich deposits of coal resulted in the development of collieries or ‘pits’ as they are referred to by the locals.
The Brown family lived in the village of Cardenden, in a modest miner’s house. It was a warm, loving close knit family in a community where everyone knew and cared about one and other.
The boy next door was Dave Donaldson, lead drummer of the Bowhill Juvenile pipe band. He quickly recognized Eck’s potential and urged him to give the sticks a try. Eck accepted the challenge and at the age of 10, set his sights on playing well enough to join the Dundonald Colliery PB.
The process was arduous and the competition tough. Learner’s practice took place on an adjacent night and different location than the regular band practice and was under the watchful eye of Lawson Blake. Lawson had a good eye for talent. Instructor Blake Lawson closely watched the progress of the prospective drummers – then carefully added to the band’s drum corps roster when they were ready. Eck’s hard work, natural talent and dedication paid off. He played with the Dundonald Colliery PB from 1953 to 1960.
Probably Eck’s greatest accomplishment to that time was in 1957 when the Dundonald band won Grade 2 at the Cowal Games. The same day, the band had the option of moving up to Grade One and won 2nd place in drumming behind Alex Duthart’s infamous Shotts & Dykehead Drum Corps.
While playing with the band, the band won the World Champions in 1958 when he was only 18. His original mentor Dave Donaldson was also with the Dundonald drum corps as was David Bruce, L/D Curley Brown – who would eventually accompany Eck to Canada.
At the end of the 1960 competition season, Eck applied for a position as Lead Drummer in a field of five competitors at the Bowhill Colliery Pipe Band in Grade 1. Eck won the position and played with the band through 1961 to 1965 under P/M Chris Sutherland and P/M Andrew Donaldson.
At least half the bandsmen were also miners who worked the pit. While deep in the pit one day, Chris Sutherland (the P/M of the band) suffered a nasty setback when an unexpected slab of rock fell and crushed his right hand which ultimately resulted in the loss of his index (‘D’) finger. Amazingly, Bob Hardie fashioned a custom chanter moving the ‘D’ hole to the reverse side of the chanter enabling Chris to use his thumb in place of the missing finger in order to play. It took him about a year to master the playing of this very special chanter to a competitive standard – which also gave Eck the necessary time to bring his young drum corps up to the required standard for Grade 1.
With over 1500 miners working the pit at Bowhill, instead of a traditional one penny weekly pay reduction to support the band, Bowhill deducted sixpence and split the spoils between their brass band and the highly competitive pipe band. The Bowhill bands were the envy of all the other bands as they enjoyed an unprecedented operating budget!
During the 1960’s, the demand for coal fell off due to the increased use of electrical power. This had a devastating effect on the economy of Fife, by 1964, the proverbial writing was on the wall. Eck received his ‘transfer notice’ and was moved to the Frances Pit when Bowhill closed its doors in 1965. He was plummeted to the bottom of the food chain at the new company and compelled to raise his family of four on the Canadian equivalent of $24 a week!
Fortune was to be found in the colonies!
It was about this time that members of several UK pipe bands were offered employment in Canada. It was not as much a matter of ‘if’ you were going – it was when! The ‘Boys from Bowhill’, Curley Brown, Eck Brown and John ‘Hammy’ Hamilton were young, healthy and looking for adventure! Collectively, they also had a marketable skill set which other miners did not possess – they had won the World’s and could easily transport that skill anywhere in the world!
‘Curley’ (William) Brown, had spent time in Canada in 1952/53 and had met Jim McWilliams from Calgary at some point during his Canadian travels.
Knowing that this drum corps had won the Worlds, Jim McWilliams and Brian ‘Kipper’ Collard knew the time was right and hopped a flight to the UK and arrived in Bowhill to extend a personal invitation to the lads - to make the quantum leap to Calgary Alberta to join the Clan McBain Pipe Band.
Excited by the challenge of the road that lay ahead, the three Fifers boarded a flight to Canada in mid-September 1965, dressed in summer attire – not realizing that they were headed into a full blown legendary Canadian winter blizzard with 2- and 3-foot snow drifts!
What the hell are we doing here?
The trio of unsuspecting Scots were met at the Calgary Airport by Allan Redford, Rodger Yule and Bob Amiss. And were immediately spirited away to the western outskirts of Calgary to the home of Merritt Chisholm, a piper in the band that had a large home and a place for the boys to stay until they were able to get their feet under them. Allan Redford recalls that his car was unable to climb the lengthy, snow drifted driveway so they had to tuck their bags under their arms and trudge through the drifts up to Merritt’ Mansion.
While waiting for their respective wives to uproot themselves and head to Canada, the boys immediately had to find work and prepare their respective nests for the incoming families.
Six weeks after the boys landed, the uprooted families blew into the Calgary airport like a tempest!
Evelyn, Hannah and Curley’s wife Jean….and 10 youngsters, with Curley’s son William being the eldest at six – disembarked after a long flight and invaded the Calgary International Airport.
All three of the guys found their initial jobs at the Hudson’s Bay Warehouse courtesy of Allan Redford. Mr. Hargraves, the manager of the HBC Warehouse saw the opportunity and quickly enrolled his son John as Eck’s first drumming student. Of note, John has since gone onto a career as an pilot for Air Canada.
Prior to their arrival in Canada, local pipe band drumming had been fairly rudimentary – a collection of flams, paradiddles and assorted beatings in a rhythmic succession. Introductory rolls were a roughly structured noise that lasted for 8 paces and enabled the pipers to get air into their bags and roughly hit the first note in unison. It was clearly not of a caliber that would enable the Canadian band to compete effectively in world competition – but it was a start!
The snares and heads on the side drums were seldom ‘tuned’ to the same pitch – if they were, it was more by accident than design. Tenor drums were for show and seldom did the mallet strike the drumhead. The bass drum played a rather mundane ‘thump-thump-thump’ to mark a simple cadence. As long as everyone started off on their left foot, everything looked good to the uninitiated spectator! The average spectator was more enamored by the appearance of the band than by the music they generated.
While the melody of tunes changed, most bands had a standard drum setting for a 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 march, a Strathspey and Reel a Hornpipe and a Jig. Nothing complicated – mostly a process of memorization. Drum music? What the hell’s that?
Competition drumming was an entirely different concept. The boys from Fife were about to turn the Calgary piping community on its ear!
Determined to prove that the decision to bring the lads over from Scotland was a good one, the boys knew they had to make a great first impression! They tuned the heads, cranked up the pitch and were ready to go.
P/M Rodger Yule clearly remembers their initial practice. The introductory rolls were the first shock! Crisp, clean, together and rising to a perfect crescendo. Yule confides that the pipers first reaction was… “Holy Shit!” The pipers just got the message that the drummers meant business and knew exactly what they were doing!
Instead of the customary rumbling noise in the background, this drumming fit the tune like a glove. Light and shade in drumming was a new concept. Make the pipers look good by accenting and bringing out the best in the music phrasing. It was sheer magic! The band entered a few competitions in 1965 – and literally cleaned house!
That fall, following competition season, Hammy and Curley did what a lot of Albertans did – explored the idea of heading north to make their fortune – or at least a higher paying job. Within a short time, they returned to Calgary empty handed. After an earnest job search, Hammy landed a good job with the City of Calgary that paid reasonably well and worked there until the end of his career when he and Hannah moved to the warmer climes of the Okanagan Valley in BC.
His judging career began shortly after his earlier arrival in Calgary. Recognized as a World Champion drummer, he was called upon as a drumming judge for the Calgary Highlander’s Indoor Competition held in the Colonel S.C. Nichols mansion. This was the first opportunity for Eck to hear, first hand, the level of local drumming proficiency. This offered him a unique perspective on the new world in which he found himself.
Eck’s uncle Jim (Hammy) Hamilton, a piper, was a positive influence in Eck’s life. He lived with the family for a time in Bowhill, and also immigrated to Canada in 1966 after a two year ‘false start’ in Australia. Uncle Hammy and his wife Mary were salt of the Earth folks and became beloved fixtures in the Calgary band community. In 1968, Uncle Hammy was playing with the Calgary Highlanders Pipe Band when an unexpected shuffle of the senior band staff resulted in his becoming the pipe major for a very short period of time.
The wanderlust in Curley took hold and he and Jean first moved to Prince Rupert BC, then back to Calgary for a while. With no luck there, the Browns moved back to Bowhill where Curley eventually returned as the Lead Tip of what was left of the Bowhill Colliery Pipe Band. He and Jean and gone full circle!
Like Wee Hammy and Hannah, Eck and Evelyn put down solid roots in Calgary to raise their families. Evelyn came from the village of Kinglassie, three miles from Cardenden. They met in 1956 and courted for three years until they got married. Their first three lads, George (b.1959), David (b.1961) and Alexander (b.1964) were all born in Scotland. Cameron (b.1971), the youngest was their first Canadian born.
Not unlike the adventurers of old who worked the early fur trade, Eck stayed in the employ of the HBC for the ensuing 38 years. Evelyn, a real people person, was comfortable in the retail environment and worked at Super S Drugs on 14th Street SW. Of note, another employee there was Margaret Smith of the famed Doug & Margaret team.
With the exception of 3 years when Eck was lured into reserve military service with the rival Calgary Highlander’s Pipe Band, he played with the Clan McBain PB until 1996.
He then made a concerted effort to teach a several other bands in the city and ventured out to run weekend workshops and seminars all around Western Canada and the USA.
In the early 1970’s, Clan McBain PB again rose to prominence in Grade 1 competition initially under the direction of P/M Kelly Todd, and later with P/M Iain MacCrimmon.
Working closely with MacCrimmon, Eck was able to better understand the nuances of writing scores that were clearly tailored to fit the musical phrasing of each pipe tune. He played a ‘crushed’ style, which worked like a charm with the tunes that McBain selected for their medley or musical selection. Eck was recognized as the ‘master of rolls’!
He would purposely replace single strokes with doubles which made his beatings quite unique. Reid Maxwell, who came from the same village – and was judging professional drumming in Red Deer once remarked…those were ‘Miner’s Rolls’ knowing Eck’s origins.
During the 1970’s, the McBain drum corps was expanded to include Bruce McNabb, Dennis Scobie, Scott Gray and Dominic Creaghan from the Calgary Scottish PB. Dominic was another ‘transplant’ from Ireland where he was a drummer with the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band, also of World Class caliber – but from Ireland.
The mid-section included Ben Niven on bass and Ed Hopman, Gord Pelly, John Campbell and Rod McLeod on tenor and alto tenor. Eck wrote a brilliant drummers fanfare that was the envy of the competing drum corps. Bill VanAggelen, a legendary side drummer from Edmonton’s Viscount Park PB once confided over breakfast the morning after McBain had won a competition in Nelson, “I don’t get much sleep the night before we compete against you guys!”
While all this was going on, Eck was also engaged as a drumming instructor. In 1967, he formed the Alex Brown School of Drumming along with Lyle Smith as the school piper.
Aside from the individual tuition, also taught the drum corps the Kiwanis Highland Laddies, Ogden Legion PB for 18 years, Bonnie Blue Bells, Bowmont PB, Calgary Highlanders, the Old 78th Frasers, the Glengarry Highlanders, Lethbridge Legion PB (flew him to Lethbridge every Saturday morning for a year), the Rocky Mountain Pipe Band and more recently with the Scottish Tradition School of Piping under the direction of P/M Kenny Rogers.
Over the years, Eck has also proven his mettle as a valued judge – not only of drumming, but other endeavors as well! He tells of his first encounter with judging while a 17 year-old visitor in Edinburgh. Resplendent in his kilt and jacket at an unrelated event, he was unexpectedly tapped on the shoulder by someone asking “are you from around here?” Eck responded that he was a visitor. They were looking for an impartial person to serve as a replacement judge for an event about to go on stage.
He was whisked backstage where they explained that he would be part of a very important judging panel for a preliminary event that would ultimately be a major international competition, and that the final contestant stood an excellent chance of becoming a celebrity of international proportion! Young Mr. Brown was indeed very excited to be part of this erstwhile endeavor.
It gets better than that!
On his way backstage, he was ushered though the dressing room – which was packed with beautiful young ladies in various stages of dress – mostly clad in swimsuits.
He gladly took up his position amid the panel of distinguished judges, the lights came up, the floor director gave the nod to the Master of Ceremonies who announced…”Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Miss United Kingdom Competition”!
For his sterling efforts, the young Mr. Brown was presented with a nice picture taken of the contestants and judges which Eck prized for many years – until one day, in a split second of domestic discord, the picture mysteriously disappeared…forever!
For over half a century, Eck has been called upon year after year to judge competitions all over Western Canada and the States - including Alaska. He is particularly proud to have touched the lives of the next generation of great Canadian drummers, the likes of John Fisher, Buzz Brown, Roland Reid and Tim Boan to name a few. Although he has never judged Peter Hendrickson, he certainly respects his prowess as a drummer and like many Calgarians, continues to follow Peter’s progress.
Eck and Evelyn’s son David is also a very accomplished side drummer with natural skills and the ability to cast his own shadow should he desire to pursue his drumming.
Although a humble and private person, more than any other drummer in Western Canada, Eck Brown can take solace in the fact that his direct influence has had a positive effect on the quality and depth of pipe band drumming in Canada – by significantly raising the standard to a point where Canadian drummers can and have competed confidently on the world stage.