Type Tedd Browne’s name into Google and the first hit will be a disorganized site about obscure folk singers from the 1960s. Scan through the dizzying number of posts there and find a few sentences about him — how he was “a great performer” with a “great voice” and, shockingly, how he was shot and killed coming home from a gig in 1968. It turned out to be a racially motivated murder. Browne, who had been living in Cleveland at the time, was black.
Not much more is known about him, however. But that’s beginning to change as a 54-year-old Schenectady man is simultaneously trying to uncover the details of his story and preserve a pair of the few existing, known recordings Browne made — one of which includes 12 historical songs about Lake George.
“I never get tired of listening to these songs,” said Mark Mazzacua, whose own Schenectady-based Weedgie Music rereleased Browne’s 1964 “Lake George Musical Portrait” on CD after overseeing the album’s restoration and digital remastering last year. “To me, these songs are just as folk as the ‘Battle of New Orleans’ or ‘Tennessee Stud’ by Jimmie Driftwood. They just happen to be about where we live. It’s true American folk music, and I just want people to listen about how good this guy was.”
From what little is known about Browne, his story, apparently, involves a trip to the Adirondacks in 1964 and a woman there who helped nurture his creativity by funding studio sessions. His story involves that album of historical Lake George songs and the hate crime that killed him. And now 30 years after his death, his story has another unexpected chapter, thanks largely to Mazzacua, who wants to save him from total obscurity.
Fan from the beginning
Mazzacua, himself a folk singer who performs under the name Mark Mason, was first drawn into this story in the 1960s, shortly after the 1964 release of Browne’s “Lake George Musical Portrait.” Mazzacua’s father had bought the album, and it ended up in the family record collection. From the first time he heard it, when in his teens, Mazzacua was drawn in, partly by the music, partly by the historical references to places he knew — and by songs with titles such as “Fort William Henry,” “Ethan Allen,” “Lake George Steamboats” and “The Barton Mines.”
The album loomed large in his imagination until one day in 1972, when 19 years old, he and a friend tracked down Shirley Caple, a Lake George Village resident whose name appears in the liner notes. Caple opened up about meeting Browne at the famed Greenwich Village folk venue The Bitter End in the spring of 1964. He was already somewhat known as a historical songwriter, and, according to Mazzacua, Caple’s stories about the rich history in Lake George intrigued the folk singer — to the point that he made the trip north that summer and stayed two months. Once there, Mazzacua said, Browne researched and wrote the songs that would appear on the Lake George album.
Around the same time, Caple, then owner of the Cosmic Coffeehouse in Lake George Village, started Garnet Records and funded Browne’s album along with a follow-up, a curious affair that paid tribute to President Lyndon Johnson. Those would be Garnet Records’ only two releases, Mazzacua said.
What’s interesting, noted Larry DeVivo, the celebrated mastering engineer who worked on the Lake George album last year, is the quality of the recording, an oddity for such a small label in the early 1960s. In fact, it sounds — it has the “sonic imprint” in DeVivo’s words — like it could have come out of Columbia Records’ famed 30th Street studios in Manhattan.
“I wouldn’t doubt [Caple] paid a good penny back in that day to have this done,” he said. “Obviously, she must have been a real music lover to go through this.”
Then there were the session players who appear on the album, Tom McGoodwin on banjo and Bill Lee on bass. McGoodwin, DeVivo said, went on to play with Arlo Guthrie. And according to both Mazzacua and DeVivo, Lee is the father of famed filmmaker Spike Lee. The elder Lee was an in-demand jazz, folk and pop session player at the time of the recording. In fact, in 1965, a year after “Lake George Musical Portrait,” Lee appeared on Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.”
“It amazes me because the musicians [Browne] had play on the album were heavy hitters at the time,” DeVivo said. “Tedd had to have some chops himself in order to have these guys play with him. They wouldn’t have just jumped on this record.”
What DeVivo was able to accomplish in the remastering is just as remarkable a story. With no master tapes to be found anywhere, he had only two copies of the original vinyl from which to work. Mazzacua had been looking on e-Bay for additional copies, but was only able to find one, and that was after DeVivo had completed the task.
Coincidentally, DeVivo temporarily had on hand a new, cutting-edge and very expensive restoration processor, which he was reviewing for a trade magazine. It was exactly the technology the project needed.
“The copies [Mazzacua] brought me were these scratched up, dirty old albums that were such a mess,” DeVivo said. “And you’re dealing with vinyl surface noise, cracks, pops, everything. You have to dial out the clicks, dial out the hum. . . . But as you’re taking out the hiss and the clicks and pops, you’re losing the ambience of the record. You’re losing all the high end. Well, this [technology] allows you to get that all back in.”
While the sound has been restored, so much of Tedd Browne’s own history remains unknown. In the end, Browne’s story illustrates, in part, how much is lost to time and raises plenty of questions about how much we can understand for sure. Meanwhile, a lot of what Mazzacua knows, he admits, has been filtered through Shirley Caple, who is now dead.
Nevertheless, Browne’s story and the circumstances surrounding his death remain chilling in the retelling.
“Shirley told me about how he got murdered,” Mazzacua recalled. “Poor guy. She told me, and I’ve heard so many different stories. But the bottom line is, the guy was either in his car in his driveway or on his front porch, and there was a man, a Vietnam veteran, who used to boast how he could kill somebody without remorse. He carved an ‘N’ in a bullet that morning. And he told his friends, quote, ‘he was going to shoot the first [expletive]’ he saw that day. And here’s Tedd Browne, this beautiful man, and he just walks up to him at his house, and boom, he shoots him in the head — for no reason, no reason. . . . He was 39 years old, man. He could have been so much.”
Speaking with Mazzacua, the passion he has for Browne and his music remains clear. He has assumed the cost for the restoration project. He has spent time and money ensuring that the proper legalities of rereleasing an album have been followed. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to track down Browne’s surviving family members. And he’s hoping that as time goes on, he can fill in some of the blanks in the story.
Earlier this month, the Lake George recording was released nationally, thanks to a deal Mazzacua inked with the Georgia-based Southern Music Distributors, which makes the album available online at sites such as Amazon, Borders and FYE. It’s also for sale at Mazzacua’s www.lakegeorgesongs.com.
The next step, he said, is the release of Browne’s Lyndon Johnson tribute. While that subject matter might seem odd by today’s standards, Mazzacua pointed out that in the context of the ’60s, LBJ was at the very least perceived as sympathetic to the ideals of the Civil Rights era, and was embraced by many in the black community.
The last song on that album, Mazzacua noted, is called “Great Society,” a reference to LBJ’s domestic programs that sought to end poverty and racial injustice.
“It still chokes me up when I hear that song,” Mazzacua said. “Here’s Tedd Browne singing this song, and three years later someone shoots him in the head.”