Born in Chico, Wise County, Texas, on November 30, 1904, Fred “Papa” Calhoun, pioneering pianist, was raised in a family of musicians—mainly piano players. His father, besides being a pianist, was a multi-instrumentalist who was proficient on banjo, guitar, and fiddle, and also played brass instruments with the Chico city band. Calhoun’s older brother Paul was an accomplished pianist who performed with local dance bands.
Calhoun actually started his musical career as a drummer and worked with his brother playing parties and dances in and around Chico. After moving to Oklahoma, where he completed high school, Calhoun formed his own dance band, he claimed, at the age of sixteen. The ten-piece combination, which he led on drums, played Dixieland and swing styles and was influenced particularly by Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke.
At the end of 1929, Calhoun moved to Decatur, Texas, and found work in a flour mill. He again formed a band, similar in lineup and musical styles to his Oklahoma group. When the band’s pianist suddenly quit, Calhoun moved to the piano. He was versed in the rudiments of piano playing and discovered that he was naturally skilled at the keyboard. Consequently he never returned to playing drums. Calhoun moved to Fort Worth and began playing solo piano spots on radio station KTAT three times a week. He performed under the name of “the Colonel from Kentucky,” which station manager Marvin Bennett dubbed him for some unknown reason.
In the fall of 1932, a Chicago vocal trio, the Three Jacks, came to perform on KTAT, and Calhoun sat in with them. After the radio show, the group invited Calhoun to go to Fort Worth’s famous Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion to hear Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Initially a little reluctant to go hear the Brownies, which Calhoun regarded as just another string band, he was persuaded to make the trip. When he and the Three Jacks arrived, Calhoun was immediately impressed by the size of the crowd on that cold, snowy Thursday night.
Jack Stone, leader of the Three Jacks, approached the bandstand and talked to Milton Brown, who then went and pulled the cover off the piano. Calhoun was introduced as KTAT’s “the Colonel from Kentucky.” The first tune Calhoun played with the Brownies was “Nobody’s Sweetheart.” A piano in a string band was a novelty, and Calhoun’s jazz-flavored style caught the attention of the audience to the point where people stopped dancing and crowded the stage to listen to the piano-driven sound. During an intermission, Brown asked Calhoun to join the Brownies. Calhoun wasn’t sure because he had a well-paid job managing a soda fountain.
Calhoun agreed to play with the Brownies part-time, however one night the group was playing in Dallas and attracted such a huge crowd, they needed police escort. At the end of the night, Brown paid Calhoun more than $100, and Calhoun became a full-time member of the Musical Brownies.
Calhoun brought a strong jazz dimension to the Brownie sound. His performances added drive and an energetic voice, and his swing influence was a foundation for what was to become known as western swing. His particular influence was the great jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. Because of Calhoun’s love for Hines’s playing and because Calhoun was regarded as a kind of patriarch in the origins of the group’s western swing sound, Milton Brown nicknamed him “Papa.” Calhoun got to meet Hines and listen to him perform at the Gem Hotel in Fort Worth, which featured jazz.
Through their live performances, radio broadcasts, and recordings, the Brownies began to influence other groups such as the Hi-Flyers, the Rhythm Aces, and the Cowboy Ramblers. Milton Brown and the Brownies recorded for RCA on their Bluebird subsidiary during 1934, and in 1935 they signed with Decca and recorded more than forty sides for the label. The band’s heavy touring schedule kept them on the road constantly. Calhoun was an insomniac and spent journeys to and from jobs reading on the band bus.
Fred Calhoun was the last Brownie to see Milton Brown alive on the tragic night of April 12–13, 1936. Calhoun and his future bride, Idell Rostosky, and her friend, sixteen-year-old Katherine Prehoditch, were together. The group had the night off. Eventually, Calhoun asked Brown to take Katherine home, and Milton agreed. Fred and Idell were driving ahead of Milton and Katherine on Jacksboro Highway when Brown’s car went off the road.
Following Milton Brown’s death, the Brownies tried to continue under the leadership of Milton’s brother Derwood. In 1937 they played their last date. Some of the band, including Calhoun, eventually regrouped as the Texas Wanderers, led by fiddler Cliff Bruner. They recorded for Decca in San Antonio at the St. Anthony Hotel on February 5, 1937. The selections included “Milk Cow Blues.” Soon, however, Fred “Papa” Calhoun left the music business to become a traveling salesman. He moved to Lubbock and delivered potato chips for his brother-in-law, then moved to Amarillo and became a federal security guard.
While in Amarillo, Fred Calhoun returned to music and played with the Sons of the West at the Rainbow Garden. He later recorded with Cliff Bruner and worked with Ted Daffan’s band in Houston.
In 1945 Fred “Papa” Calhoun opened a neighborhood grocery store, Calhoun Grocery, in Fort Worth with his wife. He played piano and vibraphone occasionally on a casual basis with friends. He died at the age of eighty-two on July 4, 1987.
His musical legacy can be heard on the Musical Brownies recordings which have been released as box sets and on various anthologies such as Western Swing Chronicles –Vol. 1 (Origin Jazz Library, 2001) and Doughboys, Playboys, and Cowboys: The Golden Years of Western Swing (Proper Records, 1999). He is heard playing piano and vibraphone with Johnny Gimble and the Texas Swing Pioneers on the album Still Swingin’: Johnny Gimble and the Texas Swing Pioneers, recorded in 1979.
In 1993 Fred “Papa” Calhoun was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. His wife Idell died at the age of ninety-four in Fort Worth. Fred and Idell Calhoun were survived by their children, Kent and Cheryl.