words by Michael Kearns | photographs by Matt Steffen


Some of the facts are easy to come by. They add up, in pertinent part, to the fact that a Cincinnati musical legend will play no more.

His obit reads:

Brown David R. age 72, of Union, Kentucky passed away on Thursday, December 8, 2022. He was born in North College Hill, Ohio on March 7, 1950 to the late Ed and Justine Brown (nee Wintstel). He was preceded in death by his parents and sisters, Caroline Brown and Ranie LeVan. David is survived by his beloved wife, Roberta Kayser (nee Layne); sons, Wolfgang (Jessica) Kayser and Ivan (Savannah Freeman) Kayser; grandchild, Atticus Kayser; and a host of other family members and friends.

David also leaves behind an extended family of friends in the Cincinnati musical scene, most recently, the boys from 500 Miles to Memphis and The Warsaw Falcons. He has played with The Star Devils, The Tammy Whynots, Magnolia Mountain, Radio King Cowboys, The Browngrass Band, Catalog Cowboys and The Modified among many others, and has shared the stage with many more over the years.

Cincinnati.com added that:

Brown got his start in music in 1964, when he bought his first guitar while serving in the U.S. Navy….Referred to as “the godfather of local rockabilly”…. Brown spent over 40 years in the music industry, performing with countless regional and national bands and artists. He often showcased his talents on the lap steel and dobro guitars and banjo.

Those are the facts and while they’re true and accurate, but they do little to explain what Brown meant to legions of musicians and music fans in this city and beyond.

Getting to the heart and soul of the matter is another thing all together.

Nick Grever writing well in CityBeat at the time of David’s death came closer to capturing our loss.

The legend of David Rhodes Brown is a bit of a tall tale within the Cincinnati music scene.

Standing at a natural 6’5” before adding his signature cowboy boots and hat, Brown literally and figuratively towered above his constituency with his impeccable musicianship, booming voice, over 60 years of experience and incomparable affability and kindness…..

The stories [about Brown] may sound like fiction at times, with small things like dates, details or specifics being lost to history, but the truth always comes through – Brown was wondrously talented, relentlessly positive and unbelievably charitable. This is the legacy that he left with his fans and loved ones.

Brown’s musical career spanned multiple decades, cities, genres, bands, instruments and more.

DRB as fiction? Well, yes it certainly seemed that way at times and it certainly seems that way in retrospect.

But he was real and we can learn more about DRB  by speaking to the people who knew him well.

Talk to the people who knew him for decades, many of them congregating on a recent Friday night at the Southgate House Revival to remember David.

Morella Raleigh, owner of the Southgate House Revival knew David since the 90s and got know him best during the Star Devil years when she would travel with the band, said DRB was “a friend first, a supreme talent…who nurtured other musicians, and the whole scene in general,  which made him very, very special.  He shared his talent through writing music and playing in bands…but he also lifted a lot of younger artists up.”

Ken Haynes, WNKU disk jockey and Station Manager added that he knew David going back 25 years. Haynes said that David’s music was meaningful to him and “to anybody in this damn town who does anything with music.”

Haynes said that David’s music was meaningful to him personally because, “it  was from the heart and was true with no pussyfooting around, and it was really, really, really good.” Haynes said that his favorite moments with Brown were the Browngrass fundraisers for WNKU in Rabbit Hash.

Rick Bird, who was one of the preeminent voices on the music scene as a DJ at WEBN said:

David did everything. I remember first meeting him in 79 or 80 when he was in a punk band called the Wet Spots..they were playing at the Jockey Club then he does rockabilly, then he does swing, then he disappeared for a few years to Nashville and tried to do the writer’s thing.  David probably wasn’t the greatest writer, the greatest singer or the greatest guitar player but he was the total package. The other thing was from a media perspective was that he was a constant self promoter….so many bands in town think that they’re artists and they wait to be discovered, but they’re not going to be discovered if nobody shows up.  David was constantly promoting what he was doing. I’d get a call every month…his energy was wonderful.

Daniel Peterson, drummer for Honey and Huston saw David in his years as part of the music scene said David was “one of the most original players around, he was a force of nature.”

Force of nature.

When David Purcell, a mutual friend and former Pike 27 front man, drummer and singer- songwriter, who himself was a driving force in the Cincinnati’s music scene for decades, texted me at the time of David’s passing to tell me he was gone, I texted him, “Thanks for the news brother. So sad. The man was a force of nature.”

To which David replied, “Indeed. I used the exact same phrase with Amy last night.”

Some things are clear.

But mostly not. Following the career of David Rhode’s Brown could be like looking through a beautiful kaleidoscope. Everyone saw something different, it was personal.

I was fortunate to follow Dave’s career and to be blessed with his music from the mid 1980s until the end of his career. Like David, I came and went from this city, though our paths invariably crossed over the years.

Over the length of his career, I saw him often in many of his iterations and projects, including The Star Devils, The Tammy Whynots, Magnolia Mountain, Radio King Cowboys, The Browngrass Band, Catalog Cowboys.

In time, I began writing about and photographing music. Nearly all of my friends, for decades, were musicians. I often shot David and/or the bands he was playing with.

But this was all later and as talented and wonderful as all of these projects were, they are not the bands, the memories of DRB which will always play in my mind.

I remember the early years.

I remember the Falcons: in which a young David Rhodes Brown towers over a Green Bullet microphone, a foot and a half forelock falling forward covering his face and mike. He played with abandon and sang in an impossibly deep smokey, and yes booming voice, while he and John Schmidt and Doug Wagner played tight and with joyous abandon.

You’d swear it was a dream if someone wasn’t smart enough to record those days.

The Warsaw Falcons, Live at Dollar Bills with John Schmidt on Bass and Doug Wagner lives on in perpetuity – at least on Amazon Music. Replete with classic Falcon hits such as How Can You Be So Mean to Me, Skinny Ankle Bone and the immortal Brand New Man; replete with slow sultry bases intro and DRB’s pleading vocals.

Brand New Man, in retrospect, doesn’t break any new ground musically or lyrically, but the song and the recording does capture the heart and soul of the Falcons. Their pith and vigor arrogance also appears on the album cover. Three young rockers posed before a wrinkled drop cloth. It’s a simple shot capturing everything: shot lapels, brylcreemed hair and determination.

Not that I need the recording to remember those moments. I remember them because , at the time, they were essential to life, they were like oxygen.

It’s impossible to appreciate the Falcons in retrospect unless you lived through those days, unless you understand the context in which we lived, in which they played.

Cincinnati was a gray heartless town run by a few soulless greedy scumbag families and cabals which ran this town like their own private crime enterprise.

In short, Cincinnati was a classist, racist, misogynistic third rate berg with few heroes and little hope.

Places like Dollar Bills with legitimate local bands playing their own music were a rarity. Cincinnati’s nascent music scene had not yet launched, the Whigs formed in 1986 but were still two years off from recording their first disc. The Ass Ponys wouldn’t form until 1988. Bogarts was open but not for local acts.

There was Cory’s on McMillan which was the only “real” blues/jazz bar in town in those days where H Bomb Furguson, the sartorially and musically immaculate Big Ed Thompson and Pigmeat Jarret and others-including DRB- reigned. It was there where George Thorogood filmed his Willy and the hand Jive Video in 1985 with H Bomb on Maracas.

No, there were precious few places for those who wished for entertainment outside of  the frat boy discos and heartless meat markets. Downtown was an entertainment graveyard.

Twenty Years ago- when another local legend died, I wrote:

I grew up in Cincinnati; and in particular, the lily white burbs of this town. This was during the dark ages when there were only five television channels and one kind of Captain Crunch. A world comprised of middle-class two story homes on postage stamp lots, where everyone was German Catholic, kept beautiful lawns, believed in Jesus Christ and the 10 commandments.

Cincinnati was in those days, I wrote, was a “largely a corrupt and inchoate whorehouse where men’s destinies, desires and rights, are bought and sold according to their social rank and the color of their skin.”

It’s been over twenty years since I wrote those words in a piece for CityBeat, a remembrance about the great Jazz Guitarist Cal Collins.

Though the chronological overlap is not exact (Kaldis opened in 1993), the two places and players are inextricably linked in my mind.  Creative, nurturing oases giving shelter to small town heroes with major league talent.

David at Dollar Bills and Cal at Kaldi’s.

Cal was a colorful guy, a self taught Jazz player who flew helicopters in the service and grew up in the Indiana countryside surrounded by country pickers.

He played the world over with the biggest names and then eventually made his way back to Cincinnati where I first heard him playing his giant hollow body in the corner of Kaldi’s coffee shop on Main Street in OTR. I saw him on countless other nights there,  often with Kenny Poole.

In those days, OTF was not the twee yupster destination neighborhood which it mostly is today. In those days it was very much a rough urban neighborhood. Kaldi’s was a coffee shop/bar/bookshop. A rare architecturally bifurcated artistic outpost surrounded by urban blight, far removed what was then considered the fashionable neighborhoods of Cincinnati.

I wrote that piece because I owed it to Cal for all he gave to me in those years. He and Kaldis literally kept me sane. When I moved back to dreary Cincinnati after a decade in Atlanta and Cleveland, with their rich artistic scenes and diverse neighborhoods, Kaldis seemed a rare jewel, a bright light, a place where one could find like-minded others.

It was an escape from the predominant ignorance and hatred which was my hometown. Cal’s music in that place was manna from heaven. Comfort food for the soul.

Dollar Bills and David’s music also kept me breathing. I write this piece now, for David, for the same reasons I wrote the remembrance of Cal.

Because in those dark years, so devoid of exultation, David and his music, his bands, and in particular, the Falcons, provided joy in an all too miserable town, provided hope to those jamming Cory’s and Dollar Bills, those looking to just be fucking happy for ten damn minutes.

But that’s just me- that’s just what I saw through the kaleidoscope in those days.

Others, of course, admired the peripatetic David Rhodes and his bands for other reasons.

It had to be that way.

At the remembrance Ken Haynes told me once how Bobby, the big bald ham-handed bartender and manager of Mr Pitiful’s, on Main Street, had once told him that David was the only guy he ever met who was capable of reinventing himself seven times in the same town.

How you saw him depended upon which guy you were watching.

Mostly though, we could agree on our love of his energy, his generosity and the fact that we all loved him and his bands for playing the hell out of whatever music struck him as necessary, as joyous, at the moment.

Which is the way it goes with legends, with myths, with forces of nature.

Via con dios sir, and thank you for the hope.