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Music director gives Bruno Mars' act some Detroit muscle
Phredley Brown's mother was a music teacher in Southfield Public Schools and his father a minister.
Respectable pursuits, to be sure. But somehow they turned out a Hooligan -- and a head Hooligan at that.
The Lathrup Village-raised Roeper Schools graduate has been the musical director of Grammy Award-winning pop 'n' soul phenomenon Bruno Mars' Hooligans band since the fall of 2010. Brown also co-wrote Mars' 2013 hit "Treasure" and, by dint of his association, has performed at the Grammy Awards and during halftime of this year's Super Bowl XLVIII.
The success has been, "almost too large to conceive, really," Brown says. But there's no question he's having a ball.
"It's hard not to, really," notes the 29-year-old multi-instrumentalist. "People ask me if we're just putting on a show or if we're putting a face on or if we're really having fun. When you're doing what you love and dancing with your buddies and singing and thousands of people every night are watching you, it's hard not to enjoy that, y'know?"
Brown's musical journey began at an early age. Born Fred Brown, Jr. (the Ph came from a middle school friend and stuck) and the oldest of two, he grew up with his mother, Natalie Stroud, giving private lessons at home in addition to her school teaching. "She would tell a story of me being about three years old and telling her she was spending too much time on everybody else's kids and she wasn't spending enough time with me," Brown says. "So she said right then and there she started focusing on me and teaching me piano and music from there, and It's just something I never left."
Influenced by the Motown and show tunes he heard at home -- he started each day of his 7th grade year listening to a Jackson 5 greatest hits CD -- Brown began piling on the instruments, adding drums, saxophone and trombone to the mix. "It was very cool that she would indulge a kid, nine years old, who says he wants a saxophone when he's playing drums and piano already, and at nine and a half he wants to play a trombone and at 11 he's curious about trumpet," notes Brown, who estimates he can play "10 or 12 instruments" with professional proficiency.
"It seems amazing to me now, looking back. But she was always really supportive of everything, so I'm excited to be having it all pay off now and making her proud."
Brown mixed his own bands with school ensembles -- as well as playing on the varsity soccer, basketball, baseball and track & field teams -- and was accepted into the University of Michigan's music school after he graduated from Roeper in 2013. His time there was short-lived, however -- five weeks, to be exact.
"The music school is an amazing program," Brown explains, "but I felt like I just wasn't getting what I needed. Music had never been an academic thing in my life; it was always like an extra-curricular, fun sort of thing. I don't know if it was sitting down at a desk and having music homework and taking music tests, but it didn't feel right, so I ended up leaving."
Brown returned to metro Detroit, where he led his own band, performed in dueling piano bars and did some theater work as both an actor and a musician. He decided to head to Los Angeles in 2009 "to try something new see what else was out there," and just over a year later a mutual friend referred him to Mars, who was looking for musicians for his then-fledgling Hooligans.
"I could tell from a musical standpoint that Bruno was a very, very musical person and also very kind of scholarly about the music he enjoyed and the sounds he was looking for," Brown recalls. "So I was really excited about that." Mars, meanwhile, had equally high regard for Brown and upgraded his role within a month after he joined the group.
"One day Bruno and I were just sitting and listening ot some performances we had done and were talking about it and going over a couple of things he wanted to talk to the guys about," Brown says. "The next day before the show we all sat down and Bruno was talking about a few of the things we had spoken about. Then at the end of that he said, 'OK, I'm gonna go ahead and make Phred the musical director -- which he and I had not spoken about, so that caught me as well as everybody else in the band off guard.
"Fortunately everybody else in the band felt that I was a good choice for the position, and we were all pretty excited about it. And from there I just started to try and find out what a musical director was or what they did. It was a whole other learning curve."
Brown says worldwide touring was "scary" at first, but he's since become acclimated to it thanks to Mars' meteoric rise -- which includes, five No. 1 hits, 11 million albums and 68 million singles sold worldwide and a pair of Grammy Awards. "We started out playing for maybe 300 to 400 people a night in bars, and within six months we were headlining arenas," Brown says. "It was crazy, and I'd never been in an atmosphere like that. So for a long time I really didn't know what I was doing." Now, however, he's a seasoned pro and looking forward to the challenge of helping Mars maintain his dizzying career momentum.
"I think I've kind of learned how to grow with the pressure," says Brown, who still regularly, and proudly, sports Detroit sports attire. "I've grown so much in the last four years in terms of the thins I've been asked to do and things I've been told to do on the fly. It's a great way to learn -- especially when you're being paid to learn it."
Bruno Mars & the Hooligans and Aloe Blacc perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75. Some tickets remain at $43. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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