Brannon looking to come in from the cold
Five months after politicians labelled him a racist and his band members walked away, Tony Brannon is looking to rebrand The Big Chill.
The veteran entertainer is searching for a singer to front the group, which will have a new name and be backed by musicians rather than a DJ.
It’s all part of prescribed change for the sixtysomething, who, in March, described government workers as “cockroaches” in two social-media posts critical of Bermuda’s immigration policies.
Roundly chastised in the House of Assembly, Mr Brannon was then dropped as a performer by the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club because of his racist remarks. To better understand why, he signed up with Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda.
“I’ve heard so many times: you’ve never stood in a black man’s shoes, so you don’t know how we feel — and I get that,” said Mr Brannon, who hasn’t performed in public since.
“It was a lesson learnt about using certain words in describing anybody. It was a very unpleasant experience for me. So I’ve had to look at stuff. I’m doing the Curb course at the end of the month and I’m looking forward to finding out more, finding out how I could be better at understanding this complex issue of race and all the things we tag on to.”
Days after his scandal broke, Mr Brannon booked a “last-minute” flight to England. On March 13, worried that he might be stuck there by the coronavirus pandemic, he made the decision to come back.
Having “literally been unemployed since”, his long-term goal is to find income.
“I’ve kind of taken the view I’m going to take this year off,” said Mr Brannon, who acknowledged he had little choice in the matter. “I am working on a solo thing called Rewind, which is just going to be me, a piano, guitar and ukulele. I’ll do a bunch of songs and, hopefully next year, there’ll be some places to play.”
His big project. however, is to find musicians for The Big Chill Band, a successor to the group he formed with Felix Tod in 2013.
“When [it all] went down what was really shocking to me was Jesse Seymour and Felix Tod said we can no longer work with you. Felix even sent me an e-mail saying, ‘I can’t stand on the same stage as a racist,’” he said.
“It’s such a well-established band, well liked by event planners and wedding planners who are calling me to this day for weddings next year. I’m taking the bookings. I’m going to put a new band together but I’m gonna have it more live. I’m not going to have a DJ in it. I’m looking for a singer, and maybe a musician or two — a bass player, a sax player or something like that; a maximum of four.”
Having also had success with singers Joy Barnum and Kassie Caines, he is confident that there is talent to be found on the island.
“[Kassie] was fantastic. In my mind she’s the best thing that’s ever happened in Bermuda in the sense of how she commands a crowd,” he said. “So I need somebody really good. I know there’s talent out there.
“Wedding planners are already booking me knowing I’m going to put a band together, knowing that I deliver and knowing that I’ve always delivered a good product — I’m not worried about it at all in that sense.
“I would really like to find a really talented, gifted Bermudian that wants to be part of something. I’ve already put it out there on social media, I’ve put it out there on bermudaentertainment.com, the Bermuda entertainment page, on Facebook and on my Instagram.”
His plan is to play at “corporate and group functions, Christmas parties and weddings”.
“And hopefully one night a week at a hotel like we did at Marina Nights [at Hamilton Princess & Beach Club] or when we were at Cafe Lido for five years,” he said. “No one put the numbers into Cafe Lido like The Big Chill. We absolutely packed that place for five years and made those guys a lot of money. I am looking forward to seeing what’s out there.”
Mr Brannon weathered a similar scandal in 2007 when he posted how “the nasty attitudes and surly service by yes, ‘black Bermudians’ egged on by the BIU” were responsible for the “slow demise” of tourism over 30 years.
Still, he is confident that those who know him know he’s not the racist he has been portrayed as.
“That was, again, another unfortunate situation,” said Mr Brannon who, at the time, organised popular events at Hawkins Island. “When you have strong opinions about things..... I was in business then and I saw the effect that it had on [my] business. I understood the struggle. I understood the reasoning for striking and the general strike, but sometimes the methods that you use to fight battles will cause you to not really win the war.”
According to Mr Brannon, he learnt a lot from his father, Terry, one of the owners of the 40 Thieves Club.
“That place was a social melting pot for Bermudians,” he said, explaining how it opened “right on the back of when cinemas were segregated”.
He added: “Everybody came to the 40. My old man didn’t play that game at all.”
In 1979, his father insisted on paying Bermuda Industrial Union staff more than three times the rate offered by hotels.
“My dad insisted that, since we were making so much money, we needed to share the profits with the workers because that’s the way Dad was.
“In 1981 when it came time for union negotiations, we couldn’t pay that kind of level increase. They were asking for 12 and 10 per cent. We said we could only afford about 6 per cent because things had dropped off. They got really agitated — or at least the union reps did.”
Hearing a recording of a union meeting in which the popular nightclub’s owners were described as “white devils” really “did rattle my chain”, Mr Brannon said.
“I’m sure part of that was in my subconscious when I flew off the handle [in 2007] about tourism in 1981. I really have to work on that. Resentments kill, resentments are bad. It’s no excuse, but you have to put it in the context.
“When I closed the 40 Thieves I said I never want to work anywhere there’s a union again. I was so freaked out by that experience. So I’m working through all that stuff that can linger with you for a long time and make you react in ways you normally wouldn’t have done because you have a resentment.”
That incident and his most recent scandal have made him become a little more introspective.
“We’ve all had to grow up dealing with how we’ve grown up, dealing with how we were brought up and who we were brought up by,” he said. “This whole incident has made me look very closely at my prejudices and stuff that was pumped into me by mother, who was totally different from my father — a totally liberal, all-inclusive man. My mother was the complete opposite.”
With all that in mind while in England, he wrote to Wayne Caines, then the Minister of National Security, in hopes of putting his “cockroach” comments to rest.
“He said, ‘I’ve had a word with my pastor and we’ve decided we’d like to meet with you when you come home.’”
Once Mr Brannon returned, however, Mr Caines didn’t have the time to talk as he was “knee-deep with Covid”. According to Mr Brannon, more recent attempts to connect with Mr Caines, who was forced to quit Cabinet after his own controversy, have also failed.
“I get that I was insulting, but the bottom line is I’ve written to him since [he resigned] and he’s ignored everything.”
Mr Brannon is hoping Bermuda is a lot more forgiving.
“I think a lot of this stuff is fanned politically,” said Mr Brannon, who successfully waged a battle against the Government to get same-sex marriage legalised. “To live in a country and have a government minister call on employers not to hire somebody ... I don’t think anyone would do that anywhere in the world — an MP wouldn’t stand up in Parliament and say they shouldn’t hire so-and-so just because you attacked somebody politically. There’s been way worse things said to people in Parliament.
“I think 99.9 per cent of everybody I’ve spoken to — black and white — have said, we saw that for what it was. They were pissed off with you. With same-sex marriage, you were on their case — now we got this guy. That’s how some people see it.
“People say things that are inappropriate. You own up and you say I’m sorry. I’m basically gonna do my darnedest to stay out of getting into that whole quicksand of social media. It is a pattern and I can see how destructive that can be. I’m not gonna get into the politics of it.”
• Anyone interested in performing in The Big Chill Band should contact Tony Brannon on Facebook or Instagram, @rewindbermuda, or email@example.com
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