Today we are going back to the 1930's with memories from Eastland Band Alumni and longtime newspaper columnist Leon Hale. Leon was kind enough to share his memories of the Eastland Band and he did so with the flare of someone who has spent a lifetime crafting sentences. You can read quite a bit about Leon and his amazing career here.
You may remember this photo of the band from 1937 that I shared with you a few weeks ago. Leon is in that photo:
Hello Stephen Cox:
I was pleased to receive your phone call, and to hear that you are gathering information for a history of the Eastland High School Band. And I’m more than somewhat surprised to learn that, so far, your research is showing that at 97, I am probably the oldest living former member of that organization.
What follows is in response to your suggestion that I contribute a brief chapter for your history, about my experience in the band and the dance orchestra that spun off it. That’ll be a stretch for me, since we’re talking about the last few years of the 1930’s. But I’ll give it a go.
Please accept that I can’t guarantee all the information I’ll be giving you is 100-per cent accurate. Because I’ll be drawing it out of nothing but my personal memory of events and situations from more than 80 years ago.
My band experience began on a late summer afternoon in what I believe was 1935, when I was 15. My mother collared me and said Professor G.W. Collum, the high school’s band director, was recruiting students for membership, and she wanted me to volunteer.
One of that woman’s several goals was to have a totally musical family. She could play the piano and so could both my older sisters. Even my father, a traveling salesman, sometimes drove down the road blowing country tunes on his harmonica.
Not me. The only thing I played was vacant-lot baseball. I didn’t know middle C from second base, and I wasn’t interested in learning. But when my mother got an idea it was slow about going away, so I climbed the high school hill and met Professor Collum.
I told Prof (we always called him Prof) that my mother sent me, to see if I could join his band. He said maybe so, but he’d need to test me. He played a simple tune on the piano and I sat there while he watched me. I didn’t know whether he expected me to sing, dance or yodel. I learned later he was watching my foot, to see if it patted in time to the music.
Apparently it did because he asked if I owned a musical instrument. I said no. He said don’t worry, he had one I could borrow. He gave it to me and said come back Monday for my first lesson.
The instrument he handed me was an old alto horn, the kind that tries to look like a French horn. A peck horn, as other band members called it.
In the sheet music we used, the parts written for alto horns were pretty simple. So I had no trouble learning to play the horn. But playing it wasn’t what you’d call exciting.
On most pieces the person on the alto sits there and goes um-pah, um-pah, um-pah. Sometimes, when the music changes, instead of um-pah he goes um-pah-pah. (That’s an outrageous simplification but never mind, let it go.)
I made um-pahs in Prof Collum’s band for at least a year and maybe longer. The reason I stayed with it, I discovered I liked being in the band. I found it a good place to make friends. I can say now that I met in that little band some of the best friends I’ve ever had. These are people who have been important to me in many ways, and I’ve kept up with them all my life.
Until I met Prof Collum I hadn’t done anything much more meaningful than milk a couple of cows and mow a few lawns. But after you dressed me in the sharp uniform of an organization that represented my school, my self esteem began climbing. We didn’t talk about it but I know many of my fellow band members felt this same way.
I suppose some Eastland citizens assumed that all the band ever did was play at football games and march during half time.
But in or out of competition we always had the tallest drum major, Thomas Dabney, who was bigger than the biggest player on the basketball team. In uniform he wore a sort of stovepipe headdress that made him look another foot taller.
There was the myth, circulating among our male members, that the main reason to join the band instead of playing football was that half the band’s members were girls. Like all such stories, that one might be partly true and it might not.
Most of those girl-names left me long ago. But I do remember Julia Parker and Margaret Gibson because they were in my class and I saw them daily at school. Also in my class was Betty Jean Somebody, whose last name may return to me eventually. She played the flute. First flute I ever saw. Prof Collum had two daughters, Evelyn and Kathleen, both experienced band members. Evelyn helped me learn to read music.
One day Prof Collum called me to his office, which was then in the basement underneath the stage of the auditorium. Said he had something to show me. It was an old but operational trumpet, in a nice black case. It was for sale. For $30.
Our country was then in the depths of the Great Depression. I paid off the trumpet -- a dollar here and a dollar there -- by selling fresh milk to neighbors at 10 cents a quart. (We lived just five blocks from the courthouse but we kept a couple of milk cows in the back yard. The cows were my father’s idea. He said they helped him remember where he came from. But it was me who did the milking.)
The first notes I coaxed out of the old trumpet were so bad, so fuzzy, you’d never have recognized that they were from a song long familiar to you. “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty . . . “
Those notes were special to me. I played them over and over. Hey, listen to this. No more um-pah, um-pah. This is a tune, a melody. It’s music, or anyway close to it.
I gave the borrowed alto back to Prof, and he moved me to the trumpet section. After that day I was a different person. I no longer dreamed of becoming a famous baseball player. I decided instead to become a famous trumpet player
The closest I came to that goal? I was at least recognized in Eastland High as one of several trumpet players in the band. We were not great, but we were plenty loud.
At this time, as far as I know, the only student in Prof Collum’s band to become a professional musician was sitting back in the trombone section.
His name –- Collen Satterwhite, a senior when I was a sophomore.
The history of Eastland’s band will surely include a chapter on Satterwhite’s career so I’ll not try to deal with that. He became a trombonist in Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, and eventually a composer and arranger for many of the big names in the world of music.
The reason I mention him here, Satterwhite did something, even before he got out of high school, that led me personally into the happiest times of my growing-up years: He started a little dance band. And invited me with my old second-hand trumpet to sit in.
A casual reader might expect that in the 1930’s, the popular music among young people in a small West Texas town would be hillbilly, or what we now call country. I’m sure we had our pickers and grinners in Eastland County but I wasn’t aware of them, and I don’t recall my fellow high school students showing any interest in country music.
No, we were running from country. Late at night we listened to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on the radio. We had dances in the high school gym, and the records on the juke box (which we called a Nickelodeon)would be by Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James. Big Band music. On the dance floor, students were learning to jitterbug.
Let’s see if I can recall the original members of Satterwhite’s dance band.
Sitting out front were Jack Brown on tenor sax, and James (Buzz) Metcalf, doubling on alto sax and clarinet. Satterwhite sat in the middle with his trombone and two trumpet players –- Jim Galloway and me. Galloway was the nearest we had to a star trumpeter, who could stand up and “take off” -- perform what we called ad lib solos. But this band didn’t lack solo talent. About ninety-five per cent of it came out of Satterwhite’s trombone.
On the back was the rhythm section, made up almost entirely of James Dabney and half a truck load of his drum equipment. This group obviously needed a bass fiddle but Satterwhite couldn’t find one. So he borrowed a bass horn from the high school band, which had two.
E.J. Pryor joined us to play that big horn, and carry it. The same as the others I’ve already named, he came out of Prof Collum’s band.
Sometimes, when he needed a fuller sound, Satterwhite would bring in Leo Wolf and his trumpet. And I remember a night when Buzz Daniels played guitar with us. He never looked at the music. When we changed keys Satterwhite would shout it out, let Buzz know what key we were in.
I almost said Buzz was the only person who ever played with this group who wasn’t also a member of the high school band. No, now and then we’d have a gig when Satterwhite was out of town, probably playing with a real band somewhere. So we’d call in a trombone player from Breckinridge, I believe. Jerry Somebody. I’ll never remember his last name.
Then we had Wesley Hancock who volunteered to be our crooner. Wesley worked at Burr’s Department Store so he had good clothes. He’d dress up and come to rehearsals and wait for a chance to sing. If he ever sang a note with the band I didn’t hear him but he always looked nice.
We were seldom hired to play for an event so we created our own gigs. My favorite place to play was the Connellee Hotel Roof Garden.
The hotel let us use the roof garden for $25, to be paid out of proceeds. We’d make cardboard placards and put them up around town, advertising a Saturday night dance on Connellee Roof Garden, admission $2, couples or stag.
Our music? We played a mixture of standard arrangements. Songs like Stompin’ at the Savoy, Dipsy Doodle, Darktown Strutter’s Ball, Roll ‘em, Honeysuckle Rose, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Deep Purple, September in the Rain. We’d draw pretty good crowds, sometimes.
Satterwhite’s disappearances kept getting more frequent until one day he left and didn’t come back. (Prof Collum left, too, and moved to Stephenville.) Jack Brown, our tenor sax man, stepped up and took over leadership of the dance band.
Without Satterwhite’s trombone we were pretty thin but just as enthusiastic as ever, and maybe louder. We experimented with various venues. We tried playing dances held in private homes, but this generated complaints from neighbors who weren’t entertained by the lively beat of Dipsy Doodle after midnight.
Hey, once we played for a school dance at which nobody danced.
This happened in a rural community somewhere out in the county. Was it Mangum? Nimrod? Punkin Center? Wherever it was, local authorities had ruled no dancing on school property.
But somebody had paid us to show up, so while we played our dance numbers the students chose partners and held hands and walked around in circles. And kept walking all evening, until we quit.
This band died hard.
When Jack Brown went away to college, E.J. Pryor became our final leader. He had a day job as head soda jerk at Corner Drug Store, which was fortunate because the income from our gigs was getting somewhat pitiful.
Some nights, after we played at the Roof Garden and paid the hotel its 25 bucks, we wouldn’t have enough left to bother about counting. That didn’t matter. Any one of us would have borrowed money and paid, to be a member of that little group of friends. –-- Leon Hale