When Little Bands Were Big


The store had a narrow mezzanine overlooking the main floor, and we squeezed onto this in a single line of chairs, all ten of us. Kirty Osborne, who played third sax, was on the end of the line—that is, the end next to a narrow passageway through which visitors made their way to the refreshments. A little too close to the end, as it turned out, for every time Kirty started to play, someone bumped into his music stand and spilled its contents on the floor. By the time Kirty had the music rearranged and put saxophone to lips, some widehipped matron would knock it over again. We collected two dollars apiece for that night’s première, and there was some discussion as to whether Kirty was entitled to his split. But he convinced us that he had been just as busy as the rest of us, even if we only saw his back most of the time.

Jobs began to come with gratifying frequency after that. Our ten-piece instrumentation was two trumpets, trombone, three saxes, bass horn, ,piano, drums, and banjo. For fifty dollars we’d all go. For a lesser amount we’d drop the bass, a sax, trombone, and second trumpet, in that descending order. We played for as little as two dollars apiece in the early stages but gradually averaged out to five, and there was the munificent night when we went home with ten bucks each.

We were playing for a Rainbow Girls’ dance down in the south end of Columbus one night, all ten of us, when we were approached during an intermission by one of the chaperons. “You kids sure have a great band there,” he said. “How would you like to play for the radio program I sponsor?”

I thought momentarily of the night some months back when we had bombed out. Did we dare try it again? I took a quick poll and got a quick answer. We did.

So it was that a few nights later we trooped into the same studio from which we had been booted so summarily not too long since. The same announcer was there to receive us, and it was evident from his lowering countenance that we had made a lasting impression upon him. “Yeah, I’ve met ’em,” he growled as our sponsor started the introductions.

But the microphone had lost its terror for us. And we had added quite a few more public appearances to our experience. The half hour went smoothly, and at its conclusion the announcer was happy, our sponsor was happy, and we were delirious.

It turned out that our benefactor owned a furniture store on a side street in downtown Columbus. He decided to ensconce us in his show window for a weekly remote broadcast, in the belief that this might promote evening store traffic. As far as we could tell, that traffic consisted chiefly of doting parents, loyal friends, and an occasional wino staggering along the deserted sidewalk. But the sponsor was satisfied, for the talent wasn’t costing him anything (“look at all the publicity you’ll get,” he convinced us). And we were satisfied, for we did get exposure—on the air, that is, not in the show window—and the weekly radio stint did in fact make it easier to line up jobs. Indeed, as time went on we left the furniture-store window for a weekly program on WAIU , for which we received two dollars per man per broadcast.

Transportation for these engagements, at least for most of the band, was my 1922 Dodge touring car, a capacious relic into which we regularly crammed one banjoist, one bassist, one drummer, two trumpeters, and two saxophonists—together with all their instruments. Station WAIU was located in what was then the swanky Deshler-Wallick Hotel at Broad and High, the heart of Columbus. En route to our weekly broadcast one night in the elephantine Dodge we were horrified when the car sputtered to a halt. We were accustomed to running out of gas, but this time we were still many blocks from our destination, and time was getting short. “Fill ’er up” was another phrase unknown to me then, the standard practice being to drip in a gallon or two at a time except on those rare occasions when I could afford a whole dollar’s worth at the going price of seventeen cents a gallon.

By dint of considerable contortion—after all, with seven musicians and all their instruments shoehorned in we had to unload by the numbers—everyone finally got free and began to shove. Fortunately we had a downhill run for two blocks, but then it levelled off. We still had to cross busy High Street and push another couple of blocks to the nearest gas station. And by then it was getting dangerously close to air time.

We dribbled in the regulation two gallons and sped off for WAIU with only minutes to spare. Ordinarily we parked in a lot several blocks away and walked back, but there was no time for that now. A Hudson, a Hupmobile, and a Packard were lined up at the hotel’s main entrance, but I usurped a space in front of them and braked to a halt before an astonished hotel doorman, resplendent in gold braid and epaulets.

“Get that goddam heap outa here!” he thundered as bejewelled matrons and their escorts stared at the Dodge’s bulging side curtains.

“Righto!” replied Vie, the first man to wiggle out, thrusting his bass drum into the doorman’s flailing arms. “Hold that a minute, will ya?”

The doorman dropped the drum on the walk and waved more vigorously. “I said get that junk heap outa here, and I mean it!” he yelled, growing somewhat livid.

“Yessir,” answered “Rose” Budd, our bassist, maneuvering his huge bass horn into the doorman’s arms. “Soon as we get the rest of our stuff out.”