Those Other Summer Knights

Charlie Kinzer is working on a history of the Auburn Knights and sent this story in.

The summer of 1937, with its exhilarating tour of the Great Lakes resorts on an MCA circuit alongside the likes of the bands of Count Basie and Sammy Kaye, is well known in AKO lore as a high water mark in the band’s pre-war history. Much lesser known, but notable in its own way, was the summer tour of the next year, 1938 . . .

That spring had brought major changes in personnel. The departures of Gerald Yelverton, Mike Ellis, Lamar White, Frank Barnard, and Charlie Bradley left a major gap in the reed section, with only Joe Mitchell returning. John Ivey, Charlie Higgins, and Jim Sims were gone from the brass section, and Hilding Holmberg had graduated from the rhythm section. Yelverton, Barnard, Holmberg, and Bradley all pursued musical careers, while the others went into various professional fields. The Knights, guided by a new musical director, pianist Robin Russell, regrouped by returning to a “small” lineup of three reeds, four brass, and a three-piece rhythm section.

Hilding Holmberg scouted around in his hometown of Huntsville and recommended a promising young clarinet player named Bobby Adair during the spring of 1938. Adair later recalled that his audition with the Knights consisted of attending a reed section rehearsal directed by Yelverton. “I had played in a couple of dance bands while I was in high school, but I was in awe of the Auburn Knights. Gerald Yelverton was a great stickler for musical detail, and the blend of the section was crucial,” remembered Adair. “Allan Cowart and I were both hired that year. Allan played a strong lead alto, I took some of Yelverton’s clarinet solos, and Joe Mitchell continued on the tenor book. We three played together for several years.”

Bob Hill, an outstanding improviser, joined Chick Hatcher and Ed Wadsworth in the trumpet section. Wadsworth also continued to play violin as well as trumpet. A little later in the year, Frank Speight turned the trombone playing duties over to a newcomer from the town of Enterprise, Jack Hutchinson. A champion weightlifter, Hutchinson frequently goaded his bandmates into group calisthenics as a way to stay in playing shape. In the rhythm section, the important role of drummer went to Gayle Riley and then Paul Maerz. Robin Russell directed rehearsals and, like Yelverton before him, served as extra-low key frontman. The band’s capable bassist, Curtis “Tobe” Griffith, continued to manage the bookings and handle logistics.

The summer started with plenty of promise. A new booking agent, O.R. Walls, lined up a series of engagements in North and South Carolina. The first leg went smoothly. The band played with success at various spots, including the University of South Carolina and Carolina Beach before striking out for a one-nighter in the mountain town of Morganton, NC. Bobby Adair later recalled that by that point the agent owed the band for two jobs, a total of about $350, and the Knights had begun to run out of any reserve funds they had. “When we returned to the bus after spending our last pocket money on lunch, ‘Tobe’ Griffith announced that the whole band had barely enough cash to get us back to Auburn, and he had decided to turn the bus around right then and there.

We knew we’d be in hot water for not showing up for the dance in Morganton, and even figured that the host might call the police to find us and force us to play. On the other hand, everyone knew we weren’t going to get any money that night, and with no place to stay and no sure prospects, why, nobody could see a good way out of the situation. Finally, Tobe just started the bus and lit out for home, driving as fast as he dared, on back roads with all of us hushed up and nervous and looking over our shoulders. We let out the damnedest cheer when we finally crossed into South Carolina, because it meant we’d escaped the law!

Sure enough, the guy had called the police after about 3 p.m. when we still weren’t there, hoping they would stop us and confiscate all our equipment. Then he sued to recover his loss. Of course, the agent was really at fault, and we wouldn’t have gotten paid even if we had played. Ed Wadsworth’s father, a lawyer, eventually settled the case with the dance host for all of $25.” Although ultimately nothing more than a close call, the “Morganton Balk” did serve to bring the Grand Tour of ‘38 to a screeching halt, and a still-wet-behind-the ears group of new Auburn Knights suddenly found themselves with two months worth of a long, hot summer to woodshed and build a schedule of paying gigs for the fall back on the Plains.

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