Singer Jimmy Sacca’s death recalls the Hilltoppers’ 1950s heyday

March 10, 2015

150310Hilltoppers2AThe Hilltoppers appear on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” show Oct. 26, 1952. Left to right are Sullivan, Billy Vaughn, Don McGuire, Jimmy Sacca and Seymour Spiegelman. Below, a 1952 publicity photo. Photos courtesy of WKU Archives 


His was a voice from a more innocent era, a time when four guys wearing Western Kentucky letter sweaters and beanies could become the most popular singing group in an America just beginning to discover rock ‘n’ roll.

James W. “Jimmy” Sacca Jr. died Saturday in Lexington at age 85. He was lead singer of the Hilltoppers, who from 1952 to 1957 put 19 songs on Billboard magazine’s Top 40 chart and charmed teenagers with their clean-cut crooning about romantic love and college life.

“Jimmy was a darn good singer, ” said Don McGuire, 83, of Lexington, the last surviving original member of the Hilltoppers. “He was the main sound of the group; we were the backup singers.

“He was a big guy, 6-foot-3, so he was very impressive on stage,” McGuire added. “The teenagers absolutely loved him. He was a good-looking guy.”

Services for Sacca are Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at Kerr Brothers on Harrodsburg Road following a 10:30 a.m. visitation. Survivors include Annie Rivers Holloway Sacca, his wife of 62 years, and their three sons.

Sacca was a native of Lockport, N.Y. and attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music. But he accompanied a high school friend who went to try out for the football team at what is now Western Kentucky University. Sacca tried out, too, and got a scholarship. He became a star on Western’s team, called the Hilltoppers because the campus is atop the highest hill in Bowling Green.

Sacca’s voice attracted the attention of Billy Vaughn, a musician and songwriter from Glasgow who was playing in a Bowling Green nightclub.

“He knew Jimmy had a good voice because Jimmy would go out to the club and be a guest singer,” McGuire said. “So he asked Jimmy to get some guys on the hill to help put one of his songs on tape to make a rough demo.”

150310Hilltoppers1ASacca recruited McGuire and Seymour Spiegelman. The quartet’s demo attracted the attention of Dot Records in Gallatin, Tenn., which came up to Bowling Green to record a session in Western’s Van Meter Auditorium.

Within months, Vaughn’s song “Trying” was on the Top 40, topping out at No. 7. The Hilltoppers became stars, making appearances on Ed Sullivan and other nationally syndicated TV shows.

Vaughn was a decade older than the three college boys, who had to stay in school to try to avoid the Korean War draft.

“They were awfully nice about letting us out of class and making up the work,” McGuire said of Western administrators, who were thrilled with the notoriety the group brought their school.

The Hilltoppers were rated America’s best vocal group in 1953 and their biggest hit, “P.S. I Love You,” sold more than 3 million copies. They toured Asia and England, where their hit, “Only You,” became the most popular song. (It did well on this side of the Atlantic, too, but was outsold by The Platters’ version.)

Vaughn left the group in 1954 to become Dot Records’ music director and a successful band leader, composer and arranger. As the other Hilltoppers graduated and were called into military service, substitute singers came and went. The guys got married and had children. But it was America’s changing tastes that finally finished the Hilltoppers.

“We saw what was coming,” McGuire said. “Rock n’ roll was our biggest nemesis, and in the late ’50s we knew it was going to run us out of the business and it did.

“We had one last hit at the end the decade,” he added, the calypso song “Marianne,” which topped Billboard’s chart at No. 3. “We thought we were back, but we weren’t. We did some rock ‘n roll songs. But people knew we weren’t a rock group.”

Spiegelman, a New Yorker, went on to a career in the recording industry and died in 1987. McGuire joined his brother in the school textbook business and settled in Lexington. Before moving to Lexington in retirement, Sacca lived in Jackson, Miss., and booked musical acts. He also made one more run at performing.

“He just couldn’t stay off the road, so he went back in the ’70s with a new group behind him,” McGuire said. “He was singing our songs, of course, and he did pretty well. But the time had come to give it up, so he finally gave it up.”

One of the teenage girls the Hilltoppers charmed was Bobbie Ann Mason, who lived on a farm near Mayfield. She would grow up to be a famous novelist and short-story writer, but in the 1950s she was the Hilltoppers’ national fan clubs president. Her mother drove her to their shows in the region, and they became good friends.

“Jimmy and the others always treated me really special,” Mason said when I called her home near Lawrenceburg. “He was a big bear of a person who gave great big hugs and was always very cheerful and generous and welcoming.

“He had a unique voice, a very powerful, expressive voice,” she said. “He could have been a solo act all along because his voice was that good. But the combination of his lead with that very particular kind of background harmony created this style that we know as the Hilltoppers.”

Mason wrote a long essay for The New Yorker magazine in 1986, fondly recalling the Hilltoppers, her years as their fan clubs president and that innocent era before rock ‘n’ roll and the turbulent 1960s.

“But I had the interesting thought the other day,” Mason said. “The kind of songs they sang are the kind of songs that Bob Dylan is singing now. They’re just timeless, wonderful songs.”

Don Wilson, Lexington’s generous Music Man, dies at 92

February 15, 2014

donwilson001Today’s Herald-Leader obituaries include Donald Eugene Wilson, who died on Thursday at age 92.

Don Wilson moved to Lexington after World War II and started work as a musical instrument repairman. He soon became famous as the baton-twirling drum major of the University of Kentucky’s Wildcat Marching Band, performing with his young daughter, Donna, from 1949-1955.

Wilson later opened Don Wilson Music on Southland Drive, which for decades has sold and rented the instruments that have helped make Central Kentucky’s high school bands some of the nation’s best. His spirit and generosity became legendary in Kentucky music education circles. I wrote this column about him when he turned 90 years old.

Rest in peace, Don Wilson. You brought the joy of music into so many Kentuckians’ lives.

Kentucky band from ‘Lincoln’ movie playing at Gettysburg 150th

November 13, 2013


President Lincoln’s Own Band is scheduled to perform in Gettysburg, Pa., at the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This group visited Washington D.C. in January when it performed as part of President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities. From left to right: Dana Schoppert, Reese Land, Dave Centers, Michael Tunnell, Dennis Edlebrock, Don Johnson, Don Johnson III, Jeff Stockham, Joseph Van Fleet and Garman Bowers. Photo provided


Bands usually hit it big with music that is new and different. But Don Johnson’s band is making a national splash by performing pieces that are old and authentic.

Johnson, who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Marion County, is the artistic director of President Lincoln’s Own Band, a uniformed military-style ensemble that plays Civil War-era music on original period instruments.

Since appearing in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2012 movie, Lincoln, the band has been a sought-after soundtrack for many events marking the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.

The band’s latest big gig is Nov. 19 at Dedication Day in Gettysburg, Pa., which will mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The band also played at Dedication Day last year, when Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke.

The band also appeared in Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic film about the president’s assassination. It played at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History for two days during President Obama’s inaugural festivities in January and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in June.

At Gettysburg next week, the band will be sharing the stage with the U.S. Marine Band, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and historian James McPherson.

Johnson is still fine-tuning the band’s 30-minute concert lineup, but knows he will begin with My Old Kentucky Home, in honor of Lincoln’s birth state, and end with Yankee Doodle. Other likely tunes are Rally Round the FlagHail Columbia and We Are Coming, Father Abraham, which the band played in Spielberg’s movie. Johnson also said he will play “taps” at the ceremony.

“The sound of Civil War instruments was quite different from what you hear today,” Johnson said, explaining the appeal of his band’s authentic style. “It was a lot darker and more velvety and like a voice.”

Also among the group’s Kentucky members playing at Gettysburg will be Joseph Van Fleet, a trumpet professor at Eastern Kentucky University. For more information about the group, go to: 


Things will be hopping Friday night on Bryan Avenue

August 13, 2013

Looking for something to do Friday night?  The North Limestone Cultural Development Corp., which calls itself the NoLi CDC for short, is having the first of what it plans as a series of “Night Market” events Friday from 7 p.m. until midnight on that cut-through piece of Bryan Avenue between Limestone and Loudon avenues. The event is free and open to the public.

Devine Carama Wind Sync and other local music acts will perform between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., after which the Lexington Film League will show the film, Koyaanisqatsi. There will be food from Bradford BBQ, ice cream from Crank & Boom and beer from West Sixth Brewery.

NoLi CDC describes the Night Market as, “A collaborative community pop-up event inspired by the concept of temporary urbanization. This process involves changing the dynamics of a specific space to further engage the community and foster relationships between local creatives and the public.”

Whatever. Sounds like fun. I’m going.


Bryan Station drum major will help lead Rose Parade honor band

December 26, 2012

Members of Lafayette High School’s band won’t be the only Kentuckians marching through Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade.

The Bands of America Honor Band, made up of teenage musicians from across the nation, includes 14 Kentuckians. And Grant Knox, 17, a senior at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, will be one of four drum majors leading the 300-piece ensemble.

“I’m very excited,” said Grant, who has been Bryan Station’s drum major for the past two years. He will fly to California on Dec. 27 to begin preparation.

Grant’s mother, Vicki Knox, a lab technician at the University of Kentucky, said her son decided to put together a videotape application for the Honor Band after hearing from several friends in the Lafayette Band that they would be going.

“He did it all on his own and we thought, yeah, right,” she said. “And then he heard that he had been accepted as one of four drum majors.”

Knox said the Honor Band application was typical for her son, who from an early age has set goals for himself and worked hard to accomplish them.

She was working as assistant daycare director at the Salvation Army in Lexington when Grant was 5 years old. He was fascinated by the organization’s brass band and kept saying he wanted to learn to play an instrument.

“He didn’t want to go home one day and our minister came through and said, ‘Grant, what’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I want to play a horn,'” his mother said. The band leader said that when he was old enough to get a sound out of a mouthpiece he would start teaching him. Grant did it immediately.

Grant has been playing with the Salvation Army band since he was 10 and is now an assistant teacher. He said he also arranges music for Bryan Station’s pep band. Grant plans to study either music education or political science in college, possibly at Murray State University.

Knox said her health will prevent her and her husband, David, a letter carrier, from making the trip to California. But they will be in front of the television New Year’s Day to watch for their son.

The Honor Band has performed twice before in the Tournament of Roses Parade, in 2005 and 2009. The organization’s website says these other Kentuckians were chosen by video audition for the Honor Band:

Jessica Adams, Grant Arnold, Tanner Calvert, Trevor Rosania and Travis Rosania of Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling; Grey Arnold of J.B. McNabb Middle School in Mt. Sterling; Kristin Darland and Rebecca Palmer of Henry Clay High School in Lexington; Alex Hezik of Campbellsville, a student at Western Kentucky University; Elizabeth Howell of Lexington, a Lafayette High School graduate; Kristen Shearer of Bourbon County High School in Paris; and Emily Shouse and Hannah Shouse of Louisville Male High School.

Band that performed in ‘Lincoln’ included four Kentuckians

December 15, 2012

The Civil War band President Lincoln’s Own posed with Lincoln director Steven Spielberg on Nov. 19 after he spoke in Gettysburg, Pa., at ceremonies marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The band includes four Kentuckians. From left to right, Garman Bowers, Jeff Stockham, Wayne Collier of Lexington, Denny Edelbrock, Reece Land of Campbellsville, Steven Spielberg, Don Johnson of Lebanon, Mike Tunnell of Louisville, Dana Schoppert, Chris Johnston, Mark Elrod and Jay Norris. Photo Provided.


Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, features several notable Kentuckians of the past, from the 16th president and his Lexington-born wife to a long-forgotten congressman from Owensboro.

When I wrote about them last month, I didn’t know that four modern Kentuckians also appear in the acclaimed movie. They provide an authentic taste of Civil War music on period brass instruments.

About 15 minutes into the film, President Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is shown at a flag-raising ceremony. A 12-piece military band wearing red uniforms plays as the crowd sings, “We are coming, Father Abraham,” a popular patriotic song of the day.

The scene was filmed in Petersburg, Va., in December 2011. But it wasn’t until the movie was released this fall that members of the band, President Lincoln’s Own, were allowed to reveal their participation.

The Kentucky musicians are Wayne Collier, a Lexington lawyer with Kinkead & Stilz; Reese Land, associate professor of music at Campbellsville University; Michael Tunnell, a University of Louisville music professor; and Don Johnson, a musician and antique instrument collector from Lexington who now lives in Lebanon.

The band also played with Spielberg when he spoke Nov. 19 in Gettysburg, Pa., at ceremonies marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“It was one of those who-you-know situations,” said Collier, explaining how a real estate lawyer and amateur trumpeter found his way into a Spielberg movie touted as an Academy Award favorite.

The Civil War band grew out of Kentucky Baroque Trumpets, an award-winning group that Johnson, Collier and two others formed in 2005. Collier has been playing trumpet since he was 10 and earned a music theory degree from the University of Kentucky before going to law school. The Tates Creek High School graduate got to know Johnson, who went to Henry Clay, when they played together in a youth orchestra in the early 1970s.

To film the scene in Lincoln, band members drove to Petersburg, Va., one weekend last December. They found tons of dirt spread on the streets in a neighborhood of antebellum buildings “at great expense, I’m sure,” Collier said.

Band members had been told not to shave or cut their hair for a month before filming so makeup and hair stylists could make them look authentic to the period. They were then photographed so the makeup and styling could be quickly recreated before filming on Monday morning.

Band members practiced their music on original Civil War-era horns, which are pitched higher and are more difficult to play than modern instruments. Collier said he had it easier than some because he played a horn from his own collection: an 1861 nickel-silver D.C. Hall E-flat alto with rotary valves.

After makeup, costuming and rehearsal, band members attended a cast party and met actress Sally Field, who had visited Lexington last year to prepare for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Filming the flag-raising scene took three hours. Freezing temperatures made it difficult to play the antique brass horns. But Spielberg liked the band’s performance so much that he made the unusual decision to use the live performance rather than redub the music with a studio recording.

In the movie, the band members are seen and heard for only a few seconds — and they were left out of the credits, which was a disappointment.

Collier said his legal background helped him appreciate the dialogue-heavy movie, which focuses on Lincoln’s legal thinking and political arm-twisting in 1864-65 to enact the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. Lincoln thought the amendment was legally essential to expand and make permanent his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.

A key figure in the movie is U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman, a lawyer and judge from Owensboro whom Lincoln cajoles into becoming a key swing vote for the amendment.

After seeing the movie, Collier found copies of two Yeaman speeches. One was given in 1862 on the floor of the House, criticizing the legal weaknesses in the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln was trying to fix two years later. The other speech was given in 1899, when Yeaman taught constitutional law at Columbia University in New York and was reflecting on the amendment.

“He was a lot brighter than he came across in the film,” Collier said of Yeaman.”Compared to him, our role in the movie was minuscule. But it was a phenomenal experience.”


Lafayette Band prepares for trip to Tournament of Roses Parade

November 28, 2012

Saxophone players, left to right, Jacob Slone, Nick Michl, Horace Hunter Jr., Clinton Hamilton, Chase Harberson and Jonathan Greene rehearse making a 110-degree turn on the route of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Photos by Tom Eblen


Lafayette High School Band members, parents and staff usually can catch their breath this time of year, between the end of marching band competition and the start of concert band season.

Not this time.

The band, whose championship tradition goes back more than half a century, is preparing for its biggest, longest and most complicated trip ever: to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif.

Lafayette, which has twice been the featured band in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, is the first Lexington band to be chosen for the Tournament of Roses. Lafayette was selected in October 2011 in its third application over the past eight years, said Chuck Smith, the director since 1996.

As part of the application, uniformed band members met at the school one Saturday morning in April 2011 to make a video of them marching a flawless 110- degree turn. Television cameras show each band making a turn like that onto Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard during the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“We try to find opportunities that are unique for our students,” Smith said. “And this will be an action-packed adventure.”

The band’s large instruments and equipment will leave for California by truck on Dec. 21. Seven days later, the band’s 212 members, plus about 500 parents and fans, will fly out for the seven-day, six-night trip.

“There are a lot of logistics,” Smith said. “It has been quite a process, and I have had a lot of help. It truly has been a group effort.”

Mellophone players McKenxzy Boateng, left, and Michael Railey rehearse with the Lafayette High School Marching Band.

Lafayette will be one of a dozen high school bands from around the country in the parade. The band also will appear Dec. 30 in the Tournament of Roses Bandfest, performing the field show that won Lafayette its 17th state championship this year.

After a modest New Year’s Eve celebration on “Kentucky time” — 9 p.m. California time — it will be lights out until 3 a.m., when band members must rise to make the hour-long trip from their hotel in Anaheim to Pasadena to line up for the parade.

While in California, band members will get to go to Disneyland, visit Universal Studios, tour Hollywood, play on a Pacific Ocean beach and have dinner aboard the Queen Mary steamship, now a hotel docked at Long Beach.

“It’s going to be a really memorable, life-changing trip for many of these kids,” said Joey Maggard, who with his wife, Sara, was president of the band parents’ group last year and stayed on after their son’s graduation to coordinate this trip. “For some of them, it will be the first time they’ve ever been on an airplane.”

Until they leave for California, band members will be practicing that 110-degree turn and building up stamina for the 5.5-mile parade, which is twice as long as the Macy’s parade. Smith said the students will march many miles around the school’s track over the next four weeks.

The band will play My Old Kentucky Home during the parade, the 1981 Journey hit Don’t Stop Believin’ and John Philip Sousa’s U.S. Field Artillery March, which includes Lafayette’s school fight song.

You can get a preview of the performance on the evening of Dec. 6, when Lafayette marches in the annual Lexington Christmas Parade downtown.

Lafayette’s band parents organization has raised money all year to help reduce students’ $1,525 all-inclusive trip fee, and to cover part or all of the cost for students whose families can’t afford to send them.

Beth Potter, who with her husband, Jack, is president of the parents’ group this year, said the band has received cash and in-kind donations from business sponsors and residents who contacted them after hearing about the trip. Donations are still being accepted on the band’s website,

“We couldn’t be more proud of these kids,” Potter said. “It has been a huge group effort from a committed group of parents and kids who will be mighty proud on New Year’s Day.”

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Get musical instruments out of closet, into schools

April 25, 2012

Will Lovan knows he is fortunate.

When he wanted to learn to play the trumpet, his parents bought him one. After all, Joel and Tracy Lovan were brass players in high school and college, and Joel, now retired, was band director at Crawford Middle School.

Lovan, above, was talented enough to get into the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School, which enabled him to join the award-winning Lafayette Band. The sophomore is now an all-state trumpeter and plays in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.

But he knows that other aspiring musicians are not so fortunate, including many kids who live near his home in North Lexington.

So when Lovan, 16, was looking for a service project to organize and lead as part of the requirements to earn his Eagle Scout rank, he had an idea: Why not urge people to donate unused musical instruments to the elementary schools that feed into Bryan Station High School?

“My goal is to get more kids involved at an earlier age,” Lovan said. “And to get the instruments that Bryan Station needs to have the kind of feeder system Lafayette and Dunbar have. Even if they’re beat-up instruments, we can have them fixed.”

Lovan and fellow members of Troop 282 will launch the instrument drive Saturday by distributing flyers in several Lexington neighborhoods. He also is appealing to parishioners at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church, which sponsors his troop, and members of his own church, Crestwood Christian.

Instruments can be dropped off at any of three music stores: Don Wilson Music, 275 Southland Drive; Fred Moore Music, 443 South Ashland Avenue; and Hurst Music, 101 North Mount Tabor Road. Or contact Lovan at (859) 559-1077 or to have an instrument picked up.

Cash donations to pay for replacing pads, corks and missing parts on donated instruments can be made to the Will Lovan Instrument Drive at any Central Bank branch.

Even before he launched the instrument drive, Lovan was given two flutes and two clarinets. He soon hopes to have a basement full of instruments so Shaun Owens, Bryan Station’s band director, and Michael Payne, the assistant director, can have them reconditioned. Then they will join the inventory of loaner instruments for students at the 10 elementary schools and five middle schools that feed into Bryan Station.

Owens said he was thrilled when Lovan approached him with the idea.

“The fact that he was willing to make this happen here meant a lot to me,” Owens said. “He is a Lafayette student, and there are students in Lafayette’s feeder pattern that are just as needy and just as deserving.”

But Bryan Station’s service area has a larger population of students with economic circumstances that might prevent them from becoming involved with music.

“A lot of these kids may be afraid or hesitant to do it because they know that Mom or Dad don’t have the money to go get them an instrument,” Owens said. “We want to make sure every kid who wants to do this has the opportunity to experience it.”

Students who can’t buy an instrument can rent one from local music stores, but some kids can’t even afford that. For them, Bryan Station and its feeder schools don’t have enough loaner instruments to meet the demand.

Owens said he sometimes must use a lottery to lend popular instruments in elementary schools. If a student ends up with his second or third choice, the desire to learn might be diminished.

“I want to make sure those kids are immediately successful,” he said. “If they don’t get that immediate feedback, they’re more likely to give up.”

School music programs teach students music, but, more importantly, they teach life lessons: dedication, practice, teamwork and striving to be the best you can be.

Lexington has been home to many of Kentucky’s best high school bands and orchestras for decades, so Lovan knows there must be a lot of old instruments gathering dust in people’s homes.

“I hate to see an instrument sitting in a closet being unplayed,” Owens said. “It would be much better in the hands of a young person who could make wonderful music with it. You never know what kind of difference you could make in their lives.”


Lexington loves a parade on the Fourth of July

July 4, 2011

I couldn’t resist going downtown today for the Fourth of July festivities. This is one holiday Lexington really knows how to celebrate. Main Street, Short Street, Cheapside, all of the side streets and the CentrePointe field were filled with people eating festival food and watching the parade of old cars, community bands and lots of politicians. It looked as if half of Lexington was there, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.

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Departing hospital CEO shares thoughts on Lexington

May 14, 2011

When a search firm approached Gene Woods six years ago about applying to become chief executive of St. Joseph Health System, he hesitated. It was in Kentucky.

Woods and his family were living in Washington, D.C.. They had never been to Kentucky, and the 40-year-old son of an African-American father and a Spanish mother wondered if they would fit in and find community.

While interviewing for the job, Woods and his wife, Ramona, explored downtown Lexington and stopped in Natasha’s Bistro & Bar for dinner. “It was really a welcoming environment,” he recalled. “We thought we might like it here.”

The Woods were back at Natasha’s a week ago Saturday, and the place was packed. Everyone was there to hear the farewell performance of The City’s lead singer and guitarist: Gene Woods.

Woods is leaving Lexington next month to take over a much larger Catholic hospital network in Dallas. Christus Health has facilities in 60 cities in eight states and Mexico and employs 30,000 people, including 8,000 doctors.

“I’m going to be focusing on my day job for a while,” Woods joked last week when we met for coffee. I wanted to get Woods’ perspective on Lexington, based on his relatively short but eventful time here.

Woods is proud of St. Joseph, which on his watch has built four new facilities, invested $80 million in technology, saved millions by streamlining processes and won awards for patient care. St. Joseph also has begun partnership talks with University Medical Center and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare in Louisville.

Living in Lexington has been personally fulfilling for the Woods and their sons, ages 10 and 16. “We’ve made some phenomenal friends here,” he said. “My kids absolutely thrived.  I had heard that Lexington was a great place to raise a family, and, boy, is that right.”

Woods served on several boards, including Berea College and the Blue Grass Community Foundation. The family was active in the arts, including Romana’s work with Actors Guild and Gene’s performing with The City, a band whose other members have day jobs that include architecture, business and journalism.

Woods said the civic work he is most proud of was helping with restoration of the Lyric Theatre, an icon in Lexington’s African-American community. “I really believe strongly that the vibrancy of any community is its support for its arts,” he said.

Community spirit has grown during his time here, Woods said, along with support for the arts and cooperation within the business community. “It has been a period of significant change,” he said. “And the World Equestrian Games in some respects put a cherry on top.”

Woods said Lexington has so many assets to build on, from excellent public and private schools and universities to a magnificent rural landscape. Early on a recent morning, Woods was running near his home and noticed horses grazing in a misty field.  “I just stopped and took it all in,” he said.

“I have lived in places, such as the Virgin Islands, that were physically beautiful, but Lexington has as awe-inspiring a beauty as any place I’ve ever lived,” he said.

Woods said this city has most of the building blocks for future success. “This is a very easy place to live,” he said. There is little crime, it is easy to get around and people are friendly. But he said that while Lexington has done a lot in recent years to encourage and promote diversity, more could be done.

“I have always felt extraordinarily welcomed and comfortable in this community,” Woods said. “But I think it’s something you have to keep focused on. In order for Lexington to be perceived on the national stage the way it wants to be, I think there needs to be a continued commitment to diversity.”

When recruiting minorities for St. Joseph, Woods said, “What I heard most was, ‘What social networks am I going to get connected to when I come to Lexington?’ There have got to be forums where people can feel a part of the community. And things to do.”

Woods said a good start would be having more events downtown like last fall’s Spotlight Lexington concert series.

“What was interesting to me when I walked around downtown was you had folks seemingly from all walks of life,” he said. “People were enjoying each other, and I don’t recall one negative incident. That speaks to the culture of this place. It’s something you can build on – and other communities wish they had.”

Don Wilson, Lexington’s music man, turns 90

March 8, 2011

Strike up the band: Lexington’s music man will be 90 years old Thursday.

Some people remember Don Wilson as the drum major of the University of Kentucky Marching Band. He and his oldest daughter, Donna, were the baton- twirling stars of the halftime show from 1949 to 1955.

But Wilson’s most enduring legacy might be the generations of children in Central and Eastern Kentucky who got the chance to play in a school band or orchestra because his store rented or sold them an instrument and kept it repaired.

“I’ve had a great life,” Wilson said last week as we sat in his office at Don Wilson Music Co. on Southland Drive and paged through a thick notebook of photos and newspaper clippings.

It all began when Wilson’s parents gave him a saxophone for his ninth birthday. By the time he was old enough to play in his high school band in St. Joseph, Mo., he had discovered another talent.

Wilson soon became the band’s drum major. He thought he was pretty good until he went to Kansas City and saw another drum major wow the crowd with baton twirling.

“I went home and taught myself to twirl a baton,” he said. “I wore the grass off my folks’ yard practicing.”

By the time Wilson graduated, he was the state champion drum major and baton twirler. He went on to perform with the band at what is now Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Wilson spent World War II touring the South with an Army band, playing three parades a day and four dances a week. Each military band picked one member to be trained to repair everyone’s instruments. Wilson was chosen.

After the war, Wilson decided he could make more money fixing horns than playing them. So after further training, he and his wife, Mary, moved to Lexington, where her brother lived. Wilson became the repairman at Shackleton’s music store.

The director of UK’s marching Wildcats soon found out about Wilson’s baton-twirling past. He asked him to become the band’s drum major, even though Wilson wasn’t a student.

Wilson might have been the band’s oldest member, but he was always being upstaged by the youngest. By the time she was 7, Donna Wilson was wearing the grass off her folks’ yard. She became as good a twirler as her dad.

“She stole the show,” Wilson said. “I became known as the father of the little girl.”

The Wilsons accompanied Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s UK football team to the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl. It was quite a run. Donna returned for an encore during her years as a UK student. She is now retired in Florida.

Wilson spent his free time for the next three decades performing with American Legion and Oleika Shrine bands. “Every vacation involved a parade,” daughter Peggy Wilson said. “Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., and I don’t know how many he did in Chicago.”

After Don Wilson worked 10 years at Shackleton’s, the store decided to get out of the band-instrument business. So Wilson opened his own store with borrowed money and help from Mary, his wife of 64 years, who died in 2005.

Sales and repairs were important, but the key to Don Wilson Music Co.’s success was horn rentals. Instruments are expensive, and parents are hesitant to buy them until they are convinced their children will stick with band.

“He always rented good-quality instruments in good repair, which we needed to make our bands great,” said J. Larry Moore, director of the Lafayette High School Band from 1973 to 1980. “He and Mary supported us any way they could.”

Arthritis ended Wilson’s baton-twirling career long ago, but he comes to work at the store every day. Peggy Wilson runs the business with help from her brother, Gary, and several longtime employees. Another sister, Sally, lives in Georgetown.

“This is his baby,” Peggy said of the store that has played such an important role in Kentucky’s school band tradition. “We have kids come in all the time with a parent or grandparent who says, ‘I got my instrument here, too.'”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

March Madness Band raising money for Texas trip

February 14, 2011

The MMMB is GTT.

After two years of entertaining crowds at just about every parade and festival in Lexington, the March Madness Marching Band is going to Texas.

The wacky ensemble has been invited to perform March 11-13 at Honk! TX, an annual festival in Austin that brings together 20 community bands from across the country.

“The people who organize Honk! had seen video of us, and they just emailed out of the blue and invited us to come,” said Lori Houlihan, the band’s founder and drum major.

There is a benefit show Feb. 19 at Buster’s Billiards & Backroom to raise money for the trip.  But there is no shortage of enthusiasm from the band’s approximately 70 members, who range in age from 14 to 75.

Lexington is famous for its top-notch high school marching bands, whose young members dazzle audiences with their musicianship and precision routines. “This is a whole different thing,” said Houlihan, who has a son in the Lafayette High School Band.

Instead of kids trying to act like adults, the March Madness Marching Band is about adults acting like kids – and enjoying every minute of it.

“It has given me a whole new lease on life,” said Sue McKaig. She proudly notes that, at age 65, she is the oldest of the “hoop girls” who march alongside the band doing choreographed routines with decorated Hula Hoops.

While a few band members are professional musicians, many had not picked up a horn since high school as they pursued careers as librarians, engineers, hairdressers and accountants.

Houlihan organized the band in 2008 for Lexington’s Christmas parade and the launch of Local First Lexington, an organization that encourages people to patronize locally owned businesses. When the band won the parade’s top prize, Houlihan and her recruits realized they had created something that resonated with both the community and band members.

“As soon as I walked in, I knew these were my people,” said Sarah Wylie VanMeter, who teaches visual arts technology at the University of Kentucky.

VanMeter, 31, grew up in Cynthiana, where she was in the Harrison County High School Band. When she moved back to Kentucky from San Francisco a few years ago, the March Madness Marching Band reminded her how much she missed playing the Sousaphone.

The next Christmas, her husband, Griffin, surprised her with one – a brass relic covered with dents that he found for sale on eBay.

“I’m just a band geek, and proud of it,” VanMeter said. “So here I am.”

The band’s most memorable performance so far may have been last April at the Creative Cities Summit. As attendees from across the country chatted at the opening reception in the Lexington Center’s ballroom lobby, the band suddenly burst through the doors playing full-tilt. Anyone who thought they had come to a sleepy horse town got a loud wake-up call.

Along with all of the positive attention the band has received, it also has heard from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which claims ownership of the words “March Madness.” The NCAA isn’t happy, but it has not taken legal action to force a name change.

The musical soul of this colorfully costumed band is Tripp Bratton, a percussionist who teaches music at Berea College. He arranges the band’s music, taking care to make parts fit the varying musical skills of the members.

“I try to play up our strengths and hide our weaknesses,” Bratton said after one of the group’s Sunday afternoon rehearsals at the Mecca Dance Studio on Chair Avenue, off South Broadway. “I aim for accessible craziness, creative madcap.”

In addition to parade tunes, the band performs choreographed theatrical numbers. For Austin, the band is working on a piece inspired by an episode of the TV comedy The Simpsons that riffed on the movie Planet of the Apes and David Bowie music. Or something like that. It is energetic and entertaining, with a heavy drum line.

Like the other bands performing at the Honk! TX festival, the March Madness Marching Band isn’t about musicianship and precision. It is about fun, community and the pleasure of performing. Oh, and not taking yourself too seriously.

If you go

What: March Madness Marching Band benefit show

When: Feb. 19, 8 p.m.

Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

Appearances by: March Madness Marching Band, Rebel Without A Cause, FUMA, Prefab Rehab, Gail Wynters, Rakadu Gypsy Dance, Sabi Diri, Hallwa, Chip Chop, Amalgamation Fire Nation, Holler Poets.

Cost: $15, ages 18 and older.

More information and tickets:

Click on each thumbnail to view complete photo:

Here is a video about March Madness Marching Band made by the group’s “cruise director,” Jennifer Miller:

2010: My Year in Pictures

January 2, 2011

As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.

At the CCS: Shelling out for creativity

April 9, 2010

A few minutes after I took this photo of speakers Charles Landry, right, and Rebecca Ryan, left, talking with attendees at the Creative Cities Summit today in Lexington, creativity paid off.

Lori Houlihan, drum major of Lexington’s March Madness Marching Band, asked Landry for advice on how the wacky community band could raise some money to cover expenses without damaging the group’s all-volunteer spirit.

The band had been the first of several Lexington musicians and groups to entertain at the conference. At the end of the opening reception Wednesday evening, as everyone was chatting, the ballroom doors swung open and the band marched into the lobby, started playing and led everyone in for dinner. Landry was so startled, he spilled his drink.

So when Houlihan asked Landry today for fund-raising advice, she said he reached for his wallet and handed her a $20 bill. “Then other people around us just started handing me money,” she said. “I got about $80 for the band.”

March Madness Marching Band opens CCS

April 7, 2010

What better group to open the Creative Cities Summit tonight than Lexington’s March Madness Marching Band?

Click on each thumbnail to open full photo:

Augustana will play at April 8 volunteer show

February 10, 2010

Augustana will perform April 8 at Buster’s in Lexington — but only for the first 1,000 people who volunteer at least 10 hours before March 31 for a Central Kentucky nonprofit agency.

The United Way of the Bluegrass announced Wednesday that the  California-based band would headline its 10,000 Hours Show. The show, which has been planned since last May, was designed as a reward to encourage young adults to volunteer their time for good causes.

United Way said Augustana was a popular choice in a survey it did in January to help select a band for the concert. Augustana’s songs include Boston, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40.

The concert is free to anyone in Central Kentucky who volunteers 10 hours or more between April 1, 2009 and  March 31, 2010. To participate, go to, create a free account, and log your volunteer hours, which will be verified by participating nonprofit agencies. There will be 1,000 tickets for the show. (One thousand people volunteering 10 hours each equals 10,000 hours. But feel free to volunteer more… )

The show’s main sponsors are United Way of the Bluegrass and W. Rogers Company. Other sponsors include Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, 100.1 WKQQ-FM and 104.5 The Cat.

Lafayette Chamber Orchestra lands a coveted gig

December 2, 2009

An invitation to perform at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago is one of the biggest honors a high school orchestra can receive.

It’s also one of the biggest challenges.

The name might make it sound like a regional hospital, but the clinic is the largest annual gathering of school band and orchestra conductors in the world. More than 15,000 people from 30 nations will attend the weeklong conference this month.

So, as the Lafayette High School Chamber Orchestra prepares for its Dec. 16 concert at the Midwest Clinic, the 16 teenage members know they couldn’t have a more knowledgeable — or demanding — audience.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this,” said Jonathan Karp, 16, a junior who has played violin since he was 2 and will be a featured soloist. “It has been the focus of our school year.”

If you want to hear a preview, the orchestra will perform the program at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center. The concert is free.

Lafayette is only the fourth Kentucky high school orchestra to be invited to perform at the clinic, now in its 62nd year. Only 20 other Kentucky ensembles of any kind have played there. The Lafayette Band and Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras both performed in 1993.

“The talent level of the students individually is very strong,” said Jennifer Grice, who is in her third year as Lafayette’s orchestra director. “The biggest focus this year has been putting their individual talents together to be an outstanding ensemble.”

School concert band and orchestra music is rated by difficulty, and three of the 10 pieces that Lafayette will perform are rated in the most difficult category. They include works by J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

In an unusual move, the orchestra will play a piece, Blues for Oaktown, that includes new electric stringed instruments — two violins, viola and cello.

Two Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinists will perform as soloists with Lafayette: Nathan Cole, a Lexington native, and his wife, Akiko Tarumoto.

In addition to Grice, there will be two guest conductors: Nancy Campbell, orchestra director at SCAPA Bluegrass, and J. Steven Moore, the director of bands at Colorado State University. He was director of the Lafayette Band when it played at the Midwest Clinic.

“They’re going to perform for a crowd of people who truly understand music and high school orchestras,” Moore said.

Moore said taking the Lafayette Band to play at the Midwest Clinic in 1993 was one of the highlights of his career. In part, that was because his father, J. Larry Moore, who was a Lafayette Band director before him, had been to Midwest with one of his earlier bands, Ashland’s Paul Blazer High School, in 1970.

“I’m looking forward to being part of that magical moment that I know those kids are going to experience at Midwest,” Moore said. “It will be something they will never forget.”

The magic won’t come easy. There have been more than seven hours of group rehearsals each week this school year, in addition to individual daily practice.

Orchestra members also have raised money and sought sponsors and donations. The trip will cost about $20,000 because the students are staying several days in Chicago to hear and learn from other bands and orchestras that were chosen to perform.

In preparation for the concert, Grice has brought in frequent guest conductors, and students said they have learned a lot from them.

“Orchestra has been a lot more rigorous this year,” said Nick Blackburn, 17, a junior who plays double bass.

“Never before have I put so much time and preparation into a performance,” said Julia Mead, 15, a sophomore cellist. “It has been difficult but extremely rewarding. It feels good to play so well.”

Grice said only two of her students are seniors, so the experience should build a lot of momentum for the orchestra’s future.

“It’s a really great opportunity for our orchestra, and it should go a long way toward getting younger kids interested in it,” said Jacob Yates, 16, a junior cellist. “I think people should realize we have something like this in Kentucky.”

  • If you go

    Lafayette Chamber Orchestra

    Midwest Clinic free preview concert

    When: 8 p.m. Dec. 8.

    Where: UK Singletary Center.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Rivalries keep top marching bands focused

November 8, 2009

When people in Lexington talk about great high school marching bands, the names Lafayette and Paul Laurence Dunbar always come up.

But as with many things in Kentucky, there is a lot of greatness beyond the big cities, out in the small towns and rural counties that so often define this state’s character.

The state’s other biggest band rivalry is Bourbon and Adair counties. It continued Saturday when Bourbon took first place and Adair second in Class 3A at the state championships.

For the big city rivalries, Lafayette finished first in Class 5A with Paul Laurence Dunbar coming in fourth. Madison Central was second.

Adair County has a long tradition built by Tim Allen, who became director there in 1981 and won more state championships than anyone else before stepping down this year.

But the competition has been tighter since one of Allen’s former students, Eric Hale, became director at Bourbon County five years ago.

Last year, Bourbon edged Adair by a fraction of a point to win the state championship. A few weeks later, Bourbon went to Indianapolis and won its division in the prestigious Bands of America Championship.

Hale credits parent and community support for the 79-member Bourbon County band’s recent success, as well as a good feeder program from the middle school where his wife, Nadine, is the band director. She also helps Hale and assistant director Kevin Akers at the high school.

But Hale, like other band directors, says success isn’t about always winning.

“I want them to learn that hard work doesn’t always mean you’ll win every time,” he said. “But if you don’t go out there and give it all you’ve got, you’re going to regret it.”

Hale enjoys the rivalry with Adair, where he still always seems to have a cousin or two in the band — someone who will gloat when they beat him, or be sore if he beats them.

The rivalry also keeps band members focused, said Bourbon County’s field commander, Rachel Quinn.

“All season we know they’re our biggest rival,” Quinn said. “Our goal isn’t necessarily to beat them, but to go out there and do the best that we can. And if we get first place along the way, that’s great.”

Adair County had a special challenge this year with Allen stepping down and being succeeded by Tom Case, who had achieved success with the John Hardin and Elizabethtown high school bands.

“I’ve always respected Adair County’s tradition, but living it is another thing,” Case said. “Adair County is a band nation. There’s no other way to describe it. The community support is overwhelming.”

Adair will represent Kentucky this year at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. It will be an expensive trip, but the money is already in the bank: the fund-raising goal was met this summer.

“We have such a legacy, such a tradition,” said Beth VanArsdale, who has had two daughters in the Adair County Band. “They’re like a big family, and when they get on the field, it all comes out.”

State marching band championships


1. Williamstown
2. Murray
3. Beechwood
4. Hazard


1. Washington County
2. Elizabethtown
3. Trigg County
4. Green County


1. Bourbon County
2. Adair County
3. Russell County
4. Boyle County


1. Madisonville – North Hopkins
2. Grant County
3. South Oldham
4. Mercer County


1. Lafayette
2. Madison Central
3. North Hardin
4. Paul Laurence Dunbar

More band photos: Dunbar, Lafayette and others

November 7, 2009

The preliminaries of the Kentucky High School Marching Band Championships have concluded, and finalists will gather tonight at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville for judges to decide the best bands in the state.

Preliminaries in the five divisions, based on school size, were held earlier today around Louisville.

Here are more photos from the Class 5-A preliminaries, featuring bands from Kentucky’s largest high schools. Bands pictured include Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar and Lafayette, Muhlenberg County, Madison Central and  Central Hardin.

Click on thumbnails to see full photos:

Photos from today’s marching band championships

November 7, 2009

The Kentucky High School Marching Band championships are under way today with perfect weather at Papa John Stadium in Louisville. Here are some photos from morning competition of Tates Creek, Henry Clay, Marshall County and George Rogers Clark High Schools.

Click on each thumbnail to see entire photo: