Yakkety-Sax Man – Part I: A Star is Born


Since the birding is a bit slow, I thought I would enlighten you a bit more of my personal history.  Don’t worry, I will have some more birding posts soon.

This post is the first in a series, describing my approximate 50 years as a saxophonist, 40 years professionally.  I don’t know how many parts I will need as I probably will try to cover everything I did over the years.  However, I think it will be fun for me as well as you, my readers, and I have thrown in some old pictures.  I have no idea how it will go.  I am just going to start typing and see what comes out.

I guess it all began when I was about five or six years old, when it was discovered that I had a strong aptitude for music.  I was always singing something.  My mother said that my favorite song was “Old Shanty Town”.  I guess I probably picked it up from the radio.  But you know how mothers are.  They tend to exaggerate quite a bit.  Personally, I wouldn’t know.  I don’t know if I could read at that age.  Maybe I just hummed.

My first grade teachers marveled at my voice, always inviting me to sing with at any school programs that would arise.  My music teacher, probably when I was about seven years old, who I only remember as Mrs. Hahn, started a bunch of us to use the “Tonette”.  It was a little plastic, tubular shaped thing with holes that you covered or uncovered while blowing through one end.  Kinda like the old “Sweet Potato”, if you remember them.  That was my first experience with any music “instrument”.

I think it was when I nine years old, I decided I wanted a real music instrument to play.  I didn’t know which one I wanted, whether it would be brass or woodwind.  So my parents took me downtown to Berman’s music store.  The owner showed me several different instruments; trumpets, clarinets, etc.  Finally my eyes landed on the saxophone.  I looked at all of those fancy keys, and I was in awe.  It was a Buscher Alto Sax.  I wanted one of those.  Thus, a star was born. 🙂

The man at the music store said that he could give me private lessons.  So we made plans for that and we drove home.  There, I couldn’t wait for a lesson.  I tinkered with it a bit myself, and was able immediately play a sour version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.  The neighbors probably heard that and thought, ” what are we in for now?”

Well, it didn’t turn out too bad for them.  My parents made me practice thirty minutes everyday.  At the time, there were times that I didn’t want to practice, buy they kept after me.  Eventually, I think the neighbors started to enjoy it.  I got pretty good, and my folks wanted to show me off to everybody that came to the house.  Even traveling salesmen were subjected to my mother’s insistence that they hear me play.

Muskegon, Michigan, High School Big Red Marching Band

Muskegon, Michigan, High School Big Red Marching Band – that’s me in the dark uniform.

I entered junior high school I guess when I was about 12 or13 and was able to get into the school band.  But I had my eye on the senior high school band.  The Marching Big Reds.  But I had to wait for that.  However, when I was in the ninth grade, when technically I was still in junior high, I was asked to join the big high school band.  I was about 15 years of age at the time.  One-hundred and eight members strong, it was one of the best in the state, and a blast to be marching with them in the football games.

The Muskegon High School Big Red marching band was under the directorship of Mr. William Stewart, Jr.  A strict disciplinarian.    I was always scared of him.  I don’t think he smiled much.  Under him, though, the members were alway winning state marching and concert competitions.  Our chests were proudly covered with blue ribbons.

Meanwhile, yours truly, was working towards other ambitions, such as playing professionally as a dance band musician.  Mr. Stewart definitely did not like dance band musicians.

kentwining-bob-zeller

Drummer Ken Twining

I guess I was fourteen when a drummer in the high school band decided to start up a ‘dance band’, Ken Twining and his Orchestra.  It was small, just a drummer, trumpet, sax (me), piano and bass.  We played our first gig at a school dance and got five dollars each.  I also sang for the first time professionally.  I stood at the mike and crooned “Because of You”.  My knees were knocking all the time.

About a year or so later, I broke away to do some free lance work.  I worked with any band that needed me.  I was doing a lot of night club work at the time and doing quite well financially. At 15 or 16, I couldn’t buy a drink.  But I was still playing in the Muskegon High School Big Red band, too.  One day Mr. Stewart called a night rehearsal in preparation for a school trip to Chicago, where the band was going to play at the Hotel Sheraton for some fancy affair.

Morrie Bectel and his Orchestra.  Bob Zeller 2nd from left in front row.

Morrie Bectel and his Orchestra. Bob Zeller 2nd from left in front row.

Well, heck, I had a paying gig at Ted’s Night Club in Muskegon Heights.  I was playing with a newly formed big 9-piece band, “Morrie Bectel and his Orchestra.  I opted to not attend rehearsal.  The next morning Mr. Stewart informed me that “we no longer need your services, Mr. Zeller”.  I was kicked out of the high school band.  He also added that ‘I would never be a soloist anyway’.  Yeah, right.

At this point, I might point out that Mr. Stewart had heard me play professionally on a previous occasion.  I was playing with the Charlie Bird Orchestra for the school prom, when he and the assistant band director, Alex Posvistak walked into the gym.  He completely ignored me, but later pointed out that he didn’t like the dance band tone that I used in school.

Check back soon for Part II of this exciting epic, and hear my Ann say, “What?  Are you gonna blow that thing again tonight??”

Actually, I will wait and see how this is received with my readers, whether to go on with Part II.

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42 thoughts on “Yakkety-Sax Man – Part I: A Star is Born

  1. I like reading this again and think how different life would have been had you gone to band practice at school. You made the right decision.Sometimes we just got to take that risk..

  2. Just got around to reading this one Bob after being away from the computer for a few days. I really enjoyed it except for one thing, it ended. You MUST continue now we have to hear more.

  3. Loved your story, Bob. I can’t wait for the next installment. Be sure to post a schedule of your future performances so we can plan our next camping trip to San Angelo around it. It would definitely be worth the trip.

  4. Such a great story, Bob! Playing sax for 50 years – incredible. It says something that you could make a tune on your first sax as soon as you got it – I know how hard this is, because Leonie had saxophone lessons for a while and there’s no way I could produce a tuneful sound with it! You must be more gifted musically than you give yourself credit for. And so much for Mr Stewart – sounds like he was a little bit jealous! 🙂 By the way, Colin’s old art teacher told him he’d never make a living painting realistically!

    • Thanks for much for your great comment, Jo. Why I was blessed to be the only one in my family to be so gifted, I will never know. But I accept it and someday I may find out why I was so chosen. I also can relate to Colin with his experience with his art teacher. Go Colin! 🙂

  5. I love this story! Please keep up the memoir, it’s wonderful. How lucky you were to have supportive parents (and how lucky they were to have a kid who could actually play)!

    • Thanks, Lisa. I will continue with Part II soon. Curiously, out of af family of my parents, and seven siblings, I was the only one that had any interest in music.

      • That’s astounding! But it proves my theory. Which I cannot disclose at this time… Thanks for sharing that tidbit, I was going to ask you if there were any other musicians in the family.

  6. More awesome photos of two-legged creatures from the Bob Zeller archive! Is there anything you can’t do? Looking forward to Part 2, much as your other readers. I bet you have an amazing singing voice.

    • Thanks for this comment, Shannon. Yeah, I’ll bet there is plenty that I can’t do. I’ll think about that. 🙂 As for my singing, meet me at La Kiva in Terlingua on Karaoke night, and we’ll harmonize. 🙂

      • It’s a date!

        You know, that reminds me. There was this bar that we rode horseback to just across the border there (after “ferrying” across the Rio Grande). An American who just never went back, opened up the place. We played guitar and sang all the songs we knew, drinking margaritas and Tecates. Reminded me of Jimmy Buffet. think I have video of that wonderful day! Doubtful if it’s safe to do that any more, tho.

  7. Bob, I may not say much, but I do read your blog regularly in my email on the phone (things seem so busy these days) I love this diversion, as much as I’ve always loved listening to a good Sax player! Can’t wait for Part II

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