Yakkety-Sax Man – Part II: The Big Band Era


After writing Part I, I was over-whelmed by the comments that asked that I continue my story.  I deeply appreciate that you readers are so interested in my past.  Before I continue, I wish to make one disclaimer.  During all of my 50+year career, the only thing I ever smoked was regular cigarettes, the only thing I drank was beer or whiskey, and I never took anything worse than prescription pills or aspirin.  As you will find out as I go along, I was in an environment to ruin my life, but I stayed in control of my faculties, including fighting girls off with my saxophone.  I have remained faithful only to my wife, Ann.L1000216-band-card

Now with that out of the way, let’s continue.

I was beginning the part in my life when I enjoying playing in the big bands.  The Morrie Bectel Orchestra was one of the best in western Michigan.  We were made up of some of the best young musicians from the schools in Muskegon.  We had four saxes, three trumpets, three trombones, bass, piano, and drums.  Morrie, the leader, was the drummer.  I was also the vocalist.  The girls didn’t swoon, but they giggled a bit.  Ma, if you could hear me now.

We had some interesting bookings around the state, but mostly around Muskegon.  During the summer we played weekly concerts near the Lake Michigan beach, performing on a flat-bed trailer.  That was the only time that my parents ever heard me play professionally.

But we played one gig that was right out of the movie, “Snake Pit”.

In Traverse City, Michigan, there was a state asylum for the mentally ill.  The local musician’s union, Local 252, would take some bookings and mete them out to various bands.  So, of course, one night our number came up and we made the 150 mile trip, expenses paid by the union.

The venue was a large building that I surmised was probably a gym type facility.  There were three-tiered bleachers on each side of the room.  The male patients sat on one side and the ladies sat on the other side.  When the music started, both sides rushed at each other.  It gave new meaning to the words “musical chairs”.  A few were left standing without a partner and had to go back and sit down.

During the evening, one little lady, came up to the bandstand with a piece of paper in her hand.  She looked around furtively, and slid the note over under my chair.  She ran off, I picked up the note.  It said “Please tell mother that I am alright”.

harry-jamesAnother venue that we enjoyed was the Fruitport Pavilion at Fruitport, Michigan.  It was a regular stop for bands like Count Basie, Woody Herman, the Dorsey brothers, and Harry James and all of the other big bands of the era.  The day Harry James wedded Betty Grable he was booked at the Pavilion.  We were off that night and we, the other guys in our band, hurried out to see if we could get a glimpse of his new wife.  Alas, he left her in the hotel in Chicago, 200 miles away, where he would be headed after the gig.

Anyway, when the well known big bands were not booked there, we often got hired to play in their stead.  We drew the same large crowds.  It is quite a rush to play in a big band, be one of the featured musicians, and get up during a song to do a solo.  Quite an ego trip.

During those years, I also had my own band, Bob Zeller and his Orchestra.  Very aptly named, don’t you think?  I able to book jobs when I wasn’t playing with the other bands.

One of my peresonal quirks was that I was a very shy introvert, probably because I was bullied and teased when I was younger, but that is another story.  When on stage with the sax in my hand I was someone else, reveling in the applause and admiration of the crowd.  During a break, though, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the bandstand and mingle with the audience.  I would go by myself, out the back door, and have a cigarette or just be alone.

Getting kicked out of the high school band, as I told the story in Part I, devastated me.  Music was my life, and I no longer had an interest in staying in school.  So I dropped out.  I was in the eleventh grade.  (I eventually got my high school diploma in later years.)

I went to work as a draftsman for the Brunswick-Balke-Collendar Company, makers of  bowling alleys, pool tables, and other sporting goods. I had studied drafting in high school and was pretty adept at it.  It was while I was working there, that one day my brother, Jim, talked me into visiting the local U.S. Air Force recruiter during lunch hour.  The next day, I was on a bus heading to Detroit, to get my enlistment physical.  I never returned home, as I was accepted on the spot.  Jim was rejected because of kidney problems, and he headed back home while I was being sworn in, then boarding a train for Sampson AFB in New York, for my basic training.

A/2c Bob Zeller

A/2c Bob Zeller

As it turned out, on my third day of training, we were double-timing back to the barracks, when we were hit by a surprise thunder-storm.  I got soaked, got pneumonia, and spent  a month in the base hospital.  I got out. had a relapse and spend another month and a half or so in the infirmary again.  In all, it took me nearly five months to do eleven weeks of basic training.  The good news was that my hair grew out and I looked like a veteran when my training was over.  I also was able to have my sax shipped to me during that time.

When I was not in the hospital I was afforded special privileges after it was noticed that I was pretty much talented.  I was able to play at certain base functions, even getting off base occasionally.  All with the approval of my superiors.  But not without me paying for it in other ways.  One night I came back late from one of those gigs, and found my cot folded up, my mattress and bedding rolled up and stuck in the rafters.  I heard muffled giggles as I struggled in the dark to get my stuff back together.  No lights, or risk bringing the brass to see what was going on.

So much for my days in boot camp.  From there I was assigned to Stead AFB, Reno, Nevada, the home of the Air Force Survival School at that time.  A beginning of great stories to tell about my my Air Force exploits.

To comment, click on the little “cloud” at the top of this post, or on “leave a reply” at the bottom of this page.

I will continue this epic when I publish Part III in about a week or so.  Watch for it.  Again, to read Part I if you haven’t already, click here.

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30 thoughts on “Yakkety-Sax Man – Part II: The Big Band Era

  1. Not sure if my first comment was received, Bob (WordPress is still playing up here in the UK). I am enjoying your story and you are definitely a testament to your own good nature. It is a shame that your high school band didn’t recognise your talent but sometimes these things are character-shaping although we don’t know it at the time!

  2. Bob, you’re a testament to your own good nature, considering the stuff you’ve had to put up with. It must have been one heck of a buzz to get up and do a sax solo in front of thousands – you can easily see how the adulation goes to people’s heads, and it’s just as true today. It is so sad that your school band didn’t see your talent but I guess all these things are ‘character shaping’ in ways we don’t realise at the time! Looking forward to your next instalment!

  3. Great story, Bob. I keep forgetting that our Air Force used to call 2-stripers Airman 2nd Class. Obviously your wearing the stripes convinced them that the right title was Airman 1st Class which it keeps to this day 🙂 I won’t spoil the rest of the story (I think I’ve heard it at least once), but I will say “Thank You” for serving in our Air Force

    -jim (Senior Master Sgt)

  4. Love the story, Bob and like everyone else waiting eagerly for installment III. Just one question, any link between between being in the Air Force and birding? I’m seeing similarities . . .

  5. What it must have been like then to be a groupie of the Bob Zeller orchestra! I can only dream. I guess I’ll have to settle for being groupie to the awesome, sweet, nature, birder buddy instead. You can beat me off instead with your mobile blind’s pool noodle rather than a sax. Because times have change, my dear.

  6. Interesting story and I am sure you have many more from the air force and being on the road.It is interesting to hear how you are an introvert yet can be transformed on stage, I am sure there are a few out there like yourself. Did the pneumonia affect the sax playing or was it good therapy to play and exercise the lungs?

    • Playing the sax was definitely great therapy. Also, I am reminded of the great western singer, Mel Tillis. Beautiful singer, but stuttered badly off stage.

  7. Bob I believe you are an honest man but something is amiss: The Air Force used trains? I thought that was a Navy thing!
    Seriously I love hearing stories of real people so I am looking forward to part III….. and beyond.

  8. Doesn’t part of you miss those days on the road playing music? While I would never do it again, I think the experience prepared me better for life than anything else I could have done. But there is one thing only musicians understand: the music always comes first.
    And you’re a great story-teller! Keep up the good work. 🙂

    • When I happen to hear recordings of the old big bands like Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”‘ , or the driving sounds of Count. Basie’s band, I do wish to have the horn in my hands again. Even in Julio Iglesias’ vocal of “Crazy”, there is an amazing tenor sax solo that sounds just like my own style. When I hear that, I can feel the same emotion that the musician is feeling. Thanks for your comment, Lisa.

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