Reno, Nevada. “The Biggest Little City in the World”, so says the big arch over the main street. I arrived there during the early hours on the “City of San Francisco” streamliner out of Chicago. A two-day trip if I remember correctly. I got a hotel room and reported in at Stead AFB the next morning, a few miles outside of town. It was the Survival School for the U. S. Air Force. They trained pilots and other military to live off the land by taking them up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, giving them basic survival tools, knives, parachutes,, etc, and leaving them for the week. They also had some serious training on how to survive POW camps. My assignment was the headquarters building and my living quarters were in downtown Reno, near the University of Nevada. Not a wise place to live for an airman with a paycheck of only $37.00 per month, plus a meager food allowance.
Two days after reporting in, a friend introduced me to the casinos and I promptly lost my money. With a week to go until the next payday, I found that there is such a thing as a guardian angel. Another friend, a faithful Christian, invited me me into town to buy me a cup of coffee. I was pretty down, and he kept telling not to worry, that things would work out. We went to a place called Tiny’s Waffle Shop. My pockets were empty, (I thought). He bought me coffee and on the way out of the place, I happened to discover a dime in my pocket. In a reaction that I don’t completely understand, I promptly dropped the dime into a slot machine that all establishments in town had near their doors. I pulled the handle and I instantly won a $10.00 jackpot. To an airman of my status, at that time it was enough that to live off for a week. The Lord works in mysteriously ways………
I never went into a casino again during my stay there in Reno.
I had brought my saxophone with me, of course, and I promptly started looking for side work. At first I got an evening job washing dishes at Dante’s Inferno, a pizza place. During slow periods, I played the sax for entertainment. That lasted a few weeks until I got a small 4-piece combo organized. I ran into a few other musicians, and I organized the Bob Zeller Combo. Drums, bass, piano, and my sax. We booked into a small club downtown and played there on weekends. During that time, Harrahs Club, offered me a job playing in the pit orchestra. It probably would have paid well, but I get bored just playing as a sideman. Also, I must not forget that I worked for the government, in the U.S. Air Force. This wouldn’t be the last time that I was asked to take another playing job.
Since the “entertaining” hours in Reno didn’t begin until about 10:00PM, I would sleep a few hours after I got off work at the air base at 5:00, then get to the club about 9:30 to get ready to work. We would generally play until around 2:00AM, then head to another club to jam a bit with other musicians for an hour or so. I would then hop on the personnel truck heading to the base, getting there in time for breakfast.
I only spent about three months at Stead, as it was in the throes of changing missions. It is now a municipal airport and is the site of the annual National Air Races.
I got orders to be transferred to Ardmore AFB, at Ardmore, Oklahoma. It was there that my music took a completely different direction. I fell in love with Country/Western Music. It doesn’t take long for word to get out that there are new musicians arriving. I dropped into the service club and ran into other musicians. One of them was Billy Deaton. He was organizing a new western band. He liked my sound, and we were soon one of the best western swing bands in the area.
In the photo above Billy Deaton is second from left on guitar and most of the vocals. After his air force career he became one of the record producers in Nashville, Tennessee, and also had a band playing out of San Antonio, Texas. The drummer was Lou Brown, and he was always asking me to date his mother, as she had a crush on me. Of course, I am second from the right, and on the far right is Stu Basore, the steel guitar player. After he got discharged he played steel for some of the best, including the great Ray Price. I also did many of the vocals. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of the others in the picture.
I also was involved with a singing group that we called “The Skylighters”. There were three of us, me, S/sgt Hollis Davidson, and S/sgt Mickey Blanchard. We, on purpose, decided to imitate the Four Aces of national fame. Somehow, we were able to write our parts so when we sang we sounded exactly like that famous group. This group and the Melody Rangers were always in demand for playing engagements and also for on-base functions. The Air Force provided us with a C-123 Provider cargo plane and flew us to Oklahoma City, for their Centennial Celebration in 1957, if I remember correctly.
The photo above was taken when both groups were competing for the Tops In Blue Air Force Talent competitions. Billy Deaton was not available for the photo. I competed with both groups, and the Skylighters took second place.
One notable experience was when a Grand Ole Opry touring show visited Ardmore. The headliner for the show was Judy Lynn, one of the best female western singers of the time. Also on the show was Brenda Lee, soon to be one of the greatest of all time. A friend of mine, Howard Short was stationed with me, and he knew some members of the Judy Lynn’s band. He suggested that we go into town with my sax and his guitar. He said that we could warm up with them before the actual show started.
So there we were, on stage, and having a blast playing with the band while a few of the paying customers started to dwindle in. I can’t remember the names of the band’s musicans, but Brenda Lee was sitting there tapping her foot, with her mother watching over her. I believe she was between 10 and 15 years old then. Of course, at that time nobody knew how great she was going to become. I am thrilled that I was able to say I met her. Judy Lynn afterwards tried urging me to continue the tour with them. They had about six more cities left. Unfortunately, I had just re-enlisted for my second Air Force tour, just a few weeks prior.
I spent nearly three years at Ardmore, and it was some of the best years of my life. On Saturday nights, if I wasn’t booked somewhere else, you could find me at the Cotton Club in Ardmore, where Leroy Thompson and the Western Swingtime Cowboys played. I became friends with the whole band and I usually ended up playing about two hours with them each night. I would sit in, playing the sax, and also occasionally the string bass and drums.
It was while I was there, that I married Ann, the love of my life. We lived in a nice garage apartment in downtown Ardmore. We moved into it about a week after we were married. (And some of you may remember that we met in person only two days before we were married.) Our landlord took a liking to us and promptly told us that his son would sell us his 1953 Buick Roadmaster for only $795.00. It was a cream-puff of a car. The following day I took Ann to the base, and she was able to get a Civil Service job. So as you can see, our married life was off to a wonderful start.
Our next place of duty would be Karamursel, Turkey. It is with our new asssignment there, that I will continue with Part IV. Watch for it soon.