Yakkety-Sax Man – Part V: Cavaliers’ Rockabilly Heaven


Part IV concluded with me having that twinge mi my chest while I was doing my job as chief cashier at Karamursel AFB.  Thinking that it was just a minor muscle twitch, I tried to walk around.  Wow!  All of a sudden, I was short winded after taking just a few steps.  Fortunately, the infirmary was just next door, so I limped over there to see a doctor.

It turned out that my right lung collapsed about 75% in those few seconds.  I had been smoking, but that wasn’t the cause.  It turned out later the blame was with the Marfan Syndrome that I was later diagnosed with many years later.  Unable to correct this malfunction at Karamursel, they put me on a stretcher and flew me to Istanbul, where I would meet a larger aircraft that would take me to Wiesbaden, Germany, where a larger military facility existed.  It was a three day trip through Athens, Greece, then Tripoli, North Africa and finally to Germany.   A tube was inserted in my chest there and I was kept there several days so my lung could re-expand.  I would spend a total of about two weeks there before being flown back to my home station in Turkey.  At that time, the medical people still had no idea why my lung had collapsed.

Meanwhile, back in Turkey, orders were issued for our transfer back to the United States.  Since I wasn’t there, Air Force personnel assisted Ann in making arrangement for our furniture to be shipped back to the USA.  So, when I walked in the door of the apartment,  Ann says, guess what??  Of course during the time I was gone, we had no communication between us.  No phones, cell or otherwise.  So, three days later, we left Turkey for good, spending a weekend in Frankfort, Germany, then making the final trip home in a civilian TWA Boeing 707.

English: Shows a decent view of downtown San A...

View of downtown San Angelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We arrived here at Goodfellow AFB on December 20, 1961.  The next day we purchased a brand new house and decided that San Angelo would be our final home.

After reporting in to my duty assignment, and getting settled into our new home, I turned to the next order of business;  finding music work.  I put an ad in the newspaper that I was an available sax player, adept at any genre of music.  I promptly got a call from guitarist Sid Holmes, who along with a bass player Lewis Elliot, were re-organizing the Cavaliers, a band that had broken up several months previously.  They liked my credentials so we became a three-piece band  We got booked into a small club, “The Blue Rail”.

We played all instrumentals as we lacked a vocalist then, mostly western and rock-a-billy hits.  We finally found an airman on base that wanted to sing.  We auditioned him at the club.  Lewis, the bass player, and I, didn’t think he could sing worth a flip, but Sid, the leader, over-ruled us and hired him. His voice was high and raspy, but with us backing him up, he sounded good for the rock and roll music of that era.  His name was J. Frank Wilson.

J. Frank Wilson

J. Frank Wilson

Word got around about us, and were packing them into the tiny little club.  J. Frank was getting better.  I was only with the band for about four months, leaving when Sid Holmes and I had a few differences.  But it was a fun period playing that type of music.  Sid Holmes wrote the book, “Rockabilly Heaven”, the story of the Cavaliers, and on page 95 he gave me a nice write-up with my photo, saying that I was “San Angelo’s best kept secret”.  In 1964 the Cavaliers, along with J. Frank Wilson, recorded the song, “Last Kiss”.  One of the greatest hits of that time.  But that was J. Frank’s only big recording.  He died several years ago in a nursing home in south Texas.joz4006

The Cavaliers and I  were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2004.

In April of 1962, I joined the Leonard King Orchestra.  Now it was back to the dance music that I was more accustomed to, the old big band style.  We played country clubs, officers clubs, etc., with our ballroom style of music.  I also was back to doing vocals along being the front man with my sax.

San Angelo was called the Wool Capital of the World back then.  Sheep production was one of the main industries here.  The annual Miss Wool of America Pageant was held here at our coliseum.  Our band furnished the music at that event for a couple of years.  There were always special guests and we backed up the likes of Peter Nero among others.  The pageant finally went on national television after a few years.  A larger band from Dallas was booked to replace us.  Upon arrival from Dallas, they needed a good sax player.  Guess who they called upon.  You got it.  I was one of their sax players for the TV production.

English: San Angelo Cactus Hotel, old Hilton.

San Angelo Cactus Hotel, old Hilton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But before that, on June 4 of 1962, we were playing for a dance in the ballroom of the Cactus Hotel.  During the second intermission, I took a smoke break.  After sitting back down with the other saxes to begin the third set, I felt that familiar pain in my chest.  I thought, “Oh sh*t, not again!”  I said to myself, “Zeller, you had one too many cigarettes.”  It was my left lung this time, collapsed nearly 90%.  I went into denial, and managed to play three more songs before I admitted it was for real.  Without going into details, I will say that I managed to drive home.  There, Ann called the air base and an ambulance was sent for me.  I never smoked  another cigarette after that evening.

I was flown to Wilford Hall U.S. Air Force Hospital in San Antonio.  There I spent three months recuperating and having tests done to see what was causing the spontaneous pneumothorax’s,  the medical term or my collapsed lungs.  In the end, as before mentioned, I was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome and given a medical discarge from the military.  I was told by the medical staff that I would eventually get emphysema.  I proved them wrong on that, but my dreams of a full time professional music career were ended.  After I healed, I resumed playing with the Leonard King band.  I continued just being satisfied playing with bands and musicians locally, so to be near medical help if needed.

I do believe that by continuing with my saxophone playing it was good

Randy Dorman

Randy Dorman (Photo credit unknown)

therapy for my lungs.  During the 60s, I also played with the Billy Aylor Orchestra, Johnny Dutton Western band, Alton Baird and the Moonlighters, and a few other local bands as needed.  Randy Dorman, the great jazz guitarist with Kenny Rogers, started his career in San Angelo and I was honored to play with him during one engagement.

One funny anecdote.  Al Ricci, John McMillan, musican friends, got booked to play for a dance following a dinner/play in Wichita Falls, Texas on New Year’s Eve.  We were being paid 175.00 each to play from 10:00 until midnight.  The dinner and play ran late and we didn’t get started until about 11:45.  We played for the fifteen minutes, collected our money and drove home.  I was riding with Al in his pickup.  Al wore a toupee, and during the drive he opened up his window, the toupee blew off and fortunately landed in the bed of the pickup with his string bass.  We got a good laugh out of that.

All of these years Ann had been working for the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company.  In 1968 she was asked to transfer to the Las Cruces, New Mexico plant to re-organize the office operation there.  Our four years there will be the subject of Part VI coming next week.

The book, “Rockabilly Heaven” is published by Ft. Phantom Lake Publishing, 6204 S. Freeway, Ft. Worth, TX 76134.  It is also available from the author Sid Holmes at sid-holmes@charter.net.  It is the untold story of the Cavaliers from 1956 -1964.  West Texas music in the 50s and 60s.

My own book, “Birds, Beasts and Buttes” is still available from my Blurb publisher.  Click on the link on right side of this page or e-mail me at bob.zeller@aol.com.

To read Parts I thru IV, click Categories, then select Music Career on right side of page.

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17 thoughts on “Yakkety-Sax Man – Part V: Cavaliers’ Rockabilly Heaven

  1. My sister was diagnosed with congenital bilateral pneumothorax at the age of nine. I’ll never forget what they put her through to “re-inflate” her two collapsed lungs with tetracycline application creating wounds on her chest cavity — acting as the glue to hold the lungs in place. I hear from her that having a collapsed lung is a most painful thing.

    Yes, wind instruments are great therapy for healing collapsed lungs. You’d never know she has such a condition nearly 40 years later, and you appear to have completely recovered as well.

    Another great story! My kids are particularly interested in Ann’s stint at Coca-Cola. Don’t be surprised if they ask her lots and lots of silly questions about that. Blame it on branding!

    • Thanks for relating the story about your sister. Yes, the pain is excruciating. It is caused by the movement of the lung. After it has stopped ‘deflating’, the pain is only from body movement and breathing. And of course, that is no small thing either, but at least it is not as bad.

  2. Absolutely incredible story. You’re brushes with fame, in addition to the RockabillyHall of Fame, are something else. And yes I agree with you, I think your sax playing…probably saved your life. Music has a way of healing things. Incredible story. I am now going to try to get caught up with your subsequent posts. 🙂

  3. So glad I was able to track down part V of your story! I think I must have missed it with going to the northwoods, but I made sure to get on your blog and look for it! I’m glad I did, what a GREAT chapter! I’m so excited to think you are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame! That’s awesome! What a great life filled with experiences you have had – and always making sweet lemonade out of those lemons life has thrown your way! Thanks for sharing your life with us!

  4. I think your amazing talent in so many areas is about 50/50 talent and positive attitude!! You ARE the man! Thanks for sharing your life and talents. hugs

  5. Jeeeez, Bob. Your just full of surprises. “You the MAN.”
    “The Cavaliers and I were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2004.”
    I stand in awe at all your accomplishments. Bad lungs and all.

    • Yeah, I am kinda proud of that Rockabilly Hall of Fame Deal. Elvis Presley, the Big Bopper, Ace Cannon, Buddy Holly, and all ot those other guys. All of them are there, too, so I am in good company. Actually, my lungs, believe it or not are in great shape. It is the disease, Marfan Syndrome, that causes the problems. There is no cure, but it is not necessarily fatal as long as I keep taking my daily meds. Nice of you to comment, Duane. I really appreciate it.

  6. Another amazing episode, and I also admire how you and Ann just got on with everything that life threw at you – and after being discharged, you just picked yourself up and found other stuff to do. That sounds like one heck of a fee for a quarter of an hour’s work on New Year’s Eve! No wonder Al’s toupe blew off. If it had been in Scotland, you could have pretended it was a haggis. I’m really glad you have decided to tell us your story!

    • Thanks again, Jo. I am so glad that you are enjoying this. I think only one more episode, maybe two. New Years Eve is the best paying night for musicians here. We could charge twice the union rates or more that night because live music is more in demand those holiday eves. I hope you don’t think my story is too long.

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