A Hall of Fame award.


I received a very prestigious award yesterday that I would love to share.  Most of you know that before my photography I was very much into the music scene.  During the 60s, 70s, and 80s I was I was a wild saxophonist, playing with various bands and musicians over the years.  I retired from music in 1986.  Well, the West Texas Hall of Fame decided that I ought to have the Pioneer Award for the year 2015.  I received this plaque yesterday.  I was honored to receive it and glad that they didn’t have to present it posthumously. 🙂

Bob Zeller's Pioneer Award

Bob Zeller’s Pioneer Award

I will be back with some birding and photography posts after I return from a vacation next week.

While I am gone, you would enjoy reading of my musical exploits.  Click HERE.

There are six small and entertaining parts.  That will give you some insight as to why I was given this award.

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Labor Day weekend odds and ends……


As many of you know I am recuperating from a hospital stay with a nasty bout with a urinary infection.  I have been home for a few days and have been itching to get back in to the field.  So, feeling up to it, I and Ann sneaked out to San Angelo State Park for an hour or two.  It was hot and we really didn’t expect much, but I wanted to get out of the house.

We first drove down near the only operating boat ramp on the struggling O.C. Fisher lake.  The heat and evaporating are taking their toll.  I think the level has dropped nearly two feet in just the past three weeks.  Anyway, I spotted this Green Heron about 125 yards away in the reeds.  Since the pickin’s were slow I tried to come away with some kind of shot.  It was tiny in the viewfinder and I did’nt think I had a prayer of getting anything useful, mainly because of the focus problems with all of the reeds. I hand held the camera because I didn’t feel like lugging the tripod down there.  Anyway, I got lucky and here is the final result after doing some major cropping.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Venturing around to the Isabel Harte multi-use area, I came across this Great Roadrunner cooling under a shady Live Oak.  He presented a slight exposure problem with the shade and bright background.  But the good news, he was only about 25 feet away.  I was careful to ease my car into position for a shot from my window.  He posed long enough that I got several exposures.

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Getting away from birding for a bit, I had nice comment to my About Me page.  It was from Kathryn Ingrid at Art-colored Glasses.  She lives in Denton, Texas and her husband, Richard, is a conductor and the interim head of the choral program at University of North Texas.  UNT has a fantastic jazz program, and I am acquainted with their One-o-Clock Lab band.  It brought memories of my own playing in the big bands of an earlier era.  Although I didn’t play in the ‘big name’ bands I loved any opportunity to play in a band with five saxes, five trumpets and four ‘bones, plus assorted percussion.  I love the jazz creations of Stan Kenton, the driving sound of County Basie, or the sweet saxophones of Ralph Flanagan.

As I said, I never played with likes of those, but I did play with many of the great musicians at after-hours late night (early morning) jam sessions while I was stationed in Reno, Nevada.

I thank Kathryn for bringing back those memories.  Maybe it will lead to another post about those experiences.

Yakkety-Sax Man – Part VI: The Final Chapter


Note:  Since Ann and I are going to the Big Bend country to spend the weekend and our 55th wedding anniversary at the Far Flung Adventures Casitas, I am publishing this final Part VI a few days early.

In May of 1968 we moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.  The purpose for the move was that Ann was transferred by the San Angelo Coca-Cola Bottling Company to their Las Cruces location, with the aim of re-organizing the office there.

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Las Cruces, New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got a job as a car salesman for the Chevrolet dealer there.  I also joined the Optimists Club that met for breakfast every Thursday morning.  It was soon after that that club members met one evening at Gene Peugh’s home for a cocktail party.  Gene and some of his buddies were providing the music.  I had been in town only a few days and was looking for music work.  During the evening I asked Gene if I could sit in.  I went home, a few blocks away, and brought my sax back.  What a blast that was.  I was welcomed into the band immediately.

The band consisted of Gene, (AKA Stinky Peugh) who played the piano;  B.L. Wicher, the local tax collector who played rhythm guitar;  Gene’s teen-aged son, Dean, played the drums.  There were only four of us but we were pretty effective.  Because of age differences, we called ourselves “ZAP, The Generation Gap”.  We played at small functions around town and at the Las Cruces Country Club.  (Note:  ZAP was for Zeller and Peugh.)

ZAP The Generation Gap L to R: B.L. Wicher, Gene Peugh, Bob Zeller, Dean Peugh.

ZAP The Generation Gap
L to R: B.L. Wicher, Gene Peugh, Bob Zeller, Dean Peugh.

My salesman position, was at the beginning, a complete disaster.  I was a bad introvert, not a good trait in a salesman.  I was afraid to talk to people.  The owners of the dealership were very nice and they liked me enough that they didn’t want to lose me.  They gave me a job in the accounting department instead of firing me.  Of course, I was really in my element there because bookkeeping was my thing.  I was happy there for quite awhile.

However, being in the Optimist Club, with their outgoing members really had an effect on me.  I started coming out of my shell, so to speak.  I overcame my shyness in a complete turnaround.  All of a sudden I knew I could sell cars, but of course they, the Chevy dealer, wouldn’t take a chance again.  But the sales manager of the American Motors, (think Nash), and Mercedes-benz dealer said he would hire me.  I went to work there and sold a new car within an hour on my first day.  From then on, I was to become a successful car salesman for another ten years.  As for my shyness??  My friends can’t shut me up now. 🙂

In May of 1972, Ann was invited to move back here to San Angelo, to resume her career as office manager.  I got back into the swing of things in the music world again.  But I wasn’t as active as I was in the “old” days.  The Cavaliers as I knew them, were defunct, but another generation of musicians were re-organizing them again.  Their genre was more in keeping up with the then current pop type music of the 70s.  They were all friends of mine, and James Thomas, a local real-estate agent played sax.  Whenever I was at a function where they were playing, he always invited me to sit in.

When word got out that I was back, my old friend Billy Aylor called me.  He said that there was going to be a contest for choosing a local western singer to go to Dallas for another competition.  I don’t recall what that was all about.  But he wanted me to help him judge the competition, along with Chill Wills, the movie star and another guy whom I don’t remember the name.  Too many years have passed.  It was held at another club near the air base.  There were about fifteen competitors performing in front of a crowd of about a hundred.  Well, during the contest, Chill, Billy and I were enjoying liquid refreshments.  I do remember that the winner was very happy…….as we were.

In February of 1982, I got a call from Gene Peugh, back in New Mexico.  The old band was getting back together for a reunion and playing at a Battle of the Bands, held in the ballroom at the Holiday Inn de Las Cruces.  It would be us against the New Mexico State University band.  Gene had got a bunch of musicians from Nashville to come in to help us out.  It was for a charity benefit.

Now a “Battle of the Bands” is just show, no contest involved.  One band plays for an hour then the other band plays for another hour, and it goes back and forth.  The NMSU band set up at one end of the ballroom and we at the other.  We, both bands, put on great shows.  The NMSU band was great, organized, and well practiced.  We on the other hand was a bunch that half of us had never worked together; the Nashville musicians had just gotten in that afternoon.  What we lacked in organization, we were overwhelmed with star power.  I think we had, piano, drums, upright bass, trombone, two saxes, a rhythm guitar, trumpet, two or three fiddles.  There were about 500 people in attendance and the proceeds went to a local charity.

Back here in San Angelo, I was playing a lot at the Twin Mountains Steakhouse and Supper Club.  We had a country/western band called the Concho River Boys, and we worked there about four nights a week.  It was a neat place.  Nice tables and cushioned chairs for dining, then the music started about 9:00 for dancing.  It was quite different from some of the cowboy hangouts that I had worked on occasion where you had to look out for low-flying beer cans.

I slowly began to curtail my playing.  Music was changing too much for my tastes.  I didn’t like the trend of the way music was headed, such as  hard rock music.  My time was passing and didn’t want to be looked up as a washed-up has-been.  I just retired gracefully.  My last gig was with a band of musicians of my own choosing, playing for the Christmas party of West Texas Utilities Company, at the San Angelo Convention Center.  That was December 20, 1986.

Looking back, I have decided that if I had it all to do over again, there is not a single thing that I would change.

I sold my saxophone to a young airman at Goodfellow AFB.  It was a Selmer Mark VI that I purchased with my re-enlistment bonus back in 1957.  It could still sing……….

Author’s note:  I hope everyone enjoyed my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Will there be a book?  I doubt it.  But there are an awful of tales that have yet to be told.

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.

Yakkety-Sax Man – Part IV: It’s Istanbul, Not Constantinople


Istanbul, Turkey.  Formerly Constantinople.  Getting off the plane the smell is instantly noticeable.  Turkish cigarettes and other odors cling to the air.  This is Istanbul International Airport.  We were debarking from an Air Force Super Constellation that brought us via Bermuda, Madrid, Tripoli, and Athens.  The Madrid stopover was necessitated by a failure of one of the four engines over Gibralter.  We stayed there overnight while the engine was replaced.

Harbiye'deki Hilton otelinin Taksim tarafından...

Istanbul Hilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After staying over night at the Istanbul Hilton for about  $15.00 American, we were flown to Karamursel AFB, which would turnout to be our home for nearly three years.  This flight was a rickety Air Force C-47 that was from our duty station there to pick us up.  The pilot, who eventually became a family friend, had to. at times, poke a broomstick that he carried in the cockpit, up into the engine on start-up.  I don’t know what this accomplished, except to raise the eyebrows of new arrivals.

Karamursel AFB, was the home of TUSLOG Det. 3, (Turkish United States Logistics Group),a unit of the United States Air Force Security Service.  But other branches of the service were represented there, too.  It is on the Sea of Marmara southeast of Istanbul.  Our mission was monitoring communications of our friends north and east of the Black Sea.

English: United States Air Force Security Serv...

United States Air Force Security Service emblem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yalova Turkey Provinces locator

Yalova, Turkey upper left.  Just north of it you can see the Bosphorus canal that separates the two parts of Istanbul, between the Sea Marmara and the Black Seas. Meditereanean is at far left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Initially, Ann stayed in the States, as I didn’t have the rank for the Air Force to pay her way.  There were no quarters for families on the base and married couples lived in Yalova, a village about 12 miles away.  But after living in a barracks environment for about two months, I asked Ann to sell the Buick and use the money for a plane ticket to Turkey.  A few weeks later, she made her first plane trip ever, and I met her in Istanbul.  After a night at the Hilton,  we took the ferry to Yalova, about an hour’s trip.

I had found an apartment on the 4th floor of a building in Yalova.  Another military couple was the previous tenant, and our neighbors in the building were all military, too.  The rent was about $11.00 per month.  These low prices were because of the exchange rate.  We had a maid, $3.00 monthly and a houseboy, another $3.00.  These rates were American money, but with exchange rates the wages were average for the Turkish.  The apartment was two bedrooms and a kitchen.  The bath had a hot water tank with a fire-box underneath.  You had to build a fire before going to bed to have hot water in the morning.  Then you built another fire to have hot water in evening.  Our house boy took care of that, lugging firewood up the four flights of stairs.  He also met us when we came home from work, to carry any of our groceries, etc. upstairs for us.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  After my own arrival earlier and getting settled in, I stopped by the Airmen’s Club, that was in the base fire station.  It was temporary and plans were in the offing for a permanent club.  Anyway, some musicians were jamming one evening.  They were using instruments from the special services department.  My sax was still in transit so I picked up this battered looking alto and and used it.  I was immediately invited to play with a group that was playing a few gigs around the area.  It was made of of Navy personnel mainly.  We played at the NCO club a time or two and down at a submarine base at Golcuk, Turkey.

To do the appearances at the club at Golcuk, we needed a vehicle to haul the large equipment, drums, base, etc.  One of the sailors worked at the motor pool, and we “midnight requisitioned” a van of some type, and sneaked it past the military police on the gate.

Ann arrived then, and I ran into some Air Force musicians that also had a group and we re-organized.  We really could put on a show.  We had a piano player, upright bass, trumpet, sax, (me) and drums.  We romped to the style of Louis PrimaI fittingly happened to play a Sam Butera style at that time.  What a blast it was!  We would occasionally go to Istanbul and entertain at a USO club there.  We had to take our equipment on a ferry across the sea.  Quite a chore, but there was always a bunch of Turkish civilians that were more than anxious to help us.

Turkish ferry.  Harbor at Istanbul, Turkey.  @Bob Zeller.

Turkish ferry. Harbor at Istanbul, Turkey. @Bob Zeller.

Ann had gotten a job as office manager for the Officers’ Club and was instrumental in getting us to play at the dances there.  We played for the grand opening of the new NCO club, and many dances after that.  It was during one of those outings that a USO Show was there for extra entertainment. The caracaturist that drew the likenesses of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was there with the group and he thought I was a great candidate for a caracature.   Below is the resultblog_bob_caracature.  I think he liked my Adam’s apple.

Our trumpet player was a member of one of the major big bands before entering the Air Force.  He was only serving a two-year hitch and was planning on re-joining that orchestra.  I don’t remember the name of that band.

Our upright bass player, Les White, had been a radio announcer, and he was our MC.  We didn’t do many vocals, as we were more of a show band.

By now you may be wondering where my photography came in.  It was at this Air Base that I bought my very first 35mm camera.  It was a German-made Kodak Retina IIIs rangefinder type.  Of course, I had always owned a camera of some sort, but they were the cheap little box cameras of the era.  The Brownie Hawkeye comes to mind.  I started shooting Kodachrome slides with a film speed of ASA 10.  To me the best slide film ever made.

Turkish Fishing Boat  @Bob Zeller

Turkish Fishing Boat @Bob Zeller

I began to get serious, and I enrolled with the home study course from the New York Institute of Photography.  I shot hundreds of slides while in Turkey, but during the shipment of our household goods back to the States many of them were lost or damaged.  But while I was there, I got acquainted with the official base photographer and he let me use the darkroom.  In return I let him use some of my own photos to use for the base commanders briefings for VIPs that dropped by.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Tukey.  ©Bob Zeller

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. ©Bob Zeller

Since Ann and I were doing so well, with our “side jobs”, we extended our tour an additional year.  My job on base was Chief Cashier and in charge of the payroll.  I was responsible for paying all military and indigenous civilian personnel at the air base, plus two smaller detachments on remote sites on the Black Sea.  Most of the time, I was sitting in a cashiers cage, with a .45 caliber pistol at my side, handing out thousands of dollars each day.

It was on one of these days, in September of 1961 that I felt a twinge in my chest while I was sitting there.  Uh oh!……….  To be continued…………

Watch for Part V in about another week.  If you missed the first three parts, click the links below.

Part I, Part II, Part III

Yakkety-Sax Man Part III: From to Reno to Ardmore


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.

"The Biggest Little City in the World&quo...

“The Biggest Little City in the World” Sign – Reno, Nevada (Photo credit: travelswithkim)

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.

English: Thunderbirds performing at Reno, Neva...

Thunderbirds performing at Reno, Nevada during the National Championship Air Races. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

The Melody Rangers photographed during a casual rehearsal.

The Melody Rangers photographed during a casual rehearsal.

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.

Back:  Melody Rangers Front:  The Skylighters

Back: Melody Rangers
Front: The Skylighters

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.

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.

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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.