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.

Hall of Fame – UPDATE


There was a bit of confusion in the information that I got about me and the band, The Cavaliers, being inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Actually, the band was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, in Nashville, Tennessee, not the West Texas Music Hall of Fame that I described in my post previously.  That puts us in stellar company with Elvis Presley, Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and a veratible host of other big name stars.  It was only J. Frank Wilson that got elected to that West Texas Music HOF, as his name was on the Last Kiss record with the Cavaliers.  He was a member of the band, the lead singer.

The book, that I described, Rockabilly Heaven, is available from www.westexmusichof.com.  It was written by Sid Holmes who was the leader of the Cavaliers.  It chronicles the history of The Cavaliers from 1956 thru 1964.  It also gives a thorough story of the rock-a-billy music from that era in west Texas.  There is a blurb about me along with a fine photo.  I was described as San Angelo’s “best kept secret”.

I thought it was important that I straighten out my errors in that previous post.  I am not one to dwell on such matters about different Halls of Fame.  Such things are nice, but I still only get my senior discount when I buy a cup of coffee. 🙂

Another Pyrrhuloxia and Hall of Fame induction


After reading this post, please see the update at bottom.

For this image, I was driving around San Angelo State Park, and I spotted the Pyrrhuloxia singing away in the top of a tree.  He appeared as a silhouette against the sky.  I propped my Canon EOS 7D with 500mm lens and 1.4 tele-converter on the windowsill of the car, cushioning it with a Puffin’ Pad.  Exposure was 1/1250 sec. @ f8, -0.3EV, ISO 100.  Spot metering and aperture priority.  Post editing in Photoshop CS5 aided by DeNoise and Focus Magic.

Pyrrhuloxia singing in top of tree.

In other news, you have probably read in my “About Me” page about my past career in music.  In the early 1960s I played with the Cavaliers, a band from here in San Angelo, Texas for a short period.  They recorded the famous song “Last Kiss” written by Wayne Cochran and  sang by J. Frank Wilson.  Because of another commitment, I didn’t play sax on the record as no sax part was needed in the song.  Anyway, the band, me included, have been inducted into the West Texas Music Hall of Fame. Sid Holmes, the leader, has written a book, “Rockabilly Heaven”.  It is the untold story of the Cavaliers, and also tells about the music scene of the 50s and 60s in west Texas.  It is available from Ft. Phantom Lake Publishing, 6204 S. Parkway, Ft. Worth, TX 76134.  Or contact sid-holmes@charter.net.  On page 95 there is a handsome photo of yours truly. 

I was instrumental in the hiring of J. Frank Wilson to the band.  We needed a lead vocalist and we heard about this young man that was stationed at the nearby air base, and was near the end of his enlistment.  We auditioned him.  Our drummer, our bass player, and I all thought that he couldn’t sing a lick.  However, Sid Holmes, the leader thought otherwise and the rest is history.  It turned out that with the band backing him up he could blend in easier. The record sold millions, topped the charts for many months and repeated in later years when it was re-corded by Pearl Jam in 1995.

J. Frank Wilson was a one-hit wonder.  He left the Cavaliers in 1964, deciding to go single.  He never made another hit record.  He died a pauper, a few short years ago, in south Texas, where he was working as a janitor in a nursing home.  But, the song he made famous, “Last Kiss”, a song about a girl dying in a car crash, lives on.  I am proud that I was part of the legacy.

IMPORTANT UPDATE – 3/15/2012 –  In conversation with Sid Holmes, the leader of the Cavaliers, I have found that only J. Frank Wilson was elected to the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.  That was because his name was on the record, “Last Kiss” with the Cavaliers backing him up.  However, the Cavaliers band, including me, was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  That puts us in stellar company with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Roy Orbison and the many others of that era.

Notes about my musical past………..


After I posted that picture of the band I once played in, in my “Ann and I” post a couple of days ago, I got to thinkin’ that lots of you guys are really unaware of my checkered musical past.  So here is a little bit more about that period in my life.  Actually, that period starts when I was about nine, until I played my last gig at the age of about sixty-four.  In other words about 55 years.

Yeah, that's me - Mr. Cool

In grade school the music teacher, Mrs Hahn, decided to not only teach us singing, but got us each a little thingee that I think was called a Tonette.  It was similar to the old Sweet Potato, that many of you may or may not remember.  You blew into the end of it, and it had little holes for each finger, which you could cover or uncover to make notes.  I got pretty proficient at playing it.

Later, I decided I wanted something more substantial if I was going to be a great musician.  So my parents took me to down to Berman’s music store in Muskegon, Michigan, to pick out something.  An alto saxophone caught my eye, as it had a lot of fancy, shiny keys and I thought, boy, that looks fun to play.  And it ought to attract the girls. So a star was born that day I took that bugger home and started “entertaining” the neighbors.

After some private lessons, plus experience playing in the school band I really did start to shine on the danged thing.  In junior high school a friend decided we needed to start a band.  So four of us got together and played at a little dance.  We got 5.00 each and I got my first experience singing with a dance band.  My knees knocked but I sang “Because of You” to a sold-out crowd bunch of teeny-boppers.

I was playing in night clubs when I was fifteen years old, much to the chagrin of my high school band teacher.  (I’ll have you know that I didn’t drink a drop back then).  Mr. William Stewart summarily kicked my little butt out of the band because he did not believe is such goings-on.  That was OK, I just started to play every chance I got.  I got to be on stage with some pretty big names over the years.

The Melody Rangers

In the Air Force I played with a bunch of guys that played more western music.  We called ourselves the Melody Rangers.  Catchy name, don’t ya think?  We were pretty dog-goned good.  Good enough that the Air Force flew us to several places in the area in a C-123 cargo plane, to entertain the public.  Billy Deaton was the lead singer.  In the picture, he is second from left.  He went on to be a producer in Nashville.  At the far right, Stu Basore, ended up playing steel guitar for Ray Price.  I am second from right.  This pic was taken during practice, but on stage we wore fancy western shirts and cute little neckerchiefs.  The guy in the middle, Lou Brown, the drummer, was always wanting me to ask his mother out.  He said she had a thing for me. 🙂  I didn’t. 🙂

I sat in with the big bands, got on a traveling Grand Ole Oprey show in Oklahoma, with Judy Lynn and Brenda Lee.  She was about ten years old at the time.

When I went home to get married, I told you previously that I met Ann for the first time when I got off of the bus.  So, this is my wife-to-be whom I meet at 2:00 in the afternoon.  The first time I ever layed eyes on her.  The wedding rehearsal is at 4:00.  So what happens that evening, our first evening out together?  Of course!  I end up playing with the band at a little dance hall.  My old buddies found out I was in town.  From my brother, I guess.  So I guess I broke Ann in right away about my music.  That was a memorable first date. 🙂

There is one little period that I almost left out.  While stationed at Ardmore AFB in Oklahoma, I and two other staff sergeants formed a little singing group.  We called ourselves the Skyliners and we purposely, sang and sounded like the Four Aces.  We played shows around the state, and entered the Air Force Blues talent composition.  We ended up in second in the country, to a what I called then a Do-Wop group.

Back here in San Angelo, after my short career in the Air Force I played with just every band in town at one time or another over the years.  Leonard King’s Orchestra, Alton Baird’s band, Frank Trevino’s Orchestra, Billy Aylor Orchestra, Johnny Dutton’s band.   I joined the Cavalliers and we auditioned J. Frank Wilson to sing with us.  As you know the Cavalliers made a top ten record, “Last Kiss”, featuring J. Frank.  We are in the West Texas Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.

I ended my musical professional career in December of 1996, playing with my own band, The Concho River Band, at the San Angelo Convention Center for the West Texas Utilities Company Christmas Party.  But I have lots of stories that sometime I may pass on to you.