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.