The Bigbee Barons

The Bigbee Barons
Mrs. Penny Schell

"Way down south in Alabama -
an old place called Birmingham
They all walk or ride for miles -
to get jive that Southern style".

Yes, those are some of the words to Erskin Hawkins' immortal "Tuxedo Junction".  That was the song Frank "Fish" Herndon and Clarence "Clay" Ulmer played "by ear" on Clay's back steps as they dreamed and planned for a Demopolis dance band.  

At that time big dance bands were popular and Fish and Clay wanted Demopolis to have one of its own.  Little did they know that this dream would come true, involved many people, and last almost 25 years.

Soon Fish and Clay were joined by Jack Neuhauser, Jim Clem, John "Snookie" Barnes, John Caldwell (later replace by Austin), Ed Levy, Jr., Frank King, Jr., Boyd Mackey and Jimmy Watt.  

A room was provided by Reverend Dan Whittset as a meeting place at the Methodist Sunday School Building and Mr. C. Hickman gave two nights a week to teach this young group of "would be" musicians.

Mack Cox, who had studied piano with Mrs. Vera Howz, also gave his time to rehearse the group.  None of the members had ever had any music lessons because there was no high school band at that time.  A Sears Roebuck "E Z Music Method" (price 25 cents) and Mr. Hickman's knowledge of music was what they had to go with.

Some months later the gang learned that Saunders Ulmer was returning from Auburn to go into the family business.  The students anxiously look forward to his arrival.  (Saunders had also studied with Mrs. Vera Howz.)  He remained the leader of the Bigbee Barons throughout the life of the band.  

Ernestine Maxey (Deitz) came in on piano, also vocalists Mary Ann Flowers (Scott), Elsie Johnston (Henry) and Elaine Johnston (Caples).  

The time had come for its' debut and the band opened August 27, 1941, at the Marengo Theater.  For 10 cents, a movie goer could see the movie "Let's Make Music" featuring the Bob Crosby Band and also get a chance to NAME THE DEMOPOLIS HOME TOWN BAND.  Layman Mayer, then manager of the Marengo, helped in the promotion and hand bills were delivered by the band members all over town.

After the movie, the curtain opened and the newly named Bigbee Barons made its' first public appearance.  

The contest had been won by Charles Watts.  For the winning entry, he got a certificate for $1.00 in merchandise at Froshin's, a week pass to the Marengo Theater and free tickets to the Friday night dance at the Oak Grove Nite Club - music by the new band.

If you ever listened to a band play twelve songs for three hours, you may have some idea how it was at Oak Grove that night.  The dancers, however, were complimentary and some even stayed to the last "Tuxedo Junction".

The band played for dances and other functions and after the war started they played for patriotic gatherings.

Albert "Luke" Lucas, Jr. replaced Snookie for a while as the drummer after Snookie went to Auburn.  Also Frank King, who went off to school, was replaced by Louis Blackwell.

The war hit the band hard as members went to serve Uncle Sam.  That interrupted, but did not put and end to the band.  The bandsmen kept in touch by mail from all over the world and planned for an even better band when it was all over.

After the war, some new faces appeared on the bandstand.  They were Leo Hart, Jr., Barry Collins, Bobby Kyser and Henry "Buddy" Bley.  L. S. Reed and Lanny Ligon of Coatopa filled in on drums from time to time.  Chug Griffith (Pruitt) and Willadell Nixon (La Blanc) were girl vocalists.  

Leo Hart, Jr. came in 1945 and played a fine lead saxophone until the band dissolved in the mid 60's.  Saunders, Clay, Jack and Snookie played continuously from that opening night at the Marengo in 1941 until the end.

Business and family responsibilities caused many of the old members to drop out.  Jim Clem's saxophone and clarinet, as well as his jazz vocals, were missed when he went into the dairy business.  Jim was replaced by the talented Frank Ballard of Beiger and after a few rehearsals they were ready to go again.  

Jimmy Nettles, award winning trumpeter, of the Demopolis High School Band, contributed greatly to the group.  Even after he went off to Livingston and Auburn Universities, obtaining his music degree, he would travel back home to play dances.

The band now enlisted students from Livingston music department - Gene Schnell - trumpet, Troyce Hoggle - bass and trombone, James Thompson - trumpet, are all now successful band directors or public educators in high schools and colleges throughout Alabama.  Jerry Englen of Birmingham and Livingston University, veteran Baron trombonist, is today, well known to our Demopolis young people who attend Livingston University's Music Appreciation classes.

The popularity of Rock & Roll in the 60's ended the big band era and the long career of the Bigbee Barons.

For several years some of the members jobbed around in small groups and combos.

One very good small band featuring Jerry Englen, Jack Neuhauser, and Snookie Barnes played regularly at Carpenter's Lodge in Greene County.  

The idea of a Demopolis dance band dreamed up by Fish and Clay had lasted a quarter century and provided fun and entertainment for musicians and dancers alike.

 

AFTER THOUGHTS:

In later years the "book" had grown so large from the original twelve arrangements, that Saunders had to obtain a small trunk just to transport the piano parts.

When the Demopolis Lion's Club sponsored the first Demopolis High School Band in 1948, Saunders, Snookie, Jack and Leo took time off from their businesses every afternoon for months to organize and teach the students until a band director could be hired by the school board.

Saunders directed the Demopolis High Band's first recital on June 6, 1949 at the Regional Coliseum.  He also served as the first Band Booster Club President.  Snookie served as President of the club later. 

OUR THANKS:

Mrs. Penny Schell is the wife of Gene Schell who was the DHS band director from 1957-1962.  Gene was a trumpeter and vocalist with the Bigbee Barons from 1951-53 and from 1957-62.  We appreciate the time that she has given by phone and letter to provide this information.

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