Famous cowboy actor and Sons of the Pioneers founding member Roy Rogers lived briefly in the labor camps in Tulare while picking fruit for the Del Monte Co. during the Great Depression.
The Depression, as well as World War II, brought a great influx of people to Central California. Among them were many talented musicians and entertainers who tried to escape poverty in their home states and make a living with whatever jobs were available in California.
Merced's own accomplished guitarist George Rodrick Jackson Sr., for example, left Mississippi during the Great Depression. By 1935 he and his wife were living in Fresno while he worked on road construction. Although Jackson never played with Rogers, he later played with the Sons of the Pioneers while they toured in California.
Jackson moved his family to Merced in the early 1940s when his first child, Roddy Jackson, was only a year old. Later, Roddy, a rising young star, would form the Blue Notes in Merced and record with Sonny Bono for Specialty Records at age 15.
After relocating his family to Merced, Jackson, influenced by the attack on Pearl Harbor, decided to join the Marines. Because of an injury during training, he missed the overseas deployment and ended up being assigned to Special Services playing music for the troops.
This presented a wonderful opportunity for Jackson's musical development, as he would accompany famous musicians and performers to entertain the troops. Among them were trumpet maestro Harry James and his band, and guitarist Al Caiola.
After the war, Jackson went to work for the Merced County road department. While working during the day to provide for his family, he continued to nurture his love for music by teaching music to local students at Record Rendezvous at night and playing with "pick-up" bands on the weekends. Because Jackson was a well-known guitarist in the area, he frequently got calls from the pick-up bands through the local music union.
According to son Roddy, Jackson played with many local musicians including Wally Coats, Ralph and Elli Coats, Eva Ronson, Gene Baird, George Ross, Jonny Walker and Warren Lewis from the 1940s to the 1960s. The Coats Brothers, formed by Wally and Ralph, was a popular dance band in Merced's swing era.
Rod Jackson and Wally Coats shared similar experiences during their military service. On his way to overseas deployment, Coats caught a high fever and was dropped off at the Merced Army Base (later Castle Air Force Base).
"They (the Army) didn't know what to do with him," Isabel Coats recalled about her late husband. "They got him to play trumpet every morning to get everyone up and taps every night to turn the lights out."
Like Jackson, Coats' musical talent enabled him to accompany celebrities and entertainers for military benefit appearances.
For example, he played music as Janet Blair sang at a war bond rally at the Hollywood Canteen. Back home, Coats would travel to the Yosemite Naval Hospital in the Ahwahnee Hotel to entertain the injured soldiers and play tributes to fallen warriors at funerals.
In Merced, Coats and the Post Orchestra from the base would play live music on KYOS so listeners could dance to it.
After he was discharged from the military, Coats opened his first music store at 323 W. 17th St. in the historic Merced Theatre building and formed the Coats Brothers dance band.
The Coats Brothers had been a popular swing band in the hotels of Chicago before the war, but the band ceased to exist when Coats enlisted in the Army. After the war, with the arrival of Ralph and his wife, Elli, the Coats Brothers regrouped in Merced.
Rod Jackson played first with the Coats Brothers and later with Ralph and Elli Coats after Wally Coats left the band to focus on his music store. When Coats moved his Record Rendezvous to 355 W. 17th St., where the Gottschalk Music Center is today, Jackson taught music there.
One was from Illinois and the other from Mississippi, yet their paths crossed by chance in the small town of Merced. The story and the contribution of these two musicians to Merced's music scene will be told at the Merced County Music History exhibit at the Courthouse Museum when it opens June 27.
If you have information about Merced's music history and would like to share, please call the museum office at (209) 723-2401.
Currently on display is the exhibit "Wherever There's Fight: A History of Civil Liberties in California."
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.