Museum Notes: Exhibit details Merced County's music history

ModestoJune 22, 2013 

CW Music History Exhibit

SUBMITTED PHOTO This photo, from the Music History in Merced County exhibit, shows the band Blue Notes posing for a picture during a practice session at the house of Fire Chief George Coolures, at right, in 1958.

CHRISTOPHER WINTERFELDT

— Last year around this time, I wrote a story about state Sen. George Juan Hatfield who composed "On the Banks of the Old Merced" at the Stevinson Ranch in 1945. But this is only one chapter in Merced's songbook.

Cowboy singer and entertainer Dude Martin, who immortalized the wild Old West in the 1930s and 1940s with his Roundup Gang, was a Plainsburg native. Pat Suzuki, from Cressey, became a major Broadway star in the 1950s by singing "I Enjoy Being a Girl" in the musical "Flower Drum Song."

Raised in Merced, Roddy Jackson became a rockabilly music star and recorded with Specialty Records at the age of 15. Then there was the rock 'n' roll star Lee Michaels of Atwater, whose "Do You Know What I Mean" hit the top 10 chart in 1971.

The stories of these talented musicians and many others are being told in an exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse Museum starting Thursday. "On the Banks of the Old Merced: A Music History" explores the music that has helped to shape the cultural history of Merced County from 1855 to the 1980s.

It is arranged chronologically under four themes: Early Musical Development, The Swing Era, The Rock & Roll Era and Music Melting Pot of the 1980s.

 

 

American history reflected

For a small county in the Central Valley, Merced continues to have a vibrant local music scene. Its musical development mirrors American music history.

During the Civil War, professional community bands began to flourish across the country, and Merced County was no exception. The Snelling Brass Band started by Theodore F. Taubert in 1871 may have been the first band formed in the county.

Not long after Merced replaced Snelling as the new county seat, the town formed the Merced Brass Band in 1874. Later known as the Merced Concert Band, it played in many social gatherings and events, including President William Taft's speech at Courthouse Park in 1909.

The first two decades of the 20th century saw the growth of new bands in Merced County. Hilmar Colony Band was organized in 1905; Gustine Municipal Band, 1911; Atwater Concert Band, 1912; Livingston Brass Band, 1918; and Los Banos North Star Band, 1925.

As popular music shifted to the swing era, Larry Scott's 10-piece orchestra in Gustine and the Coats Brothers in Merced dominated the dance halls and nightclubs on the county's west and east sides, respectively. One of the better-known big band musicians was Warren Lewis, a trumpet player in the Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights Orchestra. The exhibit has Lewis' trumpet from the 1930s on display.

The swing era often featured all-white or all-black group, and racial integration was a new concept.

Merced made a courageous breakthrough with the formation of the Blue Notes. The diverse members of this group included Roddy Jackson, Kenny Craig, Buddy Wiggins, James Burkes, Clarence Lewis and Gilbert Fraire.

The group, managed by Merced City Fire Chief George Coolures, reached such popularity in the late 1950s that "being a minority member of the Blue Notes was like receiving 'red carpet treatment' in Merced," Wiggins recalled.

The Blue Notes became the Merced Blue Notes after Jackson and Wiggins left the band. With the arrival of Bobby Hunt and Carl Mays, Merced Blue Notes really took off and recorded many popular singles in the early 1960s.

 

 

Emulating British style

The R&B style soon gave away to the British invasion in the mid-1960s. In Merced County, garage bands formed overnight and played regularly at the American Legion Hall and the Women's Clubhouse. Many of these bands — such as The Brogues, Crazy Horse and Crystal Syphon — started out covering songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones but eventually produced their own music.

Because Merced was centrally located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, big-name bands often made their stops in Merced while travelling along Highway 99. As a result, area bands often warmed up for better-known acts such as Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead.

Many of these garage bands were short-lived because some musicians were drafted while others, such as Gary Duncan and Greg Elmore, moved to the Bay Area for better opportunities. Duncan and Elmore eventually became founders of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

With the arrival of immigrants in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Merced County's music culture became even more diverse. While the Southeast Asian community brought a new influence to Merced's music scene, mariachi music continues to maintain its presence in the community.

In the world of musicians, Phillip Madayag made music history when Tierra, which featured Madayag on drums, remade the popular song "Together" in 1980. Madayag might have been the first Filipino-American in Merced County to receive the Key to Merced when he brought Tierra to play at the Merced County Fair in 1984.

Please join us Thursday at the Courthouse Museum for the opening reception of the music history exhibit at 5 p.m. Roddy Jackson, Harmony Valley Chorus, and Crystal Syphon will perform live music at 6 p.m. Many noteworthy musicians, including the Merced Blue Notes, will be in attendance to meet and connect with Courthouse Museum patrons and music lovers.

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