Jack Wardlaw, UNC Band Leader and Banjoist
There is a small newspaper in Raleigh named The Raleigh Reporter whose editor is a life long friend of mine. Even though we went through a long period of time where we didn't hear from each other, we have recently renewed our friendship by telephone. Bill Uzzle attended N.C. State University as an undergraduate but was at UNC at the same time I was getting his master's degree. We were raised together in the same Raleigh neighborhood, but after college he basically stayed near home whereas most of my time since graduation has been spent elsewhere.
In a conversation the other day day, I mentioned that Jack Wardlaw, a Raleigh fixture for years who recently passed, had a female singer with his band in the thirties named Peggy Lee. Bill acted interested and indicated he might have one of his reporters contact Jack's son and see if there was enough to warrant a story. He did and there was.
Let me begin by saying that Jack was a UNC alumnus. Notice I didn't say graduate because Jack lacked a course or two from graduating, but if the UNC General Alumni Association can count attending a single course as the qualifier for being an alumnus, I think I am safe in referring to Jack as a UNC alumnus. Times were different in the thirties and, oftentimes, the need to earn a living overrode academic considerations. Not many of you remember it and I don't remember it, but I've been told there was a Depression going on.
I have written previously about playing in a banjo band led by Jack Wardlaw when I was at Duke from 1967-1971. The group was called the Executives and we performed extensively throughout N.C. and S.C. We appeared on the Jimmy Dean Show in Dorton Arena, the Arthur Smith (composer of Dueling Banjos) TV show twice, appeared in the Raleigh Christmas Parade with over 100,000 people in attendance, appeared on the program with Jean Dixon in Washington, D.C. and had numerous other engagements.
I got to know Jack pretty well during the period I was with the Executives, and I used to love listening to the stories he would tell. Surprisingly, however, he never mentioned that Peggy Lee was the female singer with his band even though he told me many times about the two trips his band took to Europe in the late thirties. Jack's son and articles on the internet confirm that Peggy Lee sang with Jack's 13 piece band before she left to become the female vocalist with Benny Goodman.
Jack's band, while he was in school, was called, "Jack Wardlaw And The Carolina Tar Heels" and consisted of 13 pieces. That did not qualify him as a big band nationally but was big enough to get some choice dance gigs on a local and regional basis. Jack used to tell jokes about his earlier musical career to the audiences when we played and they loved it. I remember one he told about trying out for Kay Kyser's band at Carolina and shortly thereafter, Kyser decided to use a guitar instead of a banjo. Everybody laughed because the outcome suggested that his playing was so bad that Kyser decided to run from the instrument, but the truth of the matter was that dance bands were gradually dropping the banjo in favor of the guitar all over. The type of music the public liked after the Wall Street crash was different from before, and it was as though the banjo reminded people of the roaring twenties and they didn't want to be reminded. Another member of the group at the time was Eddie Poole, the owner of a chain of music stores in Raleigh and Durham who had a comparable band at N.C. State at the same time. Jack would introduce Eddie as being from State, he and I from UNC, and Pete Bourke, who had not attended college, as having graduated from the school of hard knocks in Knoxville.
Jack and I didn't always see eye to eye, but somehow our relationship survived until I left Raleigh in 1971. One of the things that embarrassed me was that Jack would ask the person who was booking us, what time did we eat? I felt that we were hired help and not entitled to be fed along with our pay but Jack saw it differently. I asked him why he did it and told him I was uncomfortable over the fact that we would accept pay and simultaneously ask to be treated as guests. He replied that he figured it must have come from his band playing days where oftentimes they would be booked, would play the job, and then learn that the promoter had disappeared. Jack reasoned that if he ate, at least, he was not going to be swindled out of everything. It made some sense, but I was still not totally comfortable with asking for food.
Probably the most embarrassing thing that ever happened was one night in Durham at one of the country clubs, we were seated on an elevated stage with little room to spare. I mentioned to Jack that my chair was perilously close to the edge of the stage and asked that he not throw his banjo neck up near me when we started playing. It gets chaotic right right before an opening and when we started playing, Jack did exactly what I had asked him not to do. He raised the banjo until it almost touched my face and naturally I tried to back out of the banjo's range. One of the legs of the chair in which I was seated moved off the stage and shortly thereafter, I fell off also. I fell on to a spare banjo of his and the first thing he said when he leaned down to me was "Is the banjo all right." I could have slugged him. Strangely, the next day when I was trying to apologize to some of my co workers who had been present for the incident, they said they hadn't even noticed that I had fallen off the stage. We played much better for groups that had a little alcohol in their systems and they seemed to enjoy us more and sing better when they had a little help from the bottle. One night we played a song all the way through in TWO different keys at the same time and the crowd cheered us like mad. That had to be one of the worst sounds I have ever heard in my entire life.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Bill Uzzle for sending his reporter to Jack's son and having him write a very nice feature article in the Jan. 31st edition Raleigh Reporter. The Reporter is free and I urge you to look around for it in various places of business in the Raleigh area. I think you will like it especially if you are from Raleigh.
Jack Wardlaw was a staunch Tar Heel in addition to being a very proficient musician and a highly successful businessman. He died a couple of years ago and I miss seeing him on Saturdays at Kenan Stadium in his always new white Cadillac parked near the stadium. Even though Jack was originally from New Jersey, he was a Tar Heel through and through. Someone said that if Jack is fortunate enough to make it to heaven that St.Peter will probably be waiting for him with a banjo in hand. If that happens, I guarantee you Jack will take it and, in a split second, be playing it to everyone's enjoyment. Might even be "When The Saints Go Marching In."