UNC Loyalty Tested
Those of you who have read my bio on page 1 know that I have an interest in the banjo and formerly played in several musical groups. The first group I played with was called "The Executives" and in the period 1967-1970 we played some very interesting gigs, principally in the Research Triangle area. The other banjoists were all older than me and each had their own bands in the 20's and 30's. They affectionately, I think, referred to me as the baby of the group. Eddie Poole had a band at N.C. State, Pete Bourke had a band in Memphis and Jack Wardlaw had a very successful band at Carolina. Wardlaw was the leader of the group and served as the Master of Ceremonies when we performed. I was saddened to hear of his death a couple of months ago at the age of 95 and Eddie Poole passed on several years ago. I don't know the status of Pete Bourke and haven't seen him in many years.
The group did remarkably well in a 3 state area for several reasons. First, we were all pretty good musicians and the music we played was unusual and sounded pretty good. It's hard to imagine but 4 banjos played as a group with each banjo playing a different part is an impressive sound. We were frequently told that the sound was unique and, believe it or not, it had a big band type sound to it. A tuba gave the music the punch that it needed and the type songs we played stirred nostalgic memories for many of our listeners. Secondly, we loved to play a few songs that one wouldn't expect to hear on banjos like "Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago", "I Left My Heart In San Francisco", "Waltzing Matilda" and "Just A Closer Walk With Thee." One of the keys to our success seemed to be that audiences couldn't easily fit us into a particular category and this added to the excitement of what became a standard program. The highlight of every appearance was the sing- a- long to song sheets we distributed. We learned the hard way that people generally wanted to sing but simply didn't know the words to most songs. The best programs were when we could get someone from the audience to lead the singing.
We made one LP, appeared on the Arthur Smith television show on two occasions, appeared in the Raleigh Christmas parade ( over 100,000 ) , appeared on the Jimmy Dean Show at the Dorton Arena, a New Christy Minstrels concert and at halftime of two ACC basketball games ( State vs WF and State vs Duke) and one NCAA playoff game (Davidson vs St. Johns). We played for events when the governors of two states were in attendance and on a program with Jeanne Dixon the noted prognosticator.
Now you might wonder what all this has to do with UNC. Well, I'm going to tell you.
In the early 70's after I had left Duke and moved to Richmond, I received a telephone call one Friday night from Jack Wardlaw who asked me to play with the group, which had continued to perform after I left the area, the following day in Carter-Finley Stadium with the N.C. State Marching Band. I was taken back at the invitation and expressed concern that I was being added to the group at such a late date without any rehearsal but Wardlaw expressed supreme confidence that I could join right in with no difficulty. Oh, I forgot to mention that at the time I had season tickets at Kenan and in order to play with the group, I was going to have to miss a game scheduled there.
I asked Wardlaw to let me give it a little thought and I would be back in touch with him shortly. The most difficult part of the decision for me was that Wardlaw had indicated that the group was going to play "Amazing Grace" with the State band providing the background. He knew that was going to appeal to me. It was just different enough and he knew I probably wouldn't be able to resist.
I struggled with the decision for a while because there were some real problems associated with it. I had a friend scheduled to attend the Carolina game with me and it put me in the position of having to withdraw the invitation which I didn't want to do or drive him by Chapel Hill and drop him off while I continued on to Raleigh. After agonizing over my situation for a while, I finally decided that I would not play with the group. It was a difficult decision and there have been times later on that I wish I had decided otherwise.
Picture me, the following day, seated in Kenan trying to watch the game and listening in on my headset to the State game in Raleigh to see if I could hear the performance of the band and the banjo group in the background. Lo and behold, at halftime the announcer for the State game said there was some special music being performed and cut the microphone down to the field. I know it is difficult for anyone to imagine "Amazing Grace" on 4 banjos and a 250 piece band backing it sounding good, but believe me, it was beautiful.
For a instant, I wished I had accepted the invitation to join the group that day but it soon went away. While I might not have thought it was a test of UNC loyalty at the time, that's the way I choose to view it now. And in my mind, at least, I passed the test with flying colors.