Clyde McCoy brings the Sugar Blues

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While blowing off the dust this morning, an old newspaper clipping fell out of a scrapbook and it took me back to Sedalia, Missouri in 1974. No, not to the ragtime festival this time but to a grand ball at the local Ramada Inn featuring one of the last of the big bands to still be led by its namesake. Clyde McCoy and his Orchestra brought “Sugar Blues” to Sedalia along with his Wah-wah trumpet, and for one night that small town on the Prairie pretended it was a big city.

The community was getting into the oldies after all the ragtime performers had enthused them with their syncopations that summer. The Symphony Society in particular, under the leadership of Abe Rosenthal, was very excited and had invited Max Morath back for his “Ragtime Years” program to open their season just two weeks after the ball.

Now while Clyde and the band is warming up I’ll explain about the venerable Sedalia Symphony Society which is still an active and vital cultural entity there in the Queen City of the Prairie. You see, Abe had been asked way back in 1935 by the Helen G. Steele Music Club ladies to form the group and it has been the second oldest continuously performing orchestra of its size West of the Mississippi, only bowing to St. Louis as the oldest. It was Abe who had listened to Brun Campbell back in the 1940’s and had his Men’s Choral Club perform a Scott Joplin concert and post a plaque honoring Joplin and his music in the African-American high school in 1951.

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Now back to 1974. I was on the Symphony Board and was “selected” to find some big band music group so they could have a large formal ball. You get the picture…sort of like Mickey and Judy yelling “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” I cast about as best I could in Sedalia before the days of Google searches to find a band that would meet their expectations. A number of the old leader-named bands were advertising but only two I found were still fronted by originals: Woody Herman

and Clyde McCoy. It was August, with the Orchestra’s season rapidly approaching, so I quickly took the names back to the board and they unanimously went for Clyde. I was pleased: Woody wasn’t available until deep into the winter the following year.

We were lucky to get a date so quickly and everyone dived into preparations and ticket sales like they had for the festival a few months earlier. On the day of the ball, watching the women decorate the room and tables was like watching fingers on a piano run whizzing up and down the scales. I don’t know where they all came from, but the group had scoured Sedalia for Big Band Era memorabilia and they turned up some fine old collectables for decorations. It was a grand event, even before it began.

Finally, we ran home to get dressed and then returned just in time to see six men laboring into the hall under the weight of their instrument cases, music, and stands. I looked about eagerly to find their leader but he was not to be seen. I considered that it was still an hour before the scheduled start so I avoided panic. And then while seeing to last minute details, in came the 71-year-old band leader striding across the room bolt upright in his blue shoes looking far more natural in them than Elvis in his suedes. He was showing his age and the clipping and photo I have just found reminded me that, unlike many of his contemporaries in show business, Clyde didn’t hide his age. This tall, lanky gentleman with a full head of white wavy hair acted all evening with the enthusiasm of a teenager and I remember thinking that the audience went home a lot more fatigued that he did.

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When Clyde McCoy finally retired in the late 1985, he had performed through seven decades, had a discography that filled nearly three single-spaced pages and had, like many of the big band leaders of the era, a piece, “Sugar Blues,” forever associated with his name. He lived five more years to the age of 86.

Clyde had a successful marriage that lasted 45 years and he had served in the Navy during World War II, interrupting his career as many had to do in those times. In fact, he and his entire band enlisted together. Maxine, his wife, was one of the original Bennett Sisters Trio who frequently performed with Clyde’s band. They were married after the war in 1945. The couple had no children and that allowed them to be on the road most of the year with their permanent home in Memphis…where else?

The dance began slowly as the audience preferred just to listen. The band was small but the versatility of the members and the well adapted arrangements made them sound like a much larger ensemble. He told me two of the men had joined the group in Kansas City and hadn’t played with his band before. All six however, performed their solos to perfection, always drawing out appreciative applause.

The amiable leader interspersed stories of his career with many of the selections and it was beginning to appear that the grand ball was going to be a grand concert. Slowly couples began dancing. The old band leader knew how to draw them onto the floor with the slow numbers and then swing into full Wah-wah mode and build from there.

After all, that “Wah-wah” flap muted trumpet sound of his was a trademark going back to the 1920’s when he pulsed a mute in the bell of his trumpet while playing “Sugar Blues.” He may not have been the first to try it, but it sure stuck to his name. It was the Jazz age after all and musicians were stretching sounds every way they could. The evening went all too quickly as I recall. There was one familiar tune after another, with all those wonderful stories sprinkled in to give the band short breaks. However, I was beginning to worry as the appointed end to the evening was approaching.

Then, there it was. We knew it was coming when he reached for the mute that last time: it wasn’t going to need an introduction. The buzz in the room stopped and for nearly four minutes we were mesmerized by the trumpet virtuosity of a man older than anyone else in the room. The familiar four note ending fluttered through the hall and the place erupted into grateful cheering and nostalgic applause. We had been transported back to the Big Band days by Clyde McCoy and his “Sugar Blues Orchestra.”

I sure hated to watch those blue shoes leave the room.


Larry Melton is at lcmelton67@gmail.com.

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