Gary Church, Sideman Extraordinaire, Dies at 61

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Multi-instrumentalist Gary Church (photo courtesy

Related Story: Report from Gary Church’s Celebration of Life.

In 2012, Gary Church wrote a 135-page book which he titled The Autobiography of a Nobody: The Life and Times of a Sideman. Hardly an accurate or entirely appropriate title for the life story of a talented multi-instrumentalist whose career as a working musician spanned nearly 50 years, who worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, and who was inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame.

Gary started out playing with a number of bands in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, that included the Desert City Six and the infamous Barehanded Wolf Chokers Old Time Dixieland Band, Inc. He was soon off to Disney World in Florida where he also connected with Bill Allred’s Reedy Creek Jazz Band. After a brief stay as replacement trombonist with Jim Cullum’s Happy Jazz Band in San Antonio, he next hit the road with the Freddy Powers Show to work with the likes of Willie Nelson, Al Hirt, Peanuts Hucko, Wild Bill Davison, and Roger Miller.
He was in the house band at Willie Nelson’s club in Austin, Texas, traveled for 10 years with Merle Haggard’s Strangers, and worked for most of the 1990s with Mel Tillis and the Statesiders in Branson, Missouri. Back in Phoenix, he has been a mainstay with Cheryl Thurston’s Mardi Gras Jazz Band and Joe Hopkins’ 52nd Street aggregation.

For the past five years, Gary has had to deal with serious health issues, including multiple heart attacks. This past January 30, he went out for the simple matter of getting gas for his car and was in a serious accident. Rushed to the hospital in critical condition, a craniotomy was performed to relieve bleeding in his brain. He remained in a coma in the ICU before being moved to a nearby hospice where he passed away on February 19 at the age of 61.

– On Being a Sideman –
Some musicians are born to be bandleaders, others like Gary spend their lives as fairly anonymous sidemen. Gary spelled out what that was like in his eloquent preface to his autobiography.

“There have been many books written by and about musicians. What sets this book apart from most of them is that I am not a famous man. I am what is known in the music business as a sideman. Although this is the story of my life, it could also be the story of many others that do the same thing as I do for a living.

“You probably don’t know our names, but you see us every day on your TV sets, and you hear us every day on your radios. Without us, the singers that you love to listen to would be reciting poetry because there would be no music behind them. We are like the offensive linemen on a football team. We never score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, yet the game could not be played without us.

“Being a musician is in some ways like any other job. It can be satisfying and enjoyable, or it can be very frustrating. It can provide you with a good living, or you could starve to death waiting for your next job. But the main thing that sets the music business apart from most other professions is the lifestyle. In this business, I’ve traveled across the country in a chartered Lear Jet, been picked up at the airport in a stretch limousine, feasted on prime rib and lobster, and drunk the finest wines when I didn’t have enough money to buy a pack of generic cigarettes.

“This is a profession that provides such highs and lows, and often at the same time. In 1982, a song that I had written was #1 on the Country charts, and I didn’t have enough money to buy a copy of the record. Being a musician has given me the opportunity to do many things that are usually reserved for the wealthy. I’ve traveled the world, stayed in the finest hotels, sailed on ocean liners, flown on private jets, and even occupied a complete private car on a passenger train. And I’ve done all these things while wondering how I was going to pay my next month’s rent.

“I’m not writing this book to complain about the music business or to sing its praises. I think it is an interesting way to make a living that has never been written about because the famous people that generally write the books see this business from and entirely different perspective then we, the sidemen, do. Think of this as a look behind the scenes of a glitzy three-ring circus from the viewpoint of the guy that cleans the monkey cages.

“People that measure success by accomplishment might consider me a successful man, while those that measure success by material wealth might call me a failure. For the most part, I’ve made a good living in a tough business. I’ve supported myself and my family by playing music, and for that I must consider myself successful.”

Yes, Gary. Let the record state: You were somebody!

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