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 * (Before the age of cell phones I brought my little micro-cassette recorder and made a crude but cool recording of the circus from inside the band I played with during the next to last show on Saturday. Some of these clips are from inside the band and some are from a recording of the same show my brother did from the audience)

Greatest Show on Earth

This Sunday, May 21st, 2017 after 146 years, the “Greatest Show on Earth”,… Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is performing it’s very last show.  146 years of tradition, showmanship, acts passed down and honed through the years, families born into, and bred to do this. Now, really becoming a lost art.  Lost to the ages.  This bums me out. I’m sad to hear it.  I love the show.  I love the performers.  I love the great tradition.

With the circus closing there will no doubt be a lot of articles on the circus. But one that really needs to be written about and archived is all the musicians who toured and performed in the circus band for years.  Incredible, talented, trained and educated, mostly unrecognized, accomplished musicians.  Years and years of stories to tell through all the eras and iterations of the circus.  There’s a whole book there, I’m sure.  Somebody oughta write it.

Lotta emotions here.  But one is pride that I was part of it for 4 days.

In the summer of ’91 I was a new college graduate and a former professor of mine called me and told me he had a gig for me.  He asked if I was in shape. I had just finished my senior recital for which I’d put in 3 – 4 hours a night of practice. I was playing weddings every weekend that summer.  Sometimes two a day.  I was in shape.  He asked me again, several times. . . , “Are you in shape?”  Ringling Bros. was coming to town and he needed me to be part of the pick up band they used on the road.  I was very excited by that prospect.

I was in shape, I thought.

I’ve played over 30 years of rodeos, with 45 minute-non-stop-never-take-the horn-off-your-lip grand entries, bull riding, clown acts, bronco busting, barrel racing, steer roping and all.  And to this day the circus is still the hardest gig I ever played.

There were two groups who traveled.  The red unit and the blue unit.  They each hit different sections of the country.  I used to know which one I was playing but with time it’s gotten jumbled in my mind.  I wanna say Red.  I also used to have my check stub for the longest time and am mad at myself for not keeping up with it.

At any rate, both groups, the red and the blue of the circus bands had a core group of full time band members, consisting of a rhythm section (guitar, bass and drums) a lead trumpet and the band leader himself who was also a phenomenal trumpet player.   Through my research on this I think I’ve found his name was Keith Green.  Every player I’ve ever talked to who played that gig says the same things.  Unbelievable player.  Great leader. High note wizard.  And endurance like an iron man.  He’d come over and play the wood wind parts over their shoulder in the octave or an octave higher than them.  Just a phenom of a player.

(High note circus trumpet)

(I think this is a Gloria Estefan number.  I remember it was really exciting to hear it next to me live.)

(Wind Beneath my Wings)

Maynard Circus high notes

More Circus high notes

And even more Circus high notes

Motley Circus Dr Feel Good high notes

I wanna say the lead trumpet guy’s name was Bob.  Not sure.  He was a big Italian guy with a great head of hair and a hairline that started in the middle of his forehead.  Game Boys had just come out and he knew the book so well he could play his horn with one hand and play the Game Boy with his other hand.  Parlor trick or not you have to admit it’s impressive. I remember particularly during the second Saturday show him playing the game while he played this,…..

(I don’t know what this number was called but I call it “Circus Fingers” – maybe should call it “Game Boy Fingers”)

I believe this is the bridge to “Circus Fingers”

More “Circus Fingers” (worth hearing again – unbelievable! I mean, pretty amazing, huh? I remember my mind reeling trying to read and play this the first show. I was proud of myself for even getting close by the time my 3 days were over)

Bob was really a monster player.  I was talking trumpet pedagogy with him after the first of three shows we did on Saturday where he asked if I wanted to come to the train car he stayed in and take a lesson.  After the Wed, Thur and Friday shows my lip was pretty much hamburger.  I didn’t see how I could get anything out of a lesson or be any good to any teacher.  I politely declined.  Kind of kick myself now.  As you get older you learn to compartmentalize and make time for things – hard or not.   Things are seldom convenient and easy.  And when was I going to be able to say I saw the car the Ringling Bros. band guys stayed in again?  Won’t now.  A lesson I learned later in life is to say “Yes”.  That’s usually the right answer.  You never know what it’ll get you.  And “no” usually doesn’t get you much of anything.  These days I would have approached the whole thing differently.

(Circus Chords – Just because I think it’s cool,…and also because I’ve played in a rodeo band for years where we do something similar)

There was one rehearsal and the book they read was incredibly daunting.  As thick as as three editions of “War and Peace”.  In looking for information about this on the eve of the circus closing for good I looked up info on the web about the musicians, for which there is woefully very little found.  I’ve always wondered what became of these people?  What little I did find, I quote somebody called Wilcox96 out of Charlotte NC on the boards of trumpetherald.com forum who puts it really better than me.  He pretty much mirrors my experience and thoughts – – –

                    “doing the circus,….The book was brutal anyway… each half was like a Sears catalog’s worth of tunes…loud..rock…mixed with the Sousa gallops… The schedule? rehearsal Tuesday…show that night…then wed night…2 shows on thurs… 2 on fri… 3 on sat…2 on sun. But those guys? Bob was a monster. Got stronger by the 3rd show on sat. But just when you thought Bob was the king, Keith Green would come and stand behind the tpt section and play the gallops up an octave or 2…dbl and trpl tonguing dbl C’s, D’s… what a freak. he’d do that and walk away chuckling. It was a trip. The pay was shamefully bad…but a real experience to hang with those guys.”

There must have been a woodwind person – maybe two now that I listen to my tapes. Too many independent parts to be covered by guys town to town in a pick up band.   I don’t remember them so much though.  There was, now that I listen to my tape a keyboard guy who was very integral to the show.

The people I do remember were – the bass player. He was a red headed guy from North Texas State.  He was young and was a recent graduate who’d been on the road a year, I think.  I remember him showing me a new book on sight reading technique he was working out of which used a speed reading system that just showed note heads/no stems.   Helped you read patterns.

I don’t remember much about the drummer other than he was rock solid and held it all together.

But the guitarist, I remember! In fact most of the clips I feature on here are pretty guitar heavy because I sat right next to him. He was really an incredible musician and it seemed he could hold and lead the whole thing by himself if need be.  He had complete control of his rig and could play all kinds of styles and had many effects.  He was from the north east, I believe.  I remember him telling me he had auditioned for Cher for her video, If I could Turn Back Time. I asked if he got it. “Nah, man!  She just wanted somebody with muscles.  She didn’t want anybody who could play, man”.  He may not have been a big guy with muscles but he was an incredible player.  If you see the video – sure enough she has some Fabio looking guy with a lot of hair and muscles.  I think of him every time something about Cher comes up.   A weird connection, eh?

If I Could Talk to the Animals

Panama – guitar solo (I remember this was when a motorcycle loudly went round and round in a circle steel ball cage over our heads)

You Really Got Me

The book was ridiculous.   Every facet of your trumpet playing regimen and training came into play.  High notes.

(High notes)

Double tonguing….

Don’t remember the act we played this for….I just call it crazy circus double tonguing.

Finger technique.   And especially sight reading.

Magnificent Seven

There were those who said the elephants the circus featured were mistreated.  I’ve hear it said that the animal rights people like PETA led to the demise of Ringling.  I’ve also heard it said these elephants were treated better, got to see more of the world than most people, and had a better life than any animal in the wild.  Circus officials say the financial hit they took when elephants were removed from the act was so substantial it eventually doomed the entire enterprise.   I’m not here to argue this fact, but there was an old skit on Saturday Night Live that I reference more and more the older I get.  It was called “People Who’ve Ruined it for the Rest of Us”.  If you ever come across it I’ll let it speak for itself.

What happened to all these great musicians?  Where did they go after their tenure with the circus?  I wanna know about these guys that I just briefly met.  I heard the Ring Master of the last 18 yrs, Jonathan Lee Iverson in an interview on NPR on the drive home this afternoon.  He talked about transitioning into real life after the circus.  He said something to the effect that, although not an idyllic world,  he would miss the extraordinary people who reached for perfection and the highest heights every day.  Trying to be the best they could be in a world that’s not always that way.  I agree.  And really, he’s right.  That’s a world I’d love to live in.

Farewell Ringling Bros.


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