Like everything musical at Southeastern, it all began with Ralph Pottle. In an interview not long before his death in 1989, the legendary founder of Southeastern's music department remembered the band's beginnings in 1934.
Pottle had just arrived at the young college that year. He had been a popular music teacher in Amite for a decade and had organized a small dance band to play at Hammond's social apex, the Oaks Hotel. One of his band members was saxophonist Lydel Sims, son of Southeastern's first president, Linus A. Sims.
“Mr. Sims went down to the hotel dining room to hear his son play,” Pottle said. “He was so impressed that he invited me and my little dance band to the college to play for their dances. The crowds grew larger and larger each week.”
Realizing the potential for a music department at the nine-year-old college, Sims asked Pottle to form one.
At first, “It was not a music department, necessarily, but just a bunch of kids who wanted to take saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, tuba,” Pottle said.
Those young musicians, including Pottle's own children, Ralph Jr. and Fern, formed Southeastern's first all-purpose band.
“I asked Red Swanson (Southeastern's head football coach) if he would like that little band to play for his football games,” Pottle said. “He said, 'Hell, yes!' People liked the idea of a band going out on the field. If nothing else, we would form a great big 'S' and play marches.
“To begin with, the band had no uniforms,” Pottle added. “I talked Dr. J. Leon Clark (Southeastern's third president) out of enough money to purchase 40 pairs of white trousers and had green stripes sewed on them by a local tailor. Later, short capes, green on one side and gold on the other, were made to complete the first uniforms.”
The 1936 Le Souvenir proudly noted that Southeastern's band was “rated second best in the state, being excelled only by the LSU cadet band at Baton Rouge.”
Ralph Pottle Jr., whose skill as a French horn player would take him to the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras before returning him to Southeastern as an artist-in-residence, remembered, “When I was a kid, I had a set of little lead soldiers. My dad took a piece of plywood and painted it green with white stripes to look like a football field. He would line my toy soldiers up on it to see what the band's positions would look like from the stands.
“Twirling was a big deal then,” he added. “We had Bobbye Vaughn from Magnolia, Miss., a flaming beauty, who was a twirling national champion. She could blow her whistle and bend over backwards until her tall hat touched the ground behind her, then throw out her legs and march the length of the field. People would come to the games just to watch her.”
Ralph Pottle Jr. marched with the band alter World War II, under the direction of a new young faculty member, James Wilcox, who had led military bands during the war. “I had to figure out how to do it. I had never marched in a band,” said Wilcox, who would later become department head and dean of the College of Humanities. Luckily, Wilcox had a high-stepping drum major from New Orleans, Felix Laiche, to help him design maneuvers. He also had “fine musicians” attracted to Southeastern by Pottle, considered a dynamo of a recruiter.
“We had 17-year-old freshmen and guys who had been officers in the Army,” Wilcox said. “Many of them went on to be professional musicians.”
“Felix was a real showman,” Ralph Pottle Jr. said. “He took everyone's attention. He didn't walk in a straight line.”
Georgia Pierson Russell was one of four baton-toting majorettes in the post-war band. “We marched behind Felix,” she remembered. “He was so good!” A Southeastern home economics professor from 1964-93, Russell had led the band at Ponchatoula High School. She joined Southeastern's band, she said, “to be part of the spirit of football, the spirit of the school. It was delightful.”
Since “it's almost impossible to play the French horn on the march,” he said, Ralph Jr. was assigned to the bass drum. His classmate Bill Evans, who would earn international fame and seven Grammy Awards as a jazz pianist, played the flute and piccolo.
Future Southeastern music professor Bob Priez joined the band as a trombonist in the late 1950s. He remembers “ugly,” torturously hot, gold wool uniforms, daily practices, trips by school bus to Nicholls State and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and the camaraderie of the 40-60 members.
“We marched in the rain, marched in the cold, marched in the heat,” he said. “The Hammond Christmas parade was always a highlight because that was one of the few times those wool uniforms were comfortable.”
Band membership was required of music majors, Priez said, but the $25 scholarship attracted non-majors, too. “The tension, the stress and the fun built a lot of good friendships,” he said. “The truth is nobody enjoyed it, but everybody knew that's how you got the scholarship. And, if you were in music education, that's how you got your job training.”
Priez's directors were Grier Williams and Bob Weatherly, later head of the department. Ron Nethercutt, who had been a band member from 1954-58 and whose experience also included the U.S. Army Band and six years as band director at Ponchatoula High School, was tapped to lead the band in 1969.
“I was asked to take over for a year or two until they could find somebody else,” said Nethercutt, who would become general manager of Southeastern's KSLU radio station. “That 'year or two' turned into 13.” He recalls “balancing musicality and showmanship” as his toughest job.
“Southeastern had long been noted for an excellent music department, and we had some great students, many of whom were not fond to be nice about having an instrument bounce on their face while they marched down the street or on the field,” said Nethercutt, who now lives and works in the Philippines. “I remember once we were playing the Washington Parish Fair parade, a hot and grueling event. Near the end of the parade, the drum major led the band on a two-block shortcut to get back to the buses and cold drinks.”
He also remembers when the band garnered the football team a penalty because the visiting musicians from Troy State hogged too much of halftime. “I told our band just to do the entrance drill and the first tune, and get off. However, we had not totally cleared the field at the end of the half, and the referee penalized Southeastern 15 yards. The Lions still won the game, but the band lost the halftime!” he said.
Nethercutt said one of the highlights of the annual High School Band Day was the halftime show featuring the combined performance of more than a dozen high school bands. One Band Day halftime became notorious for the uproar it caused in the neighborhood.
“We did a show where we used cannon fire, supervised by the ROTC Department, in a performance of the 1812 Overture,” he said. “All went well in the afternoon rehearsal until Hammond Police Chief Brooks Robinson showed up and wanted to know what all the explosions were about. He and I and the ROTC captain all ended up on President Clea Parker's porch, explaining things.
“The discussion zeroed in on how many times we would fire the explosives,” Nethercutt said. “The music called for 21 bangs. The chief asked if we could do with less. He finally relented, saying, 'You're going to wake up the neighborhood with only three or four, so go ahead and shoot them all!' Things went great that night though lots of applause!”
Uniforms have been a controversial subject, too, Nethercutt said. “The fanciest one, which some loved and some hated, was a drum and bugle corps style white pants with gold stripes, green jackets trimmed in white and green, with a 'British Bobby' style hat,” he said. “It was chosen to stand out on the field and replaced an all-gold uniform that tended to blend into the dull grass in the fall. The new ones with the white pants looked good, but some complained that the school colors were green and gold, not green and white!”
David Evenson, department chair emeritus of the Department of Music and Dramatic Arts, said several of those band uniforms still exist. They were last seen not on the football field, but on stage. Opera-Music Theatre Program director Scharmal Schrock discovered them in storage and commandeered the uniforms as costumes for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
With the return of the Spirit of the Southland Marching Band and the Wind Symphony's recent performance at the CBDNA Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Southeastern Louisiana University Bands continue to grow and create a colorful and unique history!
Reprinted with permission from Southeastern Magazine