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Catonsville: Music City Maryland A Landscape Study
by Stephen McKenna, Ph.D., M.F.A.
Most American towns of a certain size have some kind of music culture. People listen to and share music. They take or give music lessons. They perform alone or together in their homes. They purchase, sell, and trade instruments. There are venues, large or small, where performers, local and touring, can be heard. There are schools and houses of worship where music is learned, played, and sung. Traditions form and evolve. Even now, as digital connections seemingly fray the edges of localized life, these experiences become part of the fabric of the community—an element without which no full story of any place can be told.
It seems that this is exceptionally the case with Catonsville, Maryland. At first by happenstance, then by a process of accretion, the suburban town on the outskirts of Baltimore has developed a rich and varied musical culture. Certainly, music was part of life there from the earliest days, when the area was first settled, and before that when it was occupied by native Piscataways. And undoubtedly music came with the town’s first African Americans, enslaved and freed, who founded and grew a close-knit community alongside but mostly apart from the dominant white community. But the solidification of Catonsville as a place particularly devoted to and known for music occurred mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century and since.
A key, albeit inauspicious, starting point came 1960, when a young professional trumpet player, seeking to leave the late-night grind of club work and focus on his new family, established a store, Nelson Knode’s Music Center (later Appalachian Bluegrass), near the corner of Frederick Road and Bloomsbury Avenue. This was followed shortly thereafter by another music store at the other end of town, Bill’s Music House. Eventually these two businesses grew to form bookends, as it were, between which multiple other music businesses set and hoisted anchor over the years—The Piano Man, Jim’s Guitars, The Guitar Exchange, Baltimore Brass.To this day, visitors driving Frederick Road through town cannot help but notice the number of music businesses—the most visible evidence backing the “Music City Maryland” signs greeting them at the town limits.
These signs of the town’s music culture belie a great deal more going on just below the surface and around the edges, however. Music in churches, fraternal organizations, a prominent night club, and an outdoor venue had been a mainstay of life in the African American community of Winters Lane since before the turn of the twentieth century. If anything, the music culture of that community was richer, more varied, and more essential than in the white community prior to the latter half of the twentieth century. The site of another outdoor venue, the Lurman Woodland Theater, which had been acquired by Baltimore County from an early landowner, has played host to regular summertime concerts and festivals since 1965 and continuing mostly uninterrupted to this day. Several local theater groups staged Broadway productions in the area for decades, and town leaders kept a lively tradition of community-wide dance party benefits featuring such bands as The Van Dykes and The Hubcaps for many years. At Catonsville High School, a music teacher’s chance encounter with Trinidadian steel pan music in the 1980’s led to the remarkable creation and development of one of the most successful student steel bands in the country, with direct ties to the historic forefathers of the genre and the instrument. That experience was foundational for an indie rock musician who toured internationally as part of the band Wye Oak. The lead guitarist for the prominent heavy metal band Danzig was also a product of Catonsville High School. The town has also been home to some acclaimed music teachers, such as clarinetist and conductor Les Luco, and the nationally sought-after drum instructor Grant Menefee. In 2002, the critical mass of music culture in the town led community leaders to seek and receive an official proclamation by the Maryland General Assembly naming Catonsville as “Music City Maryland.”
What follows is a more detailed account of some of these businesses, places, and people, based on archival and secondary research as well as new oral histories. It is but a start and preliminary map to the full history of music in Catonsville, Maryland.
Table of Contents- Click on a Chapter
The Knodes: Catonsville’s First Family of Music
The early roots of Catonsville as “Music City Maryland” propagate out mainly from one man: Nelson William Knode. Born in Baltimore in 1920, raised on Fulton Avenue, he was a natural musician from a young age. When he was eight or nine years old, his had father lost work with the B&O Railroad, and at Christmastime, as Knode put it in a 1982 Baltimore Sun article,
"We didn't have two pennies to rub together. We were downtown one day, my mom and dad and I, and we passed the Peabody music store on Howard Street, and there was a trumpet in the window on sale for $32.50. We didn’t have the money for it, but we went in, and it turned out my father knew the salesman. And he knew my parents were honorable people, so he told them to take the trumpet and pay whatever they could on it."
As the family headed home on the streetcar, Nelson’s father hummed “Coming Through the Rye”—the old Scottish folk song, perhaps prescient given the trajectory of this story. Later that day, Nelson took the trumpet out and played the melody note-for-note. “You should have seen my father's face. You could have knocked him over with a feather." [Baltimore Sun, 10 January 1982]. He would eventually play with the local Evening Sun Newsboys Band and win a scholarship to study at the Peabody Conservatory under such teachers as Michelangelo Francisco Converso and Edwin Franko Goldman. After graduating, he went on to perform under maestro Reginald Stewart in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and also joined house orchestras at the old State, Stanley, and Keith theaters. Though his first loves were baroque and classical music, his tastes were broad and encompassing, and he developed a special passion for Big Band music.
During World War II, Knode worked at the Glenn L. Martin Company in Middle River, where he formed the Nelson Knode Orchestra, playing Big Band music and featuring a singing group, the Martinaires, modeled after the Modernaires, a popular 1940s group best known for performing with Glenn Miller's orchestra. After the War, Knode worked professionally at area dinner clubs like the Pimlico Hotel and The Barn under various group names, such as The Nelson Knode Trio and Nelson Knode and the Versatones. He had ambitions to play with one of the famous Big Bands, but by the early 1950’s that music was becoming commercially passe.
For a period, Knode taught music at The McDonough School in Owings Mills, while still playing his trumpet in dinner theaters, with park bands, in strip joints, and everything in between, to gain experience and earn extra money. “He had a very colorful musician’s life,” recalls his son Emery. By the mid 1950’s, as he married and started a family, says Emery, “He figured it was no place to be, out at night playing music, so he decided to have a go at running a shop. To get a real job, so to speak.”
Thus in 1960 was born Nelson Knode’s Music Center, at the corner of Frederick Road and Bloomsbury Avenue, in the back half of what is now the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe owned and operated by son Emery Knode today. Nelson had bought the whole building, and before long he expanded to occupy the front facing Frederick Road, which had housed a shoe repair shop and a clock and watch repair business.
[image: Ad from the Baltimore Evening Sun, Wed, Oct 12, 1960 · Page 83]
[image: Original street signs from the sides of Nelson Knode’s Music Center]
It was a student-oriented business, mainly selling and renting band and orchestra instruments to beginners, holding franchises with major brands such as Selmer, Gretsch, Getzen, and Gemeinhardt. The store sold some guitars, banjos, and ukuleles, but the popularity of these instruments—the guitar in particular—had yet to take off as they soon would. “He was a horn guy,” says Emery. And a character. “He’d sometimes make a spectacle of himself—Pop was a showman.” Often when someone he knew drove by the shop, Nelson would stick his head out the door and play the Lone Ranger theme, or the theme from the William Tell Overture.
A fortuitous aspect of the store was its location next to Catonsville Elementary School. Emery Knode recalls:
"Back in the day, we had the elementary school down the street from us, and frequently the kids would get their mouthpieces stuck in their horns, and the music teacher, Les Luco [see section on Music Teachers below], would send them to go down to see Mr. Nelson. And of course they would show up with a tattered old rental horn that looked like it’d been run over by a wagon and horses, and he’d pull the mouthpiece out. And then he’d play William Tell on that beat-up old trumpet, and the kids’ eyes would get big and they’d smile. Then they’d grab the horn and run up the road and get back to class. Something you couldn’t do today! It was always fun to see the kids, because my dad could make the horn sound like something, and here’s a kid who was making awful noises on it. And it would give the kid inspiration. “Hey, if this horn can do it, so can I. It’s not the horn, it’s me.”
Nelson Knode’s life was deeply woven into the fabric of the Catonsville community in other ways, too—he was involved in the 4th of July celebrations, church life, social clubs, events with Parks and Recreation. “He was a community sort of guy from the get-go,” recalls Emery.
"He always loved people, to talk to people when they came in. I think he might’ve made a whole lot more money if he’d talked about selling guitars more than other things! He liked to philosophize with people. For years after his death [in 2010], I’ve had a parade of people who’d come in and tell me stories. You know, about the first time they came in the store when they were seven years old, and now they’re seventy. It affected their lives. He was the sort of person who really changed people."
Nearing the end of his second decade running the store, Nelson, truly a musician at heart, had grown somewhat tired of the retail business and wanted to pursue other interests—he had studied karate in Japan, and ultimately taught martial arts with Baltimore County Parks and Recreation at UMBC and CCBC. In the late 70’s he sponsored a Japanese Folk festival at Lurman Theater, with music, art, food, and dance. A health scare in 1977 marked a definitive turning point, leading to Emery to take the helm at the age of eighteen:
"Dad was on the floor and got all gray-colored. I had to call 911, and there was the heart attack. The next day, someone had to open the store, and so it was game on for me. By 1980, his interests had gone elsewhere, and I thought someone’s got to run the business. I needed a livelihood, and I didn’t want a job. That would hurt too much!"
So, with the help of his high school sweetheart and wife Charlene, Emery took over in 1980 and formally renamed the store The Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe (for reasons shortly to be explained). By then, there were several music stores lining Frederick Road. This efflorescence was no accident: Knode’s Music Center had seeded it all. “I would have to say that the nucleus was born on the corner,” says Knode the younger, but like all the music merchants in town, he recognizes the importance of the local music ecosystem:
"Bill’s is important to my business, and I’m important to his. It’s like a mall—you have a Sears on one end, and JC Penny on the other. You can go to a hundred Guitar Centers, and they’re all the same. It may look like they have a lot, and compared to any one of us guys, they do. But bring us all together, in Catonsville, and they can’t hold a candle to us."
Catonsville was and is clearly a good community in which to run a music business. Emery reflects:
"I often wonder what effect the music stores have had on the community. This is an epicenter: this is a store that’s been selling guitars, giving lessons, supporting music for decades—61 years now. How do the ripples go out? As far as talent—how people play, what they play? I know we’ve affected people from far and wide. People come from all over the country to visit us. I’m certain other businesses have done the same."
Emery Knode grew up listening to the music his father was playing, but also newer things, especially the British art rock of the 1970’s. But then he discovered bluegrass. “That was the transition point,” he says. “I was actually starting to pay attention to the music—not just the Beverly Hillbillies.” It wasn’t long before the store gained a reputation amongst bluegrass and folk players far and wide as the go-to place for instruments, parts, and repairs. And to hang out and play.
The latter was abetted by one of the store’s fiddle instructors. In 1979 Paul Fehrenbach was a violinist and master’s student of composition at Peabody. (He would eventually become a professor of music at Penn State University-DuBois, a position he held for three decades, while keeping up a busy performing and recording career, among other things as fiddle player with the award-winning Celtic group Fieldstone.) At the time, he supported himself teaching fiddle at the store, eventually moving to Catonsville with one of his students, Frank Ditman. The two of them began holding Tuesday night bluegrass jams at the house they shared (120 Sanford Avenue, nicknamed “Ditman’s Farm”) with an eclectic group of local players. (One regular, guitarist Leon Curley, who also lived on Sanford Avenue, was a musician and woodworker who’d built a harpsichord in his basement.) The spaghetti-and-beer jams soon outgrew the house, and so they moved to the store. A large bluegrass ensemble, The Tuesday Night Strings, grew out of that and began playing dates around the area. That band in turn was heard by Clem Bierly, the local Busch Beer distributor, who was impressed enough to sponsor a smaller unit, the Busch County Mountaineers, which became a prominent bluegrass band playing widely in the Delmarva region.
[image: The Busch County Mountaineers, from left to right: Leon Curley – lead guitar, Frank Ditman – Fiddle, Mae Fryfogle – upright bass (kneeling), Paul Fehrenbach – banjo, fiddle and harmony vocals, Dave Pfeiffer – lead vocals, rhythm guitar (sitting on keg), Mike Winstead – Mandolin]
Emery Knode’s timing was good, as bluegrass, which had begun in the 1940’s as an amalgam of old-time and traditional “hillbilly” music of the Appalachian region under the influence of such seminal groups as Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and the Stanley Brothers, was experiencing a vigorous rebirth. Emery was attending the bluegrass jams on Sanford Avenue, but also going out to hear area groups such as the Washington, DC-based Seldom Scene, one of the greatest gateway bluegrass bands of the more recent revival of the genre.
Bluegrass was a good fit for a family business in the process of rebranding itself, as the music had a hominess that matched the ambiance and feel of the store. Emery reflects:
"One of the things that struck me was how personable the musicians truly are. It’s real-life people. You can see them on stage playing, and the next thing you know, they’re in the row behind you, listening to the band that came up next. The music’s very social."
At “Ditman’s Farm” he recalls, “You’d have fifty, seventy-five people show up…somebody calls out a song, and everybody knows it, and what key to play it in, and they know all the words, and where to take the breaks. That really caught my attention.” As did a fresh market for the store. The musicians jamming at Ditman’s had particular needs—parts, capos, strings, specialized repairs—that other stores weren’t equipped to meet. Knode saw an opportunity. In 1980, the store formally changed its name to Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe. By 1982, the jams had moved to the store, and they continued there for years. More than a few local marriages, says Knode, came out of those occasions (and maybe, he admits, a few divorces.)
[images: Jamming in the shop, 1981]
Before long, the name and reputation of The Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe got around the country. “You’d be hard pressed in the bluegrass world to find anybody who hasn’t at least heard of us.” If anyone far outside of town had ever heard of Catonsville, it was probably because of one of two things: the Catonsville Nine, or the store. Major recording artists such as Del McCoury, David Grisman, Ronda Vincent, Marty Stuart, David Bromburg have been customers over the years.
[image: David Grisman at Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe (nd)]
[image: David Bromberg with fiddler and vocalist Warren Blair, nd]
An important key to the store’s success has been the quality of the acoustic instrument service. “I’m naturally a guy who can fix stuff. That’s one of my god-given talents,” says Knode. “If it’s broken, give it to me, and I’ll figure a way of fixing it—as long as it’s not electronics.” Knode studied violin-making with the Washington, DC master luthier William Gault, he was trained at Martin Guitars in Nazareth Pennsylvania, and he learned from Ken duBourg (then a resident of Arbutus who came to work in the Knodes’ shop). DuBourg is now a revered acoustic guitar maker. His claim to fame at the time was building guitars for the legendary acoustic guitar player Michael Hedges.
[image: Ken duBourg with a duBourg 12-string in the shop at Appalacian Bluegrass, nd]
Among the many special moments in the life of the store, one in particular stands out to Knode. When Hurricane Floyd came up the Chesapeake Bay in 1999, it fatally damaged Maryland’s Liberty Tree, a tulip poplar on the campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis where Maryland colonists of revolutionary period had gathered and plotted). Learning of the demise of the tree, Knode made a frantic call to Bob Taylor, of Taylor guitars in California. “If anyone could figure out how to make a good-sounding guitar out of poplar [not typically a guitar wood], it would be Bob,” he realized at the time. Taylor eventually made 400 guitars from the salvaged wood, each with decorative inlays commemorating their origin. The Appalacian Bluegrass Shoppe ultimately got eight of the guitars—seven of which sold rapidly, and one of which Emery kept.
[image: Taylor Liberty Tree Guitar]
A critical part of the store’s success was Emery’s wife, Charlene. They’d been childhood sweethearts, had raised a family together, and ran the business as a couple. Charlene was well- known to customers, as she was often the first person to greet them in the door, with an uncanny memory for people’s names, always lending a genuinely interested and sympathetic ear for their stories. Sadly, she passed in 2019. “She truly was a person who was enthusiastic about other people’s good,” recalls Emery. “We did everything together—lived together, worked together, made mistakes together. Losing her was losing half the shop. If I could have figured out how to close up, I would have.” She ran the operation. “She was my governor.”
[image: Emery and Charlene Knode in the shop, 1995]
Daughter Emily Rose and son Christopher are now in their twenties. Though Christopher is a big bluegrass fan and mandolin player, they have no great interest in taking on the business, and Emery says he’s not really encouraging them. “Small business is hard. And harder than ever”—mainly due to the internet. “I’m working twice as hard as I did twenty years ago, for less money.” Though he has an online shop, he wasn’t an enthusiastic early adopter of on-line sales: “You can’t buy a guitar on line! You have to play the thing first.” Time will tell if this anchor of Music City Maryland stays in place.
[image: Nelson Knode trumpeting in Santa Clause,
Catonsville Volunteer Fire Department, nd.]
[image: Emery Knode, 2021]
The Lurman Woodland Theater
In 1868 Gustav W. Lurman, a German immigrant from Bremen Germany in 1825, purchased a 600-acre homestead on a high hill in Catonsville, with a fine view of the City and Harbor, and overlooking the lovely countryside rolling down to Relay and the Patapsco River. It was said that from “Farmlands,” as he renamed it, on a clear day one could see the dome of the State House in Annapolis. Lurman beautified the grounds with gardens, specimen trees and shrubs--many of them exotic imports—as well as a greenhouse, and a grape arbor.
The main house, called “Bloomsbury,” (demolished in 1991 to make way for a new Rolling Road Country Club facility) became widely known as one of the more luxurious “country homes” that wealthy Baltimoreans kept in Catonsville to escape the city’s summer heat among the breezy elevated hills and many cool running streams.
[source: The Jeffersonian, 14 April 2015, p7]
In 1949, Lurman’s only surviving daughter, Frances, sold the last 66-acre parcel of the land to Baltimore county as the site on which Catonsville High School would be built. She did so under the condition that her father’s arboretum be preserved for public enjoyment. By 1960, just as Nelson Knode was opening his music store on Bloomsbury Avenue, new housing developments had crowded out and often replaced many of the Catonsville’s historic properties, including Farmlands, which was demolished in 1952 (today only a small stone gardener’s cottage survives astride the high school).
[source: Baltimore Sun 17 Feb 1907 p 7]
But a local naturalist, Jerry D. Hardy, who’d long enjoyed hiking the property, enlisted the interest of the Catonsville Women’s Club in converting part of the area, a bowl-shaped portion of land forming a natural amphitheater, into an open-air music and performance venue. In 1961 and 1962 to raise money, several concerts were held, including by the 2nd Army Band and a local barbershop quartet society. The public response was enthusiastic, and the idea for the Lurman Woodland Theater was born, with private and public parties working together on fundraising, plans, and publicity.
[source: Baltimore Sun, 25 June 1961, pE1]
[source: Baltimore Evening Sun, 4 Oct. 1966, p18]
The amphitheater was up and running by the summer of 1965, reportedly to packed audiences. There, the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks programmed concerts, theater, and other arts events. In 1966, Baltimore County Public Schools won a Federal grant of up to $175,000 to develop the site into a cultural center. While that never came off (whether the money was distributed, and if so where it went, are unknown), Lurman became the site of a wide range of events and concerts over the immediately following years. In 1966, The Baltimore Sun ran a feature story about a Dixieland jazz band concert in terms typical of the times, but that does not sit very well today—“The mint juleps were missing, but the aura of the old South prevailed.” There can be little doubt that events at the Lurman were as segregated as
the community was at the time. Residents of Catonsville’s African American Winters Lane Community were not early concertgoers at the Lurman, and for the most part, programming has continued to cater to the white community.
[source: Baltimore Sun, 25 July 1967, p.9]
Sporadic programming at the amphitheater continued for the next several years, but events dried up with the onset of the Vietnam war, and by the mid-1970’s, Lurman had gone all but dark. The springs of 1982-84 saw Japanese Arts festivals at Lurman, partly under the influence of Nelson Knode, who, in addition to being a professional trumpet player and local music store proprietor, had travelled to Japan to study martial arts, which he in turn taught in the Catonsville area. By 1992, the glen had lain untended for years and had become overgrown and all but forgotten.
It might have remained so were it not for the combined enterprise of a county council member, Berchie Manley, and Nelson Knode’s son, Emery. Manley, a Baltimore native, had grown up in a music-loving household. Her father, a self-taught banjo player, often played along to the Grand Ol Opry radio show. Her husband Jack Manley (a legendary local athletic director and leader at Catonsville Community College), sang in church and had been a member of the chorus at Wake Forest University. The Manleys passed their love of music on to their children. Daughter Deana Holler recalls show tunes, big band, and country music playing perpetually in house on record player.
“When we moved here [in 1964] there was a committee working on Lurman,” recalls Berchie, “and they had some concerts. I was told that when the Vietnam War broke out, the group that was involved with Lurman ceased to be involved.” But the Manley family had attended concerts at the venue and the beautiful and unique setting was unforgettable. “There’s no place like it in Baltimore County,” notes Berchie. When it failed to reopen after the war, she found herself missing the venue and the opportunities it afforded. “I thought, Isn’t this a wonderful setting? It’s a shame it’s not being used. The stage is there, everything’s there. When it became time to run for office, that was one of the reasons I ran. I wanted to reopen Lurman Woodland Theater.”
In 1990, Berchie became the first Republican woman elected to the Baltimore County Council. “[Lurman Woodland Theater] was so important to me, because I felt that it would be such a joy for so many of the older people. They can’t afford to pay for tickets to concerts. It was just such a community atmosphere…fun, happiness. It was a great setting.” When the new council member went to the head of the Baltimore County Department of Parks and Recreation saying she wanted to reopen the amphitheater, he didn’t know what she was talking about. “What is Lurman Woodland Theater?” he asked her. Replied Manley, “It’s the best kept secret in Catonsville.” Baltimore County Parks and Recreation didn’t have any money for it, but they were able to raise money from local businesses.
A non-profit organization, “Friends of the Lurman Theater,” was founded, and the summer of 1992 saw the re-opening of the amphitheater. Emery Knode had approached Baltimore County Parks and Recreation about running a full season bluegrass festival, and it was a big hit. Some key residents, such as David Wasmund—the treasurer and the booker for years— and Jack Manley, who raised money from many sources, were important to the success of Lurman, but it was truly a community effort, with volunteers and businesses working together to staff the events. Fully-booked summer seasons with a wide variety of music acts, local, national, and international, have run every year since until the COVID epidemic. Programming resumed with social distancing in 2021. When praised for her commitment and contribution to the Catonsville community, Berchie Manley replies: “You don’t really need a personal thank you. You know in your heart when you’ve done something that you can be proud of.”
[Berchie Manley at home, 2021]
Music in the Winters Lane Community
[note: except where otherwise noted, photos are from Louis Diggs and Linda D. Stone, It All Started on Winters Lane, Upton, 1995; permission not yet obtained]
The Winters Lane community, once known as Harristown, with roots dating to the late 1860’s when it was founded by freed formerly enslaved people, is a historic Black community in Catonsville. While Nelson Knode’s Music Center and the Lurman Woodland Theater were in their infancies, A 1961 article in the Baltimore African American describe Winters Lane this way:
"In the Catonsville Development, just two miles from Baltimore’s Western City limits, sprawls the near perfect example of suburban living, homeownership, and community spirit. There is no undertaker here and but one physician, since citizens are interested in living."
A major part of this “living” was the community’s robust music culture, centered around the multiple churches and community and fraternal organizations, including Elks, Oddfellows, and Freemasons lodges. If anything, the portrait that emerges is of a community even more centered around music than the white community.
Winters Lane churches were numerous; some continue to this day. Over the years these included Grace A.M.E., Morning Star Baptist, Mt. Olivet United Methodist, Full Gospel Tabernacle Baptist, Upper Room Prayer Garden Word of God Church, Temple of Faith Church of God in Christ, Bethlehem Christian Community, Bread of Life Christian Center, Back to Bible Temple for All, St. Paul Christian Center Church. Many of these churches had multiple choirs. Grace A.M.E, known as “The Singing Church on the Hill,” for example, had at various times a Senior Choir, a Grace Choir, a Male Chorus, the Voices of Grace, a Mass Choir, the Greater Faith Inspiration Choir, and the Imani Ensemble (Diggs, 59). Fraternal organizations included the Western Star Lodge No. 1442, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (G.U.O.O.F.); the Crescent Lodge of Elks #355; and the Landmark Lodge No. 40 of Free and Accepted Masons. These organizations held and/or sponsored a wide variety of community events, including concerts, dances, and parades. The Masons had a male choir, one of the few Masonic choirs in Maryland. It was directed by Samuel Torsell, a multi-instrumentalist, sometimes known as “The Mayor of Catonsville.” His wife, Ida Torsell, was the organist at Grace AME.
[image: Samuel Torsell]
[image: Ida Torsell at the Grace AME organ]
[image: 1930’s photograph of Grace A.M.E. Senior Choir]
[image: Grace A.M.E. Men’s Choir, n.d.]
[image: Grace A.M.E. Youth Choir, n.d.]
[image: Morning Star Baptist Church Youth Choir, n.d.]
Churches and fraternal organizations were not the only points of musical activity in Winters Lane. The community featured a large outdoor pavilion, known as “Greenwood Electric Park,” built in the early 1900’s to host musical performance and dances. Located on Winters Lane on the site that is now a parking lot across from the former Morning Star Baptist Church, it drew African American visitors from around the Baltimore region. A 1922 ad in the Baltimore African American publicized “A GRAND MUSICAL EXHIBITION AND DANCE” to be held June 21, featuring Elmer Snowden’s Big Jazz Band, from Washington D.C., and Ike Dixon’s Jazz Demons. Dixon was from Baltimore, but toured widely on the east coast, and was a favorite at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. The event is listed at Ellingtonweb.ca as a stop in the itinerary of Duke Ellington. Dixon would later manage The Casino Gardens night club, located at Winters Lane and Main Avenue (the former site of Morningstar Baptist, presently Iglesia Pentecostal Nuevo Renacer). Casino Gardens was a bustling venue, especially in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when manager Dixon performed with his house band, “The Internationals,” and engaged well- known Black bands and entertainers to perform.
[image: Greenwood Electric Park ad, Baltimore Afro-American, 16 June 1922]
[image: Greenwood Electric Park advertisement, Baltimore Afro-American,
16 July 1910]
Organization Day was an annual tradition that included musical performances and a parade, often led by the Elks band.
[image: Organization Day Parade, n.d.]
A sense of the centrality of music to life in the tight-knit and proudly self-sufficient Winters Lane community is perhaps best conveyed by two of its long-time residents, sisters Phyllis Randall King and Harriet Randall Dunlap. Their story of music in the community is inextricably interwoven with their experience of Catonsville as a segregated community.
[The following is edited for narrative readability; at the time of recording, 14 April 2021, Phyllis King was 74 and Harriet Dunlap was 88 years of age.]
Harriet Dunlap: I'm going to say it anyway—I was born in hospital. No, it was ten of us. I'm making a point because at that time, only the first child could be born in the hospital. African Americans, you know. And that was where I was born. After that, the rest of them were born at home—all from Catonsville, that’s where we grew up. Provident Hospital was the only hospital we African Americans could go to. My Mom is Eleanor Louise Wilson Randall and my dad is Thomas Nathaniel Randall, Senior. Ten of us grew up together—64 Winters Lane. It was loud and crowded. It was only three boys and seven girls.
Phyllis King: Our church was very active with music, at Grace AME in Catonsville. We were known as the “singing church on the hill” because we had all good singers in there. We still do to this day. There's a lot of good singing in there, and Catonsville was known for music. I mean, we had a guy in our church named Wesley Young who played the guitar. We had a band in our community—that was the Lumpkins Band, composed of brothers and friends. They were Catonsville bred individuals. And we had plenty of music to go by—a lot of dancing, rock and roll. People listened to jazz. We had what is called the Oddfellows Hall, right where they had the dances. Matter of fact that’s still there.
HD: That was the entertainment center for us, for years.
PK: It happens to be down the street from the Grace AME church, across the street from St. Mark’s Church. And then like across from here is where our family doctor—remember Doctor Woolridge?
PK: Dr. Maloney had his business there. Because in Catonsville, we were kind of like the Tulsa community that they killed—You know the blacks they killed? Like we were really self-reliant on each other.
PK: You know, you had everything in that area that you needed. We had stores. We had the pool hall. We had the barbershops, just a little food store.
HD: And the Oddfellows Hall, was really the entertainment center for us.
PK: Right. And plus the churches are where we had a lot of the music things. They didn't do like boopity rock n’ roll. They wouldn't let us have dances there, but we always moved. It was all religious songs in the churches. Gospel, contemporary. It was more Gospel then, and regular music, because we were Methodists and we didn't get bumpity boom until like later, like the Baptist churches were always, you know, bumpity bump [laughs]. But the Methodist churches were a little bit dry. But we caught up with the Baptists.
HD: It was because it was all kinds of choirs. There was a senior choir and they was they called a junior choir.
PK: All churches had this, all the Black churches.
HD: They had a senior choir, and they had a junior choir, and they had a men’s chorus. You know, and they took turns on Sundays, each choir. There was a different choir before that.
PK: All the different churches had the same kind types of choirs, so in Catonsville there wasn’t only Grace AME, African American where people went. There was also Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church. That’s right down Edmondson Avenue. Across from there was Full Gospel. It has a new name now; that’s a historic church.
HD: It was called more or less a Holiness Church.
PK: Then if you go all the way up Winters Lane, Morning Star used to be on Roberts Avenue, but when they built a bigger church, so that's Morningstar on Winters Lane too. It turned into this, I don’t know, I guess they’re Hispanic or something.
HD: It’s a new denomination.
PK: And then there was another church on the old Melvin Ave., and then later, if you go down old Frederick Rd and then you make a left on Suter Road. Go straight on back, there’s a church back there.
HD: Yeah now, yes.
PK: Yeah, and we all like intermingle. We did different things together like, Easter time we would combine and do different services together. So music was like a big deal. Music is a big deal.
HD: It still is.
PK: Not just in the Catonsville churches but all of the African American Churches. Music is a big deal, you know, because it’s good. It makes you feel good.
HD: And for the Junior Choir, it was made up of all ages. It wasn’t just—It was really any age, but they all sang together, and we have pictures of that. There’s a lot of things in the Torsell museum.
PK: We used to have the Elks Band. You’ve heard of the Elks Club—they used to have a band and what they did was, besides going different places to march, we used to have a parade called Organization Day, and when Organization Day came, they invited all these bands from all the communities—Towson, you know all the Elks Places—Because I used to march in the band and so that was a big deal because at that activity, they brought in different bands that played. A lot of music with that. It's a day when you get together once a year in the community, in the Catonsville community, and you just have fun. You have games, you have music, you have talent. Families come together. You know there’s no fighting, except for one family [laughs]. But most of the time we were pretty good, as everybody being together and just having fun and it was just a good day. I think everybody looked forward to that.
Parades and Segregation
PK: There was a parade. We marched down Winters Lane, down to Frederick Road, come on down past M&T Bank. Make a left on Ingleside, because the white people loved it when we came. I mean they were all—it was something everybody looked forward to, even though we didn’t intermingle like that, you could tell everybody just enjoyed it.
HD: They’d also set their chairs out the day before [at the 4th of July Parade].
PK: No, longer than the day before, a month before! [laughs].
HD: You can see the chairs, they’re holding their spot, so they won’t miss it.
PK: Well, not many African Americans [cames to the Fourth of July Parades]. We went down there, the Winters Lane people, years ago. I don’t know how it is now. We don’t go down there because there was just too much going on. But the Winters Lane people used to come down there and migrate in front of 828 [Bar on Frederick Road]. We used to call it 828, what's that called?
HD: It was 828!
PK: It was the bar—828. Because Black people could not go in there.
HD: No we couldn’t.
PK: You could get liquor from the back door. Matter of fact, when I went down there, we went there to eat maybe four years ago, I told the lady, I says, Oh, we couldn’t come in here years ago. She says, Well you can now.
HD: We were not allowed.
PK: Anyway that’s where we used to migrate, because the Elks Band also marched in that parade. See, Black people would come in for a purpose. There were Black bands that we knew in that parade. Otherwise I don’t think we’d be down there, because right now I don’t think as many African Americans go down there. Because I don’t think there’s anything to draw us there.
PK: You know what I mean? So to us in wasn’t of interest—to us. So we’d just stay and have cookouts at our own places.
HD: And they had—most of the drug stores were there, so we had to go there.
PK: That’s another story.
HD: To get our prescriptions. And they had, what? Shoe repair places.
HD: You know, any places that we needed. But if we had our own, we didn’t go to theirs.
PK: We had everything that we needed in our community. There used to be Woodland House, they used to call that The Gardens? What was that called? Across from the Legion, before Morning Star [Church] got there. There was a place there—
HK: Casino Gardens!
PK: Casino Gardens, that’s what it was. They used to have dances there all the time. And that was fun.
HD: But we had our own—it was just our way, you know, African Americans’ way of entertaining themselves.
PK: The only white people we saw were white policemen. Let’s get to that point. Because the policemen were friendly. I mean they came in the Black community in Baltimore County. Howard County is another story. In Baltimore County, they were friendly with the African Americans. I mean everybody just mingled in, like it was just one big happy family. We miss that, because I don’t know if they’re trained like that now, the policemen.
HD: Well then the other thing, there were no Black persons, no African Americans [police].
PK: Just one, John. Remember John?
HD: Oh, OK, but it took a long time before he got to be.
PK: And then we had another called Horsey. There was really two. He was a big guy. We called him Horsey. The other guy’s name was John. But he lived in the community, John did. That's a big difference, too.
Music and Church Life, Black and White
PK: OK, now our ministers had what’s called The Minister Alliance.
PK: Ministers we used to have used to always go to the Minister Alliance meetings. So therefore we were visiting some of the white churches. And some white people were visiting ours. Like sprinkled in, not like not like a whole crowd.
HD: They came for meetings. So that the ministerium—ours was interracial. Most of the ministers in the area participated.
PK: Our church was really into it. Not this one, who just left [Rev. Howard C. Wright]. He didn’t do it, which was really sad, because we missed that.
HD: And before that there was a Reverend Donald Allen.
PK: Oh, he was good. He played the organ and everything, led practices. And played with the choirs.
HD: We sang in choirs, both of us. Well, I was—were you old enough to be in the Junior Choir?
PK: I wasn’t with you, you were too old!
HD: [Laughs] True, but we sang—
PK: I was in the other youth choir. The younger group.
HD: My sister Vivian was in there, because our picture’s there.
PK: I don’t think Vivian was in there, just you and me.
HD: OK. Well, there was a choir, there was no preference as far as age. If you could sing, you could be in the youth choir. That was the only—that was the way it was. So you’re gonna see old men, and people who were like babies halfway on their chairs, and that’s the way it was.
PK: And that’s how the churches were in the community. I mean you had male choruses, and youth choirs, and just regular choirs, senior choirs. And then people started coming away from those names, and started calling them something else.
HD: But we even had a band in our church, the musicians—
PK: Mr. Sam Torsell, he was the drum major for the Elks. So we had the best people.
HD: But we did!
PK: Ida Torsell was our musician, but Sam Torsell was the head of the Elks band. He was good! One of the things that the Catonsville Presbyterian Church does—they are very interactive with our church—they come without with the outreach program. They give us things—they are the ones when we had the hundredth anniversary in Catonsville. They invited all the churches. There were Jewish people, Muslims.
PK: Everything was in there. And we sang with their choir. They had a combination choir, and that was very impressive. I don’t know if anyone on our community is in Catonsville Presbyterian Church. I know some of the people because I taught at Catonsville Middle, so some of the parents, and I was on PTA at Catonsville High. So some of the parents there, their kids went to school with my son. So therefore I know some of them. And they were very friendly.
HD: And then we met. We had meetings, and the meetings were always interracial. And sometimes it wasn’t. The meetings were at the Presbyterian Church. Well, this is lately.
PK: You know who else is good? Let's see, I said Catonsville Presbyterian. Catonsville United Methodist Church is outstanding.
HD: Yeah, they were very nice.
PK: They let us use that place for anything—anniversaries. We had our fifth-grade graduation there for the Catonsville Middle. They’re very community oriented, no matter what race you are. But Salem Lutheran was good too. When I was in school, we had interracial meetings with the high school kids. So you know it’s not just one of them. I guess we just, everybody just chose to stay wherever they were—unless time came for us to kneel. Mt. Gilboa [in Oella] —that’s one of the old churches.
HD: We went there. We would participate in programs there.
PK: We weren’t’ members there, but we knew people who were there. I think they did have a choir.
HD: I can’t think of a church that didn’t have a choir.
PK: They’ve remodeled. We went in there to sing recently, our sorority. And I was like, surprised—I said, Oh my God what a big difference from when we used to come there. Because when we used to come there it was kind of small, and you’d go up these steps, up to that little small area—
HD: It was a small church.
PK: Now it’s laid out. It’s nice. They still have the small basement, because they probably can’t do anything with. But it’s nice, upstairs is nice. I sing with Delta Sigma Theta sorority, one of the best sororities around, all over the world [both laughing]. 1987 is when I went in. We used to sing everywhere. Matter of fact, we have a chorale, we have one now in our chapter. It’s based in Baltimore County, whoever wants to be a part of that. Steppin’ too. And oh my goodness, we had music teachers. Ms. Ida [Torsell], she was a jewel.
HD: She was for the church.
PK: They were musically inclined, she and her husband, Sam. We had Donald Allen, who played the instruments, and the organ—he played everything. And then we had Carol Hayes—Carol J. Hayes, who was an outstanding musician. She was from Pennsylvania, but when she married her husband, they lived in Catonsville. And then we also had—we had so many musicians. We had Shirley Hughes, who was a musician.
PK: We had Henderson, Mr. Henderson, and his wife Rebecca, and I forgot what his first name. Mr. and Mrs. Henderson. And who was the one dressed flashy? We had him. The flashy piano player we had.
HD: I don’t know. So many people.
PK: And then we had Janice.
HD: Oh, right.
PK: What’s Janice’s last name? Janice Forbes.
HD: Oh Forbes. Right, it was Forbes.
PK: And Shirley—
HD: Myers. No not Myers.
PK: You should know her, from the AME Church. They were outstanding musicians.
HD: From Middle River?
PK: Yeah. Matter of fact, we had outstanding musicians in all these churches. Because, you know, years ago, people had a drive, and they were competent, really competent in their fields. So all the churches had outstanding musicians, not just our church.
HD: Because music was very important.
PK: And they had the drums and the piano and the guitars and the horns and violins. They had everything in the churches.
HD: What was that special band that Mr. Torsell had?
PK: That was just Elks. But most of our musical things were at the churches, unless we stepped outside of it and did the Organization Day, or we had the Gardens, Casino Gardens, we did things, or at the Oddfellows Hall. You [Harriett] had your dances there. You see I’m of a different generation. Our dances were at Banneker.
PK: All our entertainment was in there.
HD: They had weddings, everything. Because my wedding was there at Oddfellows Hall.
PK: That’s where the Black people went. It was their community.
HD: Then on Saturdays, well we had movies. Because well, Black people weren’t allowed to go to the one theater that we had on Frederick Road.
HD: So we had our own. And that’s where I saw all the westerns. And we learned to love them. And any other kind of entertainment, well we already said weddings, but any other kind of entertainment went right on there.
PK: We had talent shows.
HD: And that building is still there.
PK: We had talent shows there and then in the churches.
PK: And in the community, everywhere. We were self-sufficient, as they say. But music was a big part for the African Americans, period. Big part, big part. The soloists came out...
HD: Any other kind of music, or entertainment centers, were whites only.
PK: Bill’s [House of Music] didn’t used to be so friendly with Black people. We bought the guitar from the music store down by the M&T [Appalacian Bluegrass Shoppe], on the corner, they’re real friendly. We never used to go in Bill’s, because Bill’s was kind of like, kinda cool.
HD: Kinda cool.
PK: They didn’t really show us that they wanted us in there. But then I went there, what was it, like six months ago? And the women were very friendly. Things are different now.
HD: Well, money makes a difference, you know.
PK: We also had dancers, like professional dancers. Like we had Eva, who was a professional dancer.
HD: Oh yeah, we had that at church too.
PK: And then we had other people in the other churches who were professional dancers, so we just had everything we needed.
HD: What was the name of that latest male musician, because he sent a message to us. After Rev. Wright left.
HD: He was a good musician.
PK: Luther Baker.
HD: And he invited us to other churches. We were invited to other churches through him.
PK: He’s a guy we hired to come and play. Anybody else that would know about music, let me think, well, the Bostons. That family was all musically inclined. There’s some in Grace church. The Page family, they’re Morning Star Baptist. Each family was identified with a church. I think most of them have moved out of the area. I think like Miss Brooks used to be a teacher, she died. Her sister, she died. They [the Page family] used to also have the ice cream shop.
HD: The ice cream shop!
PK: Ice cream cones were five cents.
HD: It was a big deal! [laughs]
PK: All different flavors. Everybody used to run from school to go to their ice cream shop. Everything was mostly on Winters Lane. Where Winters Lane and Edmondson Avenue goes, you had that Dave Shockey’s store there.
HD: He was a Jewish man. And then the Black, African American store was across the street.
PK: Dave Shockey, everybody knows him.
HD: We’ve got his picture—no, his son’s picture in the museum.
PK: Yeah we got that. Very nice to people.
HD: He was nice.
PK: Oh my god.
HD: He looked out for us.
PK: Although he did watch us, we could see him watching us [laughs].
HD: [laughs] He let us charge stuff. I know because it was ten of us, ten children. Course, money was a problem. So he would, seriously, he would allow them to buy stuff on credit. You had to pay it like the end of the week or the end of the month or something.
PK: Some of the ministers, I hate to say this, I don’t think some of the ministers can relate to the young people. So therefore, young people didn’t feel they wanted to be at a certain place, so they moved on to these churches—
HD: Big churches.
PK: Like Rev. Thomas’s church
HD: In the city.
PK: These young people are looking for something, and I don’t blame them. You gotta have these young people coming in. When we were coming up, things were different. Because people made sure the young people were active, and engaged, you know and activities, and just did everything with us. Today I don't think—now I'm not saying all the AME ministers—but I don't know how many of them are really geared to keeping their kids. I know the one in DC, the big church over there near DC is. The digital age is some of it, but I think the parents have not done such a good job with these kids. Because, see, our parents made us go to church.
HD: Yeah we went all day.
PK: These parents today are too busy being kids themselves. They’re not raising these kids like they need to be raised.
HD: See, we stayed in church all day. I was in there for Sunday school. The first thing you did—
PK: You eat your breakfast, dressed pretty.
HD: Oh yeah it was a big deal. You’d put on your finest. And you stayed in church. You had church service.
PK: Church league—like. you were in church all day.
HD: I was in church all day. Regular church services, Sunday school, Bible study, all of that. They had something called A.C.E. League. African Christian Endeavor. League. And at night they had other programs, including the Boy Scouts, and the Girl Scouts. So we spent the whole day in church and didn’t mind it. We were there all, day, long. And we were of all different ages. So it was enjoyable. And it was all kinds of activities. And we went on trips.
PK: Vacation Bible school—
HD: And we enjoyed it. I guess that’s the most important thing.
PK: The other thing they used to have what was called May Day. And May Day is where different schools—
HD: Right, came—
PK: —came to whichever school is having it, and different bands came in and we shared musicians. That's the other thing, the musicians were shared from school to school. Like Mr. Irvine was our band leader.
HD: Yeah, he had a band right here.
PK: So it didn't matter where they were located, they would travel. But that was a real good day, music wise, because you had all the programs and all people doing their little activities and things like that. There are a lot of good things in this community.
HD: —That we grew up with. It helped us a lot.
Bill’s Music House
The following is edited for narrative readability and in some cases slightly rearranged from the audio recording, for the same purpose.
Bill’s Music House is the most prominent music business in Catonsville. It’s also the second- oldest, having started in 1965. Bill Higgins, now 78, grew up in Arbutus until 1952, when the family (Bill is the oldest of 8 children) moved into a house his father built on Park Road in Catonsville. Bill was the first one in his family to show any interest in music. The story is best told by Bill himself.
In Bill Higgins’ Words: Beginnings
"From ‘Fifty-two on, I lived there [on Park Ave.] and was raised there. Then later my father moved to the Eastern Shore and I bought the house from him and raised my kids there. But when we moved in there and I was maybe ten, and then gradually it got to the mid-fifties when Elvis and that type of stuff was coming out. We didn’t even have a radio. My father built the first TV we had. There was this much screen and this much TV. He was a Westinghouse man, electronics and all. Then we had a radio that did not work, and it was this big [holds arms out], and it looked like an icebox, just little speakers in it. But he got it working.
The only station to listen to in those day was WCAO, an AM station. There were a few others, but that's what the kids my age were listening to, and then we ended up getting a little 40 Westinghouse or RCA—a little record player. With just a little turntable type thing. You could hook it through the radio and then you could go out and buy a couple 45’s or whatever you wanted and play them. But no one played any instruments.
[image: WCAO Ad, 1965]
I was first [to play an instrument]. I got myself a little guitar that I bought from a girl I went to school with. She paid fifteen dollars for it at Montgomery Ward’s and I bought it for $7.50. In fact, I still have it. It’s a clunker to say the least. I’ve kept it all these years. But no music at home until I got involved with it a little bit.
I took lessons for less than a year, taking the streetcar to Irvington and back, and walking a mile down Montrose Avenue back home. It took me a long time—I'm not all that musically talented. Not basically. And I never got great. But I got to be okay and I played with some kids and we tried to play those songs that were out and did the best we could. We had a little band by about my junior year in high school, maybe senior year. But I kept plugging away and, in the sixties, the first tunes that were catching my ear that I could play would be things by Peter, Paul, and Mary, maybe Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and then after that to where I could play a little three chord thing, like say Elvis or something. You know some of his were easy enough. But I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t look like him, so I wasn’t going to go too far! [laughs] But then the Beatles came out, and that’s what really clicked my excitement.
[image: One of Higgins’ early bands]
They would have come here in sixty-four, and by sixty-five I was giving lessons on to peoples’ homes. Because I wanted to get married. Now I'm about 22 or 23 and I couldn't do much really. I really couldn't. But I could play a little and so I'd go around the folks’ homes and teach their children. They would be mostly teenagers, young teenagers. I’d teach and give him a little lesson from the music book. Then, what they really wanted to know was how do you play this song or how do you play that song? And I’d show them and then they practiced it, and that's where their heart was. Mom and Dad wanted to see that book come out though, and I didn't read too much music my own self, so that’s how it worked.
Now Jake Scheffer, he’s quite a fella, quite a player. He was right here on Newburgh Avenue. Now he’s in Washington. He’s not quite my age--he might be eight years under me or something like that. He’s a phenomenal player. His father was a piano instructor and piano instructor and a piano player, and he played for years in a play in Baltimore called “The Drunkard.” And Jake was an offspring and they had another son, Hank, who played trumpet. Not to get out on that tangent.
But between the time I graduated and say ‘64, I had 13 W2’s from places I worked up and down in Catonsville here. I mean work, all kind of things—bakery, car shops, fixing things—nothing that I was good at—but painting, cleaning cars. Along the way, I got a job at what was called Joseph M. Zemoiski. And they were a record distributor. And that job, I was the back-order boy with the records. And I started seeing literal artists that would come in. And we were responsible for distributing their songs and taking them to the radio to get them played, and things like that. Now I just had a little menial job, but I loved it. And people like Paul and Paula might come in—they had a song called “Hey Paul.” Barry McGuire— “Eve of Destruction” —so I'm seeing this stuff. And of course, I like my guitar. I wasn't playing it that much at first. I was trying. At any rate, then I got another job from that one selling on the street. In other words, I represented another record distributor. And that would take me to what was called Fred Walker’s—which was the Gibson dealer who also had records. Yeager’s was the Fender dealer in Maryland or at least Baltimore. They had records in pianos and stuff like that, and a lot of little record stores that I would call on had some guitars hanging on the wall. Like there might be records off on this side, but a few guitars hanging over here. Because that was starting to catch on in the early sixties. And I was enamored with the whole thing. Here's the artist and the music that I loved anyway. And the guitars that I would see, and it was just nice.
[image: Fred Walker’s ad, 1950’s]
[image:Yeager’s Music, postcard, c. 1950s]
From Guitar Lessons to Music Store
Then I went in the army and came back out, but I had seen all that stuff. When I got out, I got a job at Social Security, paying about a dollar an hour—that was minimum wage. I made about forty to forty-five dollars a week and wanted to marry Nancy. Been married now for fifty- some years. But playing that guitar was an answer, so I put an ad in the papers and started getting calls and I'm going here and there and everywhere.
And then I had so many students that I couldn't take them. I could only do one student per hour. By the time I got there, gave the lesson and got to the next place, an hour was up. So I went right up here on Mellor Ave. That was a coin shop. And I went in there and asked him, could I give lessons in the back of his coin shop? And he said, Yeah, okay, but I gotta charge you ten dollars a week. So I said, okay, I'll do that. Well, it wasn’t long after that he folded. He went out of business and I'm still there. And the owner of the little shop came in and asked me if I'd like to go ahead and rent that little corner. It was only half as big as this [pointing to the interview room].
I said, Yeah I would, and he said, Well I'll charge you sixty a month. Well, that was fifteen a week and I got the whole thing. So my dad helped me make a little sign to put up on the top, just little, and I was open. And then I stayed there for almost a year. Then I got into an opening that came up on Frederick Rd., which was 809 Frederick. It’s now a for-rent, burned-out building. It was a flower shop lately, but back then whatever it was I don't recall.
But that's when I moved out off Mellor onto Frederick. And then things kind of lit up a little better even, because now people could see me as they go down the street. Well, I can remember when I first moved into my first little shop and it was mine now. I had an ES-335 [Gibson] for a guitar. And I had something for a bass, but it wasn't much. Uh, I mean, I, it was like a Premier or something like that. And in my glory days, I had a Fender Bassman [amp]. I was really a bass player in bands. I get excited talking about it!
And in my travels, I would go out to a place on Liberty Road where he would sell me things like books, Mel Bay [instruction texts] or whatever. It would be at ten or fifteen percent off. But while I was there one day, one of his local distributors came walking in and dropped off a bundle of stuff at this music store on Liberty Rd. I said to my wife, Nancy—she was with me— I said go out and ask him to wait a minute till I can leave here and say goodbye to my friend. So I went out and I asked him. Could I buy from you too? He said Yeah, get yourself a resale number. I'll sell you anything you want! So I went down and got myself a resale number and so he would literally sell me whatever I wanted. So now I had drums and guitars. It was all Japanese. I didn't have any name brand stuff. But eventually I got Guild for a good guitar line—which was not popular, and it was too expensive. But then things like Yamaha started coming out on board as I was still trying to make a music store and Yamaha became a big line, 'cause they had a nice fifty- five-dollar acoustic classic. They had nice hundred, hundred-and-ten-dollar acoustic steel string. Matter of fact, I still have a Yamaha bought for myself in those days, an FT-180 and I still have it fifty years. And I have a little Guild too.
So I went from down in the valley on Mellor, and then I went from 809 to 801, which is where Taneytown [Deli] is now. It was not Taneytown right today, but it was recently, so I had a place there. Across the street is 822 Frederick Road, and that's where the T-shirt place is. I bought that one. So that was my first chance to get my hands on a store that I could redecorate or work on, and it had crooks and crannies everywhere. It had a basement. It had a main floor. It has four entrances, so there was all kinds of crooks and crannies. And there was an upstairs and another upstairs so. I was really able to grow.
[image: Bill Higgins at 822 Frederick Road, nd]
And that's when amps were coming out. You know, real amps, and I'm trying to get a line here and a line there. And I guess by the time I got up there, it would've been close to 1970 by now. Or thereabouts. And we grew quite a bit there and we had our frontage.
I used to have a Sunday sale, every Sunday. There was something called the “Young World“ section of the News American. A “Teen to Teen” section, that’s what it was, where we’d advertise. There was a day when I used to do an article in the News American. The editor, Al Kniff, he lives right down the street on Maple Avenue near the Five Oaks Pool, he did this article called “The Beaten Path” for record reviews, so I sort of got to know him along the way. So he says to me, Would you like to do an article in our paper? We called it “Bill’s Music Notes.” That was only one word away from Bill’s Music House, so I loved it! There were no computers back then, so he’d sit and interview me. His friend down there took a photo of me and turned it into the logo you see here. And I adopted the logo. And here I am talking to the whole city about what you want to know and what you don’t want to know about music, especially instruments, or bookings, or bands, or managers. That gave me a lot of exposure.
[image: The shop at 822 Frederick Road]
So on Sundays I'd sell strings for two bucks. And drum sticks for two bucks, or one buck—whatever I could get it down to and did not lose money so much. And I’d run it in the paper on Sunday and people started to learn who I was, because they’d come out on Sunday. They didn't have anything to do and they could buy stuff pretty cheap. I wouldn't sell my guitars cheap necessarily. But lots of little things that you might want and need.
Then, as we started to grow, I wrote a letter to the people where the pharmacy is now [733 Frederick Road]. That was a furniture store. As a matter of fact, I have a picture up front of me and my friends standing in my little store looking down at that store. And the little girl from Catonsville painted various pictures of my folks’ house, and my house, and that picture of us drooling over the street and down the street. So at any rate, I wrote a letter and two years later the guy came back to me and said, “Well, if you want it, I'll talk to you now.” And so I bought that one down there too and kept the old one. My son owns it now. And then I stayed there for quite a good time.
I didn't want to move so much, but the parking was disappearing hand over fist in Catonsville. A group had bought over there and we were afraid that the post office was going to come down and take this building, chain off the parking that I have. Because I didn't have any parking. I was landlocked at that building, so I mustered up enough effort and money to get into this one [743 Frederick Road]. Been here ever since. That was the nineties. I took real estate courses—not to sell, just to understand it all.
In the beginning, I was the sole employee, and my wife was my helper. We’re not employee heavy now, but before COVID, I’d say we had twenty-two, twenty-three employees, plus teachers. We have twelve studios, so we might have maybe twelve, fifteen teachers. They will come and teach forty or fifty students a week. Some will teach much less than that. Maybe a dozen. Right now we're down at two hundred students a week. But that's all online. We were about 400 and some when COVID hit.
Customer service starts at the top. When we get when we get a bad apple, we don't fire him, but we sure let him know he's a little bit of a bad apple. And I just don't want that. I don't want somebody talking, I don't want somebody talking about us that they weren't treated right over there. It happens sometimes. We got a write up on Yelp one time--we answer our Yelps and we get 'em on Yelp. But one girl turned us in to Yelp. She didn’t like us. We didn't have the right kind of selection for violins. You know why? She was a violent teacher who had her own little business with violins so she panned us. And then when Yelp figured out what she was doing, they wouldn't print them in the Yelp.
The Vintage Guitar Market
The seventies were the years of Japan in in a way. What I mean is they were making everything and selling everything to America, including pretty good guitars like Yamaha, like Alvarez. Lots of nice guitars--ESP. They used to have a lot of guitar shows back in those days; I went to one or two, but it wasn't my forte. I didn't want to be what they were doing. I was doing what I was doing, but at any rate the good Strats [Fender Stratocasters]--that stuff was heading over to Japan. You take six or eight, whatever you might have, up to one of those guitar shows, and the Japanese were who were buying them. So all the American fenders are heading to Japan while the Ibanez and all that stuff comes in this way, but they were being sold at a price. The Japanese had money, big money in the 1970s.
Established in Catonsville, Business Challenges
We supported the Lurman and we started Frederick Rd. Fridays. When it started it was over there behind Jennings [Café]. Back then, before the performance, a fellow--he ended up working for Emory [Knode] after he worked for me for a long time, Nick. Nick was a repairman down there, but for me he was a salesperson and from there he went I think to Guitar Center.
After Guitar Center he ended up back with Emory. He was a picker, the country type, he didn't want to play rock and roll. But he'd go over there and we send him over an hour or two before the performance of whoever was coming, and he’d get a little commotion going so that when the band was gonna play, they would be the second band. He only got what I was able to give him and he didn't mind. He liked going over there and playing so well.
A lot of performers would come through Baltimore or at Washington, or wherever they would be, not that they flocked to Bill’s Music House, but they would find their way in here. Not a lot of them. Dion from Dion and the Belmonts—he strolled in one day. He wanted to see the guitars and he wanted to play the guitars. He said, I don't want to be signing any autographs and don't send people over. He just wanted to shop. That was okay with me. Rod Stewart’s drummer, who at the time was Carmine Appice. We had a master class and he ended up staying with us for a day or two. He came, gave the class the next day, and we took him out to dinner and we had a lot of laughs. That was Carmine Appice. He was also in Vanilla Fudge. He was in the Faces band for Rod Stewart. He fell off the face of the earth after that, musically anyway. Yeah, after all that, you know, they only have a short run, right? Most of them. There was lots of them in here, not a million, but lots. Being 78, I remember half of what I knew!
Battling Amazon and COVID
One thing that has blossomed for us is online selling. We have a website. We have eBay. And we have Reverb. Reverb is an eBay for musicians. There's business there, but you gotta have what they want. It's a lot of work, it's not just simple to put stuff online, just wait for the sales to come rolling in. But that's what Leni [Kern] does full time. That took off during COVID where people wouldn't get in their car to go to office or anything else. They would buy online and not only that, if you didn't have a Stratocaster in red, but you had one in blue--Oh, what the hell, I'll take blue.
And the flip side of that was that the manufacturers all over the country were closed down too and China and Japan, nobody making anything 'cause everybody’s staying home to beat the virus. Now this particular store, we had an incredible amount of stock—more than we needed, more maybe than we wanted, but I'll tell you, when we closed down, the customers just kept coming and coming and coming and coming. And between [son] Brian out front, Leni online and the two girls [daughters Tracy and Jamie Higgins] doing whatever they needed to do and closing out the accounting each day, and answering the phone for him, and making things palatable, they ran the store for six months just with a couple of them. And the teachers--some of them wanted to teach, so we set them up. We went out and bought a software where you can talk online.
So we had pretty good year. In COVID there was a lot of self-optimization. “I’m going to better myself and I’m going to play that guitar,“ or “I’m going to get a better one and play it better.” Once COVID hit, I stayed home and I have not come back. I don't come up here every day. I come in some and do different things. I'm allowed to decorate, but I'm not allowed to buy or sell--I’m persona non grata! [Laughs] You know, I can do whatever I want to do, but I see, OK you guys got it, and they got their deal and you know I'm not gonna last forever anyway. I’m 78 and so give me a chance to do it while I'm here, in case they do get a problem I can help them out.
Ron Cook: legendary local serviceman
Ronnie [Ronald Cook, known as “Cookie]” was my first employee. Fifty years ago when I used to date my wife, before I was married, I used to go to the Rhapsody Club, down on Old Annapolis Road. Ronnie was the house band down there and they brought in bands like The Van Dykes to play too, but he was the house band.
He and his little, not little group [The Princetons]. They were nice, they were good, and I went there all the time and I see this little guy playing and picking, and you know he was good, and different too--not all fuzz tone and all that stuff back in the day. A clean player, but he was great, knew all the licks.
That's when I was down on Mellor Avenue. I had a little boy helping me out giving some lessons. (Everybody’s a little boy—but he was bigger than I was!). But he had a girlfriend in Texas and he wanted to go visit her and he got down there and just really didn't come back. I went in the Rhapsody watching Ronnie play. I said, Ronnie, I've got quite a few students. Would you like to teach some guitar students in the daytime when you're not playing? He said, Yeah, I’ll give it a try. So he came up. And before you know it, he had over 100 students a week teaching.
But he says to me along the way, I work on guitars too, and I have this little thing I can do that will make it play better. So we coined the term Supertune. He says I coined it. I think he coined it. He's always trying to give me credit that it was my term. But anyway, it was Supertune, and what he would do in these days before Ernie Ball [packaged string sets] and all that, he put a banjo string on the first string, take the rest of the set and move it over one so your E string became your B string, your B became the G and on over. But the banjo string was one with the flexibility. That's how he got it so you could bend those strings before there was any Ernie Ball. These are the lights, the extra light, super light, or whatever you like. Fender, or everybody has them—Elixirs. But in those days, in 1966, -seven and -eight, there wasn't any such thing. So we’d buy some Black Diamond banjo strings, and he moved the rest over. And nobody ever missed the big thick E! So we call this Supertune and people loved him for it.
Now Emery is good too. I mean I know he's good. But I've had Ronnie and I wouldn't take a million. dollars for him. We've never had a misstep in 50 years. Soft spoken, he won't argue with you. He don't want to. He'll do whatever you want if he can. Now some people are just more demanding than you can do. And of course, then he has to say what he has to say. Gib [Gilbert Owen] is his sidekick. But Ronnie is the guru and Ronnie can do an amp. So between the two of them, they can handle your amplification or your guitar, banjos and mandolins or whatever you have.
Other Music Business Forays
We had a booking agency for a while, really for quite a while. That was another way I got to meet bands. So we called it Sounds Unlimited and then we called it Super Sounds Talent Agency Inc. And I still love to do that stuff, but I don't have it in me now and there for a while I ran out of steam. My wife did it for a while and I had a good friend that did it for a while, but that's was for my part. Supersounds was great. The bands would come in and get paid on Mondays. But next thing you know--I'd be upstairs, I used to book upstairs, had office up there-- They go downstairs with the money I just gave them. They're buying a new PA or a couple new Shure mics and so it was kind of a built-in, you know, and I liked it. And I got 15% of the bookings.
What's not to like except the hours? And then I had kids. There's no question: in the nightclubs, there's trouble out there. If it ain't on one end it's up on the other, and I'm not immune from being naughty so I didn't want to be naughty and I got out of it eventually. The clubs were the worst you know. Booking a one-nighter was good money and no trouble there. You go in, you played, might get seven hundred five hundred, eight hundred whatever you got, but the clubs didn't pay any money. They're always trying to trick you on New Year's to play the extra hour for free, all kinda stuff. But anyway, we did that for good 10 years.
We had recording studio which went nowhere, no sense talking much about it, but I've tried to help. We got a nice Teac [recording deck]--one of the old Teacs, where they had the four tracks built in, and a console. But we were ahead of our time there we didn't know what we were doing. We had a machine, but that's all I had, not the knowledge.
So I tried everything I could to be meaningful to a player. I'll bend over backwards to keep somebody from being mad at me, even if he's wrong. I won't go crazy doing that, but I don't want an enemy.
The Catonsville High School Steel Band
Percussionist Jim Wharton, who grew up in Catonsville and had graduated from Catonsville High School in the class of 1969, was enjoying a summer trip to Ocean City in 1989 after his second year as chair of the music department. One evening, while dining with his wife, he heard the most beguiling music emanating from the back deck of the restaurant. It was the Baltimore Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band. It was the first time Wharton had heard live steel band music, and he was rapt. He had seen and heard a steel band before on the Ed Sullivan show, but never live. (Years later he would realize that the second act on that show after the headlining Pan Trinibago Allstars— “This little band with a bunch of white kids playing”—were some of the earliest American students of steel pan originator Elie Manette, Andy and Jeff Narell, sons of a New York City social worker who had learned how steel drums were defusing gang warfare in Trinidad and brought Manette to New York to address gang problems through music. Andy Narell is one of the most famous jazz pannists today, having worked with a long list of world- class musicians, from Aretha Franklin to Taj Mahal. Both Manette and Narell would have direct contacts with the CHS steel band project; but that is getting ahead of the story.) In Ocean City, “I was just mesmerized. I had no idea what the instruments even looked like,” he relates. The arranger for the group was named “Tosca”—all steel band arrangers have nicknames—who showed Wharton the instruments, and immediately recognized a fellow musician. Tosca struck a deal with Wharton: “If you help me arrange orchestral music for steel drums, I’ll teach you about calypso.” Such were the happenstance beginnings of what would become one of the hallmark musical groups at the center of music culture in Catonsville.
The following April, Wharton was attending a National Music Educators Conference (now the National Association for Music Education) meeting in Washington DC, and the focus was on multiculturalism and world music. A steel band from Washington High School, in Washington, Pennsylvania performed, and Wharton’s interest in the music deepened. Attending the concert was Ellie Mannette, one of the Trinidadian fathers of the modern steel drum. At that time, Mannette was an artist in residence at West Virgina University. He had started a steel drum program at WVU with Mantle Hood, the renowned ethnomusicologist who was a visiting professor there at the time. (Hood had founded the now-defunct Ethnomusicology Department at UMBC, where he taught from 1980-1996; he also founded the Institute for Ethnomusicology at UCLA). Phil Solomon, also an renowned instrument maker was had also traveled to the conference, from Guyana.
Upon his return, Wharton undertook to write a modest grant proposal to Baltimore County Public Schools. A three-thousand dollar grant would be enough to purchase a starter set of pans. Wharton was awarded the grant, but one can’t simply walk into the local music store and buy quality steel drums. All of the instruments are hand made, generally to order. The process is a long one of beating down the head of an oil barrel and meticulously hammering both sides of the metal to tune the notes. Wharton put in an order with Solomon for four tenor bass drums (made from three quarters of a 55-gallon oil drum), a set of guitar pans in the tenor voice (made from a half barrel ½ barrell, tenor voice), two drums in the alto voice (so-called “double seconds”), and two lead pans. It took Solomon a year and a half to complete the order. To avoid shipping costs, Wharton drove back and forth to Pittsburgh multiple times to bring the large instruments back to CHS.
When he finally showed the drums to the kids in the orchestra, they were wowed. “It was an easy sell for the kids. I said ‘We’re going to start rehearsing after school, one or two days a week—who’s interested?’ Well, hands went up all over the place.” The extracurricular program with a dozen or so students for the five or six positions in the band (including a drum kit player), so they would trade off on instruments. With ample rehearsal, they were able to get 2 tunes together for the spring concert—one group doing one song each. May of 1992. The kids wore Hawaiian shirts—they played “Maryanne” and “Shake Señora.” Wharton becomes animated recalling it. “And the audience goes berserk!” he enthuses. The audience was standing and screaming, and they wanted an encore—but the band only knew those two songs, so the students played them again, in reverse. After that, it was easy to recruit students into the band the next year.
The popularity of the band made it necessary to get more instruments, so as to get the band up to the size of the Washington High School band (instead of two lead players, six lead players, four double seconds, four double tenors, six triples, and multiple basses). Fundraisers enabled them to do this, piece by piece. “At this time, I’m still a novice,” says Wharton. “I don’t know how to play a lead pan. And the kids are so bright, and so open to new things, they would pick it up very quickly.” Wharton describes himself as very much a director—the students really took over as the musicians.
[image: Jim Wharton conducts CHS Steel Band, Baltimore Sun, 13 October 2000]
In 1995, Wharton learned of Ellie Mannette’s week-long steel drum summer workshop held in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was eager not only to learn how to play the instruments better, but to learn the history of steel drums, whose origins were in gang warfare in Trinidad and Tobago. This history, when juxtaposed to the lives of suburban Baltimore students who continue to enthusiastically take up the instrument at CHS, makes the phenomenon just that more remarkable. Wharton makes sure that he conveys this history to the students as part of his instruction and band direction.
In Wharton’s description, the history is rooted in two multicultural nations, composed of ethnic elements from the native “Trinis” to the servants and enslaved people brought by a long series of colonial occupiers—the Spanish, the French, the British. The British brought not only enslaved Africans, but indentured servants from India and China. Africans brought with them their talking drums, but in the late 1800’s the British rulers banned them. Concerned about about rebellion, the British eventually banned all musical instruments other than their own. Gangs then began to improvising their own instruments. Tamboo Bamboo—thick bamboo stalks that are rhythmically pounded on the ground while being beaten with a stick, initially used to summon illegal gatherings —was a precursor to steel drum. Other drums were improvised with the Brits’ discarded biscuit and tea tins. One early drum innovator, Winston “Spree” Simon, noticed that after playing his drum he’d put a dent into it, and so he went to beat it back into place from the other side. What resulted, however, was a small “bubble” in the metal. When struck, it emitted a tone. He started experimenting, adding more “bubbles” and tones to his biscuit tin. The dent changed the tone. These low-toned drums were originally referred to as “ping-pongs.”
Ellie Manette was one of the most resourceful early instrument improvisers. Wharton tells the story of how the steel pans eventually became made of oil drums:
"Ellie would talk about experimenting with the bigger buckets and pans, eventually getting to the oil pans. He’d talk about being with two or three of his buddies, and they’d go to the naval depot, and they would see a sentry at the end of a beach right where the barbed wire fence would go out into the water. And they would see the sentry go by, and the spotlight would come out and then they’d swim out to the end of the barbed wire in the ocean. When the sentry would pass by again, they would swim in, grab a barrel, and then take that barrel, swim out, pushing it with their noses. They would steal barrels from the United States navy—so we really have to thank the United States Navy for contributing to the development of this magnificent instrument."
When Manette was ultimately caught pilfering oil drums, he was brought before the base commander, Col. Franz Grisham, expecting to be thrown in the brig. Instead, the commander told him, says Wharton, “I want you to teach my sailors how to play those drums.” Wharton laughs heartily. And so began the USN Steel Band. Manette continued experimenting, building on the previous instruments invented by Spree Simon, which had convex bubbles. Manette reversed the bubbles, making them concave, which is where the modern steelpan began. He also was the first to add rubber to the ends of the pan sticks. The new design heightened the overtone series.
Gangs using these instruments had their own identity. As tamboo bamboo troupes began evolving into steel bands, gang rivalries began to take form not only in violent conflict, but in band competitions. Seeing that musical conflict could possibly defuse other forms of conflict, the government this time decided to give money to the gangs for instruments, if they’d desist from internecine warfare. In the early and mid 1950’s, these bands began to develop organized competitions. This eventually led to Panorama—a annual national competition in Trinidad. As competition became more intense in this period, the music became more complex, and groups also developed more pan voices. Wharton describes the complex voicing structure that evolved for bands of various sizes. “You have single tenor, or lead pan; the double tenor (which plays melody an octave lower or “strums” accompaniment—hence the name “guitar” pan); then double seconds, which are pitched lower—the real alto voice—generally playing the 3rd and 7th of the chord; in the tenor voice, the triple drums play the root and the 5th; the bass line is carried on two types of bass drum: the tenor bass—also called “cellos” consisting of 4 drums—or the six basses—each pan with just 3 notes.” The elaborate instrumentation and tone structures seem almost arcane, but Wharton gets quite animated discussing them as he sits in the CHS pan room. “I’m getting chills talking about this—the first modern drum was developed in 1946, and we’ve got Ellie’s picture right on the wall!” he says, pointing. To this day, players and builders compete to make the best newest instruments. When he was first putting the band together, Wharton made a mistake—buying Phil Solomon double seconds, a design that many find hard to play. “When we would go the Manette festival, the great players would come up to us and say ‘What are these? These are pans from space!’ we can’t play them.” The steel pan wars, it seems, are still going on.
In his trip to West Virginia in 1995, Wharton first learned of Mannette’s “West Virginia Tuning Project,” which taught WVU students to make and tune steel pans. (Today the best tuners in the world are in Morgantown.) Wharton attended Mannettes summer workshop for a week to learn history of the pans, and how to create a program in HS. At first, Wharton was put in the intermediate band. Nevertheless, he was able to work, as a novice, with top players in the world, such as Andy Narell, Jeff Narell, Jimmy Layden, and Ray Holman. “I’m just this novice, and I’m having drinks and dinners with these guys, and hearing stories from the creators. I get misty eyed talking about it. What’s happening is that my world and my knowledge is opening up here, and I can bring it back to the kids.”
1996 marked the the 50th anniversary of Manette making the first modern pan, and Wharton once again attended the WVU workshop. That year, one of the guests was Ken “Professor” Fillmore, or “Pro”—the rock star of pan playing, who has toured with the likes of George Benson and Jimmy Buffet. By then Wharton moved to the top-level band on bass. “ I was a percussionist, I could play tympani, so it was a pretty easy switch to play bass pan. And, because I’m a music educator—all of the music in Trinidad by the panbands is learned by rote; there is amazing tonal memory, but they don’t read music at all—so while I’m learning this music, I’m transcribing all the parts, so I can take the music for my bands to play.” In return, Wharton would call the composer and let them publish his arrangements.
After attending the workshop for two years, Wharton had been excitedly describing it to his students, who began to ask, “Well, can we go?” So over the years, the students started going. “Four kids to a hotel room,” explains Wharton, “but they get to meet some of the great players. It’s the equivalent of picking up the cello in high school, and going to summer camp with Yo-yo Ma.” Wharton’s former student and now colleague, Andrew Hamilton, now continues the tradition of attending Manette’s summer workshops, bringing student pannists with him.
As the CHS steel band improved and became more widely known around the area, it began getting many invitations to play at churches, retirement communities, public events, and festivals. For these, says Wharton, “I can’t charge a fee, but I can ask for a donation. So it gets to the point where I can stop selling the fruit and pizza fundraisers. Now the band is self- supporting and brings revenue to the department as well.”
One performance in particular stays with Wharton. On April 22, 1999, the band was playing at the Inner Harbor amphitheater—a noon time concert. Two days prior had been the Columbine shooting.
"While we were playing that day, as we finished, a gentleman walks up. He has tears in his eyes, and he says, My name is Tom McHugh, I’m an English teacher at Kent County High School. And I could just not go into school today. I couldn’t face my kids because of what happened at Columbine. I saw your band and I started to cry. Because here are kids doing something really good, bringing a lot of joy to a lot of people. And then he says, ‘I line up the music performing groups for the Rock Hall Fall fest in Rock Hall, Maryland. Would you be our featured group next year?’"
Ever since, The CHS Steel Band has been the premier group for the festival. Through McHugh’s connections, the band also became a regular highlighter at the Berks County [Pennsylvania] Jazz Fest.
[image: 1999 CHS Steel Band National Aquarium concert poster]
Wharton has focused on getting major pannists to come and perform with the CHS Band, and he has succeeded with many. “I could take the kids to Kings Dominion and play for a panel of judges, and come back with a bunch of trophies, but I’d much rather spend that money to bring guest artists here,” he explains. "For example, DeVon Stewart, the only one ever to win all three of the major band competitions in Trinidad—small, medium and large, was the guest artist at WVU in 2019. Next thing you know, “He wants to come to Catonsville. So we line him up!” says Wharton. The opportunity to mingle with stars of the steel band world is an extraordinary experience for CHS students. Guest players typically come in and work for a week with the students, doing intensive rehearsals prior to a joint performance.
The CHS Band is not a typical “school band,” but more like a professional performing group. Before the pandemic, they were doing around 30 gigs per year, including local television appearances. The Catonsville community is incredibly proud of its excellent niche performance group. “The support from the community in non-pandemic years is extraordinary,” says Wharton. “We get one of the largest crowds at Lurman—800 people or more.”
[image: CHS Steel Band 25th Anniversary Collage]
In 2013, when Wharton retired as a full-time teacher and department chair, he stated that he wanted to still be able to work with the pan band, which he does. His successor-to-be is Andrew Hamilton—CHS steel band class of 2005. There are pictures of Hamilton in the pan room where he now teaches. “He’s a musical genius,” says Wharton. “He must have a photographic memory, and a photographic tonal memory, and he’s got perfect pitch.” They are now listed as co-directors, but Hamilton is the de-facto director. “This was all meant to be,” concludes Wharton. “He had been teaching in Prince George’s County, and was in Catonsville to see the dentist when he decided to stop in and say hi. No, I told him, ‘You’re here to apply for this job!’ It really was providence.”
Hamilton started as a Freshman in 2001, and played through his graduation. He then attended Towson University to study music education, graduating in 2009. He later continued to perform with Wharton, in groups like the Catonsville Steel Septet. A classical composer, he has also created a piece for orchestra and steel ensemble, played with Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, and played before the BSO's season opening gala, where cellist Yo Yo Ma played with a number of community groups, doing variations on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." In short, there were opportunities that allowed Hamilton to remain around the steel drums until he was able to return as a teacher in 2013. Hamilton, retelling how a visit to his old hometown dentist had led him into the current job, adds,
"I will keep going to that dentist for as long as possible. I feel I owe that dentist so much—had that day not happened, this would be completely different."
I've felt like I didn't miss a beat. Having been a student, and now as director, it has a lot of the same feel." What Jim created is a band that police themselves. What I mean by that is that they can tell when there's a mistake, and they're calling out the other sections—in a fun way.
There's definitely this tone of setting an example where you want to have perfection, and it’s a very difficult thing to achieve. Especially in music... In the school world, we can have 90%, but one mistake from every person is going to create such a horrible performance that we really are striving for that perfection every time." The culture we've created is that students want to get together outside of the pretty strenuous hours we put in... They're asking 'Can we get together more'?"
Students today are aware of the culture and the history of the steel band music. "The students aren't just playing music without knowing where it's come from, what it's gone through."
Hamilton’s future vision is to make the steel band part of the curriculum (something BCPS has started to do, as more schools have started their own programs). Also looking for ways to expand pan playing outside the school walls, with a summer camp open to members of the community.
Another notable product of the steel band is Andy Stack, percussionist with the indie rock band Wye Oak. In an interview on the Music is My Life Podcast, Stack described the indelible influence of the experience on his musical career:
"I went to this public high school outside Baltimore that had a steel drum band. We did these carnival tunes—these big extravagant arrangements, which sometimes are really, really tough, really challenging. To actually learn some of these big legit panorama tunes that they would do in Trinidad would be the big project of the band for the year. So we would work that up and I definitely learned a lot from that. It’s not in terms of an aesthetic or style that stuck with me, but it definitely got me going on theory. The drum I played itself was the soprano voice, the lead voice of the band. The instrument is laid out in the circle of fifths. It’s like when you look at a graphical representation of the circle of fifths, That’s just the drum [laughs]. So you have this really valuable insight into how stuff goes together just from playing this instrument. Even to this day I still reference that shape when I’m thinking of stuff. The other thing about that was that we would play 30 or 40 concerts a year. We would do all these field trips and play at elementary schools, old folks’ homes, different school district events. It was like a proper gigging band that I was in for like the four years of high school. That was super valuable. I still have a steel drum. I’ve even played it on some recordings.”
[image: Andy Stack of Wye Oak rehearsing with CHS Steel Band,
Baltimore Sun, 18 April 2012]
Music Teachers I: Leslie Luco
Most towns have music teachers, but few can boast a man of the stature of Les Luco, a Peabody Conservatory-trained multi-instrumentalist who turned down the chance to be a major orchestral conductor to teach Catonsville elementary school children. From a musical perspective, few people touched more Catonsville residents’ lives—as a teacher, as a conductor, as a band leader, in his work with local theater, as a mentor and model of decency, spanning more than half a century. His beginnings were far humbler than one might expect for a man whose talent and influence reached so far. Leslie Luco was born and raised in Pigtown, in Southwest Baltimore. His father worked at Bethlehem Steel—he’d gone to work there in fact at the age of thirteen. He completed the seventh grade; his mother had completed the third grade. There was no musical background in the family. Luco’s mentor was his high school band director, Warren W. Shelley at Southern High School in Baltimore City. (The school no longer exists; the building is now a senior living home in Federal Hill.)
Luco had started playing clarinet in the seventh grade, before high school. His beginning was somewhat inauspicious: “To be perfectly honest, I took the clarinet because it was seventh period at the end of the day one day a week, and that’s when I had English. I took the clarinet to get out of English. That’s a fact. But I loved it. And I practiced and I practiced and I practiced.” Shelley would go to the lower school to teach and scout students for his high school orchestra and band. Luco ended up playing in the high school concert band. Shelley was so impressed with Luco’s talents and drive that he loaned him his personal clarinet to play. “I think, having thought about it later in my life, that he saw something that he liked,” muses Luco. In the ninth grade, Luco had to choose a curriculum, so he asked the guidance counselor what he could do to have the least amount of homework. “She thought about that,” recalls Luco, and she said, ‘business education.’ I said how does that work? Well, she said, They have typing, and they can’t make you buy a typewriter. The adding and subtracting machines—they can’t make you buy those.” Luco perked up. He knew he could do all the simple business math off the top of his head. “So I thought, This is for me.” The choice enabled him to focus on what he considered his real homework: practicing his clarinet one to two hours a night. “I knew what I wanted to do when I was fourteen.” Liking what he saw, Shelley gave Luco a perpetual pass to come to the band room to practice during his free time.
As time went, he auditioned for a scholarship offered by a wealthy benefactor for high school students of fewer means to study with Peabody teachers. Luco’s first audition was when he was in the ninth grade. He wasn’t accepted, but he kept at it. “I was kind of bullheaded that way. Nothing defeated me.” The second try was the charm, and he won a half-hour per week session for two years with the first clarinetist of the Baltimore Symphony. He subsequently was awarded a full tuition scholarship to attend Peabody for his bachelor’s degree. Luco was in heaven. There were no other subjects to study. It was all music, all the time. “If you tried, you couldn’t escape from it. I studied trumpet with Harold Rehrig, who was the third trumpet with the Philadelphia orchestra. I studied percussion with Dr William Sebastian Hart, who was the tympanist in the Baltimore symphony.” And he continued study with his private teacher, Ignatius “Iggy” Gennusa, principal clarinetist with the Baltimore symphony, who had taught him two years prior to conservatory, all four years at conservatory, and four more years towards his later master’s degree at Peabody.
Another formative musical experience began while Luco was in high school, and carried into his conservatory years.
“I had an experience that anyone who is thinking about going into music should have had but might not have. A very good friend of mine who was in the Southern Band—he was the first chair clarinet player; I was first chair, second clarinet—he worked at the Lyric Theater. Now in those days. the Lyric was it. That was it. There was no Meyerhof, there was no this concert hall, that concert hall. The lyric theater was everything. He called me one day, he said, How’d you like to get a job as an usher? And I said, I’d love it. So you talk about listening to music! As an 11th grader, I started working at the Lyric theater six nights and Sunday matinee. Everything came to the Lyric. I heard the Bolshoi Ballet. I saw the ballet. I saw and heard the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. I saw Walter Beeler conduct. I saw—you name the people, I saw and heard every single one of them. And when I finished my responsibilities I would go up the side and there was this a space on the right side looking down on the stage where I could see and hear everything. I watched for six years—two years in high school and four years at the Peabody. The best conductors in the world, six nights a week and Sunday matinees. Made two dollars and fifty cents a night.”
Luco ended up focusing on music education. It was challenging, because his background had been so focused on music that other areas needed to earn a mid-Atlantic teaching certification were hard, particularly the requirement for a second language. And his move to education was not because he lacked elite-level skills. “The director of the Conservatory picked out two of us from his conducting class,” recalls Luco. “He’d studied at the Paris Conservatory under Madam Boulanger, and he was fantastic. And he picked out at two of us—[renowned conductor] Murry Sidlin was the other one, and myself. And he wanted us to go to Italy to study conducting. Murry went; I didn't. I knew that I wanted to teach, from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to teach children. I also had this lady that I've been married to for 58 years, and I wasn't going to leave her for a year to go to Italy! I was offered the opportunity to become a serious orchestral conductor. But along the way have used that skill and that ability to do some really neat things.”
As a student teacher, he ended up back at Southern High, working alongside Warren Shelley. He also student taught at Catonsville Junior High School, where he was impressed the quality and ability of the children coming through the school. On graduation he was offered a job in Baltimore City school system, but Luco was taken with the county program. So he met with Tom Lawrence, the director of music for BCPS—himself long time a Catonsville resident, music teacher at CHS, and music director at Catonsville Presbyterian Church—and Luco was offered two jobs, one at Catonsville Elementary, the other at Arbutus Elementary. “I took it in a heartbeat,” he says, even though he’d never taught students that young. They couldn’t start until fourth grade—“So if you were playing clarinet, your fingers didn’t go in the hole,” he laughs.
[image: Luco’s 1962 Graduating Class, Peabody Conservatory, https://peabody.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16613coll11/id/125/]
“I knew that I wanted to be in Baltimore County. Baltimore County was exploding. They were building five to ten schools a year.” Catonsville Elementary had 1,000 students, according to Luco, and the construction of Hillcrest Elementary was on the near horizon. (It was built in 1962). Luco relates how he approached his job in a way that grew a formerly small, specialized program into something far bigger and more encompassing. Luco reflects at length:
“It was just a magical experience, that’s the best way I could put it, a dream come true for me as a 22-year-old just coming out of school. I inherited a program from and elitist type of person--and that's not bad. What I mean by that is that he only wanted to start on the instruments the topflight children that he found. He interviewed and auditioned them about what they wanted to do, and so I didn't have many students. So when I went into that school, I went to every 4th grade class. There were five 4th grade classes with over thirty students each! And I put on a little one man show in each room. I played the flute, I played the clarinet, I played the trumpet, I played the trombone, I played the violin. I put on this little one man show, and then I asked the children if anybody would like to try to learn how to play one of those instruments. And I’d just write down their names and what instruments they’d like to try, and then I would contact their teacher. I recruited that year over 100 children. Not an elitist program!
I took every single child who felt like they wanted to try. And that's all I asked them to do—was try. I don't know where it came from, I honestly don't, except perhaps I was endowed without knowing it with an understanding of the childlike mind. I just understood children in a way that a lot of people just can't begin to understand themselves, and so I had all these students. And my second year I recruited another hundred, third year another hundred. I was at Catonsville Elementary School for 20 years. That means that I started on instruments close to two thousand children—all of whom did not continue.
But I never told them—not once—not once did I ever tell them that they didn't have the ability to do it. It's self-discovery. It's like a boy trying out for a baseball team and his eye-hand coordination is no good. He knows it. You don't have to tell children what they can't do. They know exactly what they can't do. And then when you tell them, all you're doing is insulting them. Anybody who thinks that a 9-year-old can't be insulted doesn't understand children. See, that's the key: you have to know how to talk with them.
And the music store with which I worked to supply these children with instruments--I insisted that they do a rent-to-buy program. Now if you understand what that means it's very simple. If your son wants to play the trumpet and you pay a monthly rent, you're renting to buy. If you choose to buy, you can turn it back in at any time you want to. On the other hand, if a student keeps the instrument and pays the rent, at such time as they reach the price of the instrument, its theirs. And unless the music store that I dealt with agreed to that, I wouldn't have anything do with them.”
[image: Luco and Catonsville Elementary School Band, 1967. Source: Catonsville Teachers Who Made Difference Facebook Group]
He also worked out an instrument replacement program:
“I know children and they have accidents. Oh I had a little girl one time left her clarinet sitting at the bus stop. Oh, it was so devastating to her! Her parents took her back, but it was gone. And the music store gave her another one, because that was my arrangement with them. I had a boy who dropped his trumpet down a flight of steps. He’d come to the steps and told his mother to listen to what he could do, and he dropped it down a flight—I mean it was beat to death. They took it back to repair it and gave him another one.”
Over the years, Luco has repeatedly run into former students, now adults. (One of Luco’s students was Jim Wharton, music director and steel band founder at Catonsville High School.)
“It's very rewarding. I’m talking about what you might call a normal, average person. I'm not talking about somebody who is going into music as a career and has made a life of it. I'm talking about Mr. and Mrs. Joe Normal, and I look at them and it's almost impossible to remember names. Almost impossible. But I can look at the person and I'll say Flute! And they'll smile and they'll say, How on earth did you remember that? Because they're now 50 years old! I was 22, and my first students were ten years old. Now I'm 81, they're 70! So I have students who are 70, 60, 50, 40, and I see them at the Giant in Catonsville, I see them at the park, I see them here and I see them there. And I'll look right at them, and I'll say Trombone! And they'll say, That's amazing! You remember that you taught me the trombone 35 years ago! I’ll say, It’s like it was yesterday. As mundane as it might sound, I truly loved my students.”
Although it may seem that conducting small children is a long way from the level of conducting taught at Peabody, or what he witnessed at the Lyric, Luco says that it’s really not so different:
“Fundamentally and basically it is the same, in the sense that the conductor has to stay steady, not change the meter, the beat, and bring in the people who enter at a certain time correctly. The six years of watching these great, magnificent, top-level conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Sir Walter Beeler, Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra—he was amazing—short squat little guy, never used a baton, used his bare hands. And when he would start the Beethoven--Da-da-da dah--he hid his hands from the audience. He kept them in front of his chest, and he didn't want the audience to know when those first few notes were to begin… Little things like that… I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct what we all know as Lone Ranger theme--you know, the William Tell Overture—he actually held both hands above his head like he was riding a horse, and when he got to that spot he just he was like he had reins in his hands. And so you pick up all these little nuances of conducting.
“You can't just beat time. That's of no help to anyone. That’s a metronome. you're not helping anybody. You must have the music in you, even though it's elementary school--and then you portray it through your arms and your hands and your emotions and your entrances and everything that you do.”
Anyone who talks with Luco about his teaching will immediately sense a genuine and deep level of commitment to the vocation, and to the students.
“I would do everything that I could to showcase these children, with no thought—it never entered my mind, never honest to gracious—it never entered my mind once that they can do what they're doing because of me. I started them. They didn't even have to open the case many times. They opened it upside down and it dropped on the floor. And so consequently this little band that I had, who sounded wonderful--I took them to nursing homes, I took them to shut in homes. It's hard for me to remember. Anybody who wanted a performing group to come and play for their residents, we went. Because I didn't feel the least bit worried that they would embarrass themselves. Their behavior was magnificent, just magnificent, and they understood because I didn't take anything for granted or by chance. We talked about good manners, gracious behavior. I didn't just teach them how to play instruments. I tried to teach them how to be decent people.”
His elementary school work wasn’t all Luco did musically in the community. For thirty years, he also conducted Amhránaí Na Gaeilge, the Baltimore-based Irish Men’s Chorale, one of the largest men’s Irish choral groups in the country. (The chorale includes many members from Catonsville). He has been a guest conductor and adjudicator for many years around the state for all-county student orchestras. The all-star students were often a challenge.
“Of course, the biggest job is convincing them on the first rehearsal that you know what you’re doing. Because when they're that good they have a tendency to be slightly arrogant. And they want to be able to let you have it if they can. Well, I never gave him that chance, because I never went ever to a job like that ill-prepared. One of the skills of orchestral conducting that you can't teach is reading a score with sixteen musical lines in it. By the time you move your hands four times you're into the next measure there are 16 lines—first, second, third clarinet; first, second, third trumpet, first, second trombone, first, second violin, viola, cello, and so on and you have to know every entrance. And when somebody is playing a wrong note you hear it, you stop, and of course some people will say, Well what note was I playing wrong? And you tell them bang just like that and they go, Oh. 'Cause they knew it. They were just seeing if you did.”
For many years, Luco also worked with the Catonsville Little Theater. “That's what it was called but it wasn't so little,” he quips. In a 1969 production of “The Fantasticks,” Luco left the conductor’s piano and took to the stage himself when the male lead couldn’t fulfill the demands of the part. Wrote one critic, “The play is cleverly designed in that the narrator, alias El Gallo, performed by Leslie Luco, not only reveals the story as it unfolds but artfully manipulates and motivates the animated puppetry of the others involved. Mr. Luco brought not only a fine voice and natural stage presence to the role, but obviously influenced and enveloped the others into an aura of professionalism drawn from his talents and experience as an accomplished musical director.”
[image: Les Luco and unnamed actress rehearsing for “The Fantasticks”1969]
[image: Les Luco, “Bells are Ringing” program, Catonsville Little Theater, 1972]
Music Teachers II: Grant Menefee, Drum Guru
Grant Menefee likes to say that he grew up on one side of UMBC and settled down on the other. So his roots in the Catonsville area are deep. It wouldn’t be until many years later that this drum phenom realized that Arbutus, where he was born, is home to the tomb of the legendary Chick Webb (1905-1939), the African American swing and jazz band leader and drummer who was arguably the first truly modern drummer, paving the way for titans such as Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson, and Buddy Rich (Webb is buried in Arbutus Memorial Park, on Sulphur Spring Road.) He’s visited the grave, and it’s something he reflects on from time to time.
Menefee got his start playing drums at the age of 9, then in the school band at Landsdowne High School. His first paying gig, at 14, was in a cover band playing a pool party at Rolling Road Golf Club. Growing up, Menefee was a music omnivore, especially when it came to drummers:
"I was listening to everything, The whole gamut. All the horn bands—Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Danny Seraphine from those guys, of course. John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, that was huge. And also, Jazz--Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, all those guys. So I was lucky, I had teachers in school that would tell me, Listen to this guy. Listen to this guy. And I did. It was great. It was a very fertile music time.
It was a fertile musical time, and Catonsville was a fertile place as well. He remembers Catonsville’s two major music stores, Bill’s Music House and what was then Nelson Knode’s Music, as epicenters of his younger years.
"Going back to when I was a kid, the only store around was Bill’s, so that kind of became a meeting place and you know, as a kid, you go in there, you hang out, talk to the managers, get to know them. At that time, the two managers were Jim Mays and Lou Campagnoli, and they were great guys. They were nice to us kids, and they’d give us advice. I still talk to them. You’d meet other players too. You know we didn’t have the Internet back then, so to communicate you, you go to the music store. You also had Nelson Knode’s, which covered more band instruments. I knew that family because I went to school with Emery. He and I have been friends, known each other since we were like 12 years old. Yeah, and we're still pretty close."
Among Menefee’s early teachers was a Peabody percussion department chair Chuck Memphis, with whom Menefee did private study. “He was just fantastic. Just changed my life. You know, kicked my *** Believe me. He was good. He prepped me for Berkeley really well.” This background was solid enough indeed to get Menefee into Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, where he thrived, graduating in five semesters (one semester spent out intensely traveling and gigging for professional experience).
“When I was going there it was a little easier to get in--the dropout rate was really high, because these people just couldn't hang with that. At a place like Berklee, you’re transcribing from the time you step in there until the time you leave. Ear training is a really integral part of it. was lucky because I had my guy from Peabody prepping me for that. I didn't want to leave--it was a great environment. I was just up there about a year and a half ago and I was hanging out with the professors and we're all colleagues now.”
Menefee moved back to Catonsville in 1988, where he rented studio space for a couple years at Bill’s Music House until he built the studio in his present home, where he and his wife still live. In the 33 years that he’s been teaching from his home studio, many of his students have gone on to prominence in the drumming world, playing with such varied touring bands as Periphery, The Mars Volta, Queens of the Stoneage, Jay Z, and Avril Lavigne, and the studio bands for TV’s “The Voice” and “Britain's Got Talent.” His roster of former students includes many well-known professional drummers, such as Jon Theodore, Matt Halpern, Nate Morton, Mike Reid, Bill Bachman, and Evan Taubenfeld. In addition to teaching, Menefee regularly plays with several area jazz bands to keep his performance chops fresh. And he’s passed his love of drumming to his son John, a Nashville studio and touring drummer who has worked with a number of prominent acts, including Rascal Flatts. Menefee also did some adjunct teaching, but the university environment was not for him. “You just get holed up. [The university faculty] were just a different breed. They didn’t listen to me in meetings. But you know now, looking back, I’ve taught way more famous students than them. You just get holed up. You son’t see the real world. You’ve got to be able to teach these students—you're sending them out into the real world, right?”
When asked about Catonsville as “Music City Maryland,” Menefee chuckles:
"I actually got into that discussion with a couple of my students recently. You know, they were kind of laughing that they call it “Music City,” but I said to them, Look, if you go to other communities outside of here, you don't really see the amount of music you see here. I hear all these local musicians. Some say 'I'm not that good ‘--but you know what? That's not the important thing. The important thing is they're doing it."
[image: Grant Menefee in his home studio, Catonsville, Maryland, August 2021]
Appendix I: Areas for Future Research:
A partial list of potential future areas for further research, to which access was limited by time, accessibility, or COVID-related issues)
The Piano Man (https://www.facebook.com/pianomanpr/ )
John Crist (lead guitarist, heavy metal band Danzig)
Jake Scheffer (jazz guitarist, Montgomery College instructor, see https://www.thebash.com/jazz- guitar/jake-sheffer)
Tom Lawrence (CHS Music teacher)
Camp Woodland (Jewish Camp, 1922-1952 see https://jewishmuseummd.org/camp-woodlands/)
Hear of Maryland Men’s Barbershop Chorus (https://heartofmaryland.org) Church choirs and choruses
Women’s Club of Catonsville
Dance Fundraisers (Joe Loverde interview on Google Drive)
Frederick Road Fridays (see https://catonsville.org/chamber-events/community- outreach/frederick-road-fridays/)
Appendix II: Physical Materials Collected
CHS Steel Band Compact Discs:
Ray Jam 2007: CHS Steel Drums with Ray Holman CHS Steel Live with Victor Provost, April 14, 2018
Undated photograph: The VanDykes 1956 Photograph, The VanDykes Various promotion materials
3 DVDs: The Mighty VanDykes, Oct. 2006 (Joe Loverde, Pro
This Music Heritage Project was sponsored by the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, Maryland Heritage Areas and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. We are grateful for their support!