EXCHANGE: Chance encounters take musician to national stage
Mar. 22, 2018
QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Quincy native Bob Havens, 87, has been on TV somewhere in the country every Saturday night for more than half a century.
From playing jazz in the clubs on New Orleans' famed Bourbon Street to becoming a fixture on the Lawrence Welk Show, playing the trombone with Welk's band each week for a national audience, music and chance encounters drove Havens' career.
The son of a millwright-turned-custodian who was known as a bass singer and bass fiddler and a pianist who sold sheet music and records at a local shop, Havens' family spent most nights huddled around the radio in their home. He picked up his first instrument, the violin, at 6 years old.
"The band instructor who was teaching at Quincy High School was friends with our family," Havens said. "He said I should learn a brass instrument because they needed brass players in the high school band."
His parents took him to Hamm's Music Store and pointed out the different brass instruments -- trumpets, trombones, baritones -- and they asked him which one he would like to learn to play.
"I just looked around and pointed," he said. "I didn't know one from another."
Havens happened to point to the trombone, unknowingly kicking off a lifelong passion for the instrument. As he became more proficient, he stepped up to the piano and played with his parents, instead of listening from the floor.
"I learned to read sheet music over my mother's shoulder," he said. "It was just a family tradition, most every evening we'd play music."
His mother's job at the music shop was part-time, but it gave her access to a seemingly-endless supply of recorded music. She began bringing records of all genres home for Havens, opening up a door to the world of big band and jazz music.
"Jazz music was in its prime at that time," Havens said. "I had a tendency to tune in on the dixieland-style jazz, and that, throughout my life, has been what I've centered my interests on."
When he was in grade school, his father started a family orchestra and invited some friends to play along. Word got out, and before long, there were about 10 musicians performing in the Havens' home, circled around the family's piano. The orchestra was known to amass occasionally in Quincy parks to perform for ice cream socials and baseball games.
"By the time I reached 12 years old, my ability to play on the trombone sort of got around town," he said.
He started to play with the Red Ramblers Orchestra and continued to do so until 1947. Through performing with the group, he learned how to emulate the sounds he heard on the horn without reading music.
Shortly after leaving the Red Ramblers, Havens started playing with the Jim Delabar Orchestra and Boots Mitchell and the Range Riders, a country swing band.
"I found country was easy to play," he said. "The roots of country music were very similar to the roots of jazz music. Both came from the folk style."
Boots Mitchell and the Range Riders were regulars on WTAD, and in 1948, Havens began jumping in with the trio for on-air performances. He was fresh out of high school when the group cut its first recording.
Havens went to school in Chicago in 1949 to study radio and television repair. His education was followed by 18 months of active duty in the National Guard during the Korean War. He originally was assigned a job manning the radios but quickly shifted over to playing trombone for the National Guard's 44th Division band.
"Our main duty was to wake the troops up in the morning around 5 o'clock," he said. "They would have our band go outside and start marching up and down the street."
The rest of the day was spent practicing music. There were 60 musicians in the division band, and the majority of those soldiers deployed. Havens was one of only eight to remain in the states through the deployment.
Returning to Quincy after the war, he worked for Motorola during the day and played five nights a week with the Junior Musolino Orchestra at the Terrace Room. He gave up electronics at 25.
"It was something inside of me," he said. "The urge to play became stronger than wanting to repair television sets."
A fellow trombonist that he met a decade before at the Interlochen Center for the Arts' music camp reached out to him when he came to Quincy to perform with Ralph Flanagan and His Orchestra. Havens attended the show, which was at Quincy High School, and brought his trombone along, just in case. After listening to Havens play, the band leader extended an invitation for him to join the orchestra on tour in Texas.
"It took me no time at all to decide that this was an opportunity," Havens said.
He went to Texas in 1955. The next stop was for one month in New Orleans, playing at the Roosevelt Hotel. In between shows, Havens lugged his trombone into the night clubs on Bourbon Street.
"I asked a band leader at this night club if I could sit in," he said, "and he said sure."
From there, Havens stumbled into a five-year gig playing jazz with George Girard and His New Orleans Five at the Famous Door, before joining up with Al Hirt, a local trumpeter, and Pete Fountain, a clarinetist, who were looking to form a new band.
"Everywhere I went, opportunity unfolded in front of my eyes," Havens said. "I never had to pursue anything to get started."
Havens first caught the attention of Lawrence Welk, who at that time had a national musical variety show, when he came into the club with his band leader. Havens had developed what he describes as a comedic circus routine while playing the trombone. He was known for his wild solos during the song, "Tiger Rag."
"At one point I laid down on the floor and started moving the slide with my foot," he said, "and it was a very fast tempo."
After spending two hours in the club watching Havens perform, Welk told him he should be on the television show. Havens had never seen the Lawrence Welk Show.
In May 1960, Havens went out to California to perform his "Tiger Rag" routine on the show. The guest appearance was followed by an offer to join the band permanently.
"I was having fun in New Orleans," he said, "but I was thinking, since there were millions of people watching television, that maybe I'd be better off there."
Havens was sure he wouldn't last more than a year on the show, but he would remain there for 22 years until the show ended in 1982. He also scored many Hollywood films during his time on the show.
"It was more than I ever dreamed I would be a part of," Havens said. "I became acquainted with most all of the musicians I listened to on records when I was small."
The show went into syndication the same year it went off the air, and it is still shown today on PBS channels. Now the reruns have been on the air longer than the original run of the show.
"I watch the reruns every Saturday night," he said. "It's an emotional thing for me to watch the show, especially when so many of the performers that were on the show are no longer with us."
Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://bit.ly/2tWoYZB
Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com