Sweet Georgia Sound Celebrating Twenty Years of Entertaining

Tuesday, November 4, 2014 - by Harmon Jolley

The music stands of Sweet Georgia Sound proclaim the group as “Chattanooga’s Big Band.”   For the past twenty years, the SGS musicians have performed at a wide array of venues in the Chattanooga area.   With a catalog that includes tunes from the Big Band era to popular vocals to jazz-rock, the group has a fan base that has grown over time. 

Their music has often been heard at the Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion, where Sweet Georgia Sound will be playing on Sunday, November 9 from 12:30pm to 4:00pm.

  This will be their fifty-fourth event, with their fiftieth taking place last July.

To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the organization of Sweet Georgia Sound, director Mike LaRoche recently fielded a list of questions about the group’s history and his own musical background.  

1.  How did you get started in music (piano lessons, choir, etc.)?

Well there were a few early things, a rehearsal or two with the children’s choir at First Baptist Chattanooga, 2nd grade rhythm band and like a lot of kids that grew up in the 60’s when I first saw the Beatles on TV I got a guitar and even took a few lessons.  But my real start was when I joined the band in the 8th grade on saxophone, my sister had joined the year before on clarinet and I played around with it when she wasn’t looking and that led me to want to play saxophone.  Later on in my sophomore year I picked up the bassoon and even played drums in the marching band my senior year.  Not really studying the piano is one of my big regrets, all the piano training I have is one semester of class piano at MTSU.

2.  What are some of your memories of high school band (marching and jazz band)?

There are so many great memories from those days at Lakeview High School.  Great band trips to football games and contests.  Being named Band Captain my senior year was a big honor and a great memory. 
A lot of great memories with the Lakeview Swing Band (what the Jazz Band was called then), we won a state of Georgia jazz band festival when I was a junior.  The really great memory was in 1969 when the swing band was selected to play at the Kiwanis International Convention in Miami Beach FL.  We played in front of full houses at both the Miami Beach Auditorium and the Miami Beach Convention Center.  It was an amazing experience, the attendance for the convention was slightly over 19,000 and it felt like there was that many in the audience.

3.  What led you to play saxophone instead of another instrument?

Well, I was always interested in all the band instruments.  When I was younger I thought I wanted to try the trombone because it was such a visual instrument.  But when I was in the 7th grade we had a poster on the wall of our classroom of all the different band and orchestra instruments and I really liked the look of the baritone saxophone.  The next year I started band on alto saxophone and the next year I switched to baritone sax.

 

4.  What introduced you to big band music? 

My mom and grandmother had a number of old big band records from the ‘30s and ‘40s that I listened to on 78 RPM records on an old wind-up Victrola (that Victrola is actually sitting in my dining room today).  I guess my live introduction was actually seeing the school big band at the Lakeview band concerts when my sister was in beginner band.  When I actually started playing in the band I started listening to more and more big band music.  I had a rather odd record collection, Glenn Miller next to Jimi Hendrix and The Who.  Later in college I really got into the Buddy Rich Big Band and listened to a lot of Buddy along with others of the time like Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band.  When I was in the Air Force I exposed a lot of folks to big band and it seems like someone was always borrowing my Buddy Rich albums.

5.  Did you continue to play music after high school?  If not, what led you back to music and after how long an absence?

I played for one year at MTSU but ended up joining the Air Force and didn’t play for a long, long time.  Sometime in the late ‘80s my high school band (Lakeview/Lakeview Ft. Oglethorpe) was having an alumni band for homecoming and it was great reconnecting with old friends and my high school band director Jim Souders.  That really got me re-started in music through not only the alumni band but also several other community bands.

6.  You once played with the Mid-South Concert Band.  How did you learn about them?

I got a call one night in the late summer/early fall of 1989 from them.  They had contacted a number of local high school band programs and gotten their lists of alumni band members which included the LHS/LFO one.  It was kind of interesting that on the night of the first rehearsal TBS aired the Andy Griffith show where they got the town band back together, so I watched that and then went to the rehearsal.  That experience really kindled my interest in becoming involved in music again.

7.  What led the big band subset of Mid-South to form a separate group? 

Well several folks in the band had played in their school jazz bands and had an interest in playing again.  It started out as kind of a fun thing after the Mid-South rehearsals. 

8.  How was the name “Sweet Georgia Sound” chosen?

When we became a separate group we needed to change our name from Mid-South Swing Band to something else.  At one of our first rehearsals as a separate group everyone came up with suggestions and Sweet Georgia Sound was chosen.  Marketing that name the first couple of years in the Chattanooga area was difficult as we had a few people that knew us under the old name and it was difficult marketing to conventions coming to town because we didn’t sound local.  Then one day in an article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, someone referred to us as Chattanooga’s Big Band Sweet Georgia Sound so we started tagging that on and it seemed to help.  Once we got established under the new name it no longer became a problem.

9.  What was the first song played on the first public SGS gig?

Our first gig was in the fall of 1994 on a joint performance with the Mid-South Concert Band for the British Car Club.  I wasn’t doing the playlists back in the early days, and they were hand-written so I don’t think a copy of that playlist exists.  I have listened to a lot of cassette tapes from those days and though I haven’t found one from that night I think I can make a good guess that it was Basin Street Blues. 

10.  What is the farthest SGS gig you’ve played?

Probably the farthest was a wedding in Tullahoma that we did several years ago.  A couple of performances in Spring City, a July 4th in Etowah kind of round it out.

11.  You played for a while with the East Ridge American Legionnaires band.   Did you do both Legionnaires and SGS concurrently?

I first heard of the Legionnaires from a newspaper article about one of their trips to the American Legion National Convention.  Later I was playing with a number of members of the Legionnaires in the Scenic City Concert Band and was asked to fill in a few times when someone was out and eventually joined when an opening came up.  I have a lot of good memories from trips to Orlando, New Orleans, Charlotte, and Hawaii during my time with them.

12.  Who are some musical mentors you’ve had?  I know that you speak often of Manny.  Without mentioning all the names, what words of encouragement do you recall that motivated you to keep the band going and growing?

Well of course the late Manny Bowen was a great influence as was Art Suits who was my high school jazz band director.  Locally I remember the old OJ Bailey big band here in Chattanooga and I remember thinking how cool it would be to play in a group like that.   Probably my biggest motivation once we got going was the comments and reaction from the audience.   Now everything you play is not going to please everyone and you learn over time what works and what doesn’t, and I’m still learning.  The mistake many make is to play for themselves instead of the audience.

13.  What tune has been played the most at SGS gigs? 

I’m guessing “In the Mood” is right up there at the top of the list along with “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Zoot Suit Riot.  I did go through a period in 2000 or so that I didn’t put a single Glenn Miller tune on the playlist, we had played so many gigs that were 80% Glenn Miller in the late ‘90s that I really felt the need to bring a lot of other big band music into the rotation.   

14.  What led to a subset of SGS members playing in the 24601 Orchestra?  How did you learn about Leap of Faith?  What are some favorite memories of the musicals?

Leap of Faith was a great program led by Becky and Barry Bradford and many others that produced summer musicals at St Luke UMC for a number of years.  Back in 2000 Mike Smith, one of the SGS trumpet players, was playing a couple of parts in a production of Annie and they needed a few folks to fill out the orchestra.  I decided to play as did a couple of others and enjoyed it so much that we started doing it every year.  After a couple of years more and more of us joined in.  In January of 2004 we did a youth musical of Les Miserables and adopted the name The 24601 Orchestra.  These musicals were a blessing to all involved, so many youth and adults alike had their lives changed by them. 

15.  Was returning to SGS from surgery a motivation in your recovery? 

My continuing on during chemo, radiation, and surgery really kept me going throughout the whole process.  It was a huge motivation in my recovery.  And I’m really grateful for the support of the band during this period (and for putting up with me).

16.  What are some of the good feelings that you have when you stand before an audience, work with a bride at her wedding, or see young people rise in their musical abilities?

It is a great feeling to stand up on the bandstand and see the audience enjoying themselves.  Weddings are one of my favorite things to do because I get to work closely with the wedding party to put together their reception from guest arrival, to bride and groom arrival, to first dance, to last dance. It is a great thrill for me plays a small part in the bride and groom’s special day.  I remember working with a bride who had always dreamed of doing her first dance to the theme from Beauty and the Beast.  Using our vocal team of the amazing Melanie Willetts and Greg Glover we were able to fulfill that wish for her.  Remember our conversation about the song watching them dance to it was a very moving experience.   As a side note on that Greg Glover had actually played the beast at the Chattanooga Theater Centre.  I always tell the brides and their family that years from now when they look at their reception picture and videos and see the band in the background that I want them to have good memories. 
Our involvement with Covenant College over the years has been an amazing experience for us too.  We’ve played a lot of events at Covenant to a great reception; it’s an amazing experience to share with the students there.

17.  Besides music, what are some of your other hobbies?

Funny thing is between my day job and music there’s not much time for anything else.  I do enjoy travel, particularly cruising.  We’ve even done several cruises with other band members. 

18.  What is the funniest memory of SGS over 20 years? 

One thing that jumps to mind is from very early in the bands existence.  Our piano player at the time had 2 sons at Boynton Elementary and asked if we could play at their Fall Festival.  We had gotten all setup right outside the gym and right before we were ready to start it was very apparent that a storm was quickly moving in.  They quickly moved the whole event inside the gym in an amazing quick time just as the storm hit.  We had “Made It through the Rain” in the folder and decided it’d be appropriate to start with that.  We were no more than 8 bars in when lightning struck a transformer outside and the gym went into darkness with only the emergency lights.  So we didn’t “Make it through the Rain” after all.

19.  How have you gone about building the SGS music library?

After years of building a base of a wide variety of dance styles we’ve really concentrated lately on adding recognizable tunes.   With Melanie and Greg on vocals as well as some of our past vocalists we have been able to introduce a lot of great vocals and well as some great new instrumentals.

20.  What new directions are ahead for SGS?

It’s a constant evolving process.  We’re really working lately on adding new music.  During our slow months at the first of 2014 we went through music we hadn’t played in a long time and played “Crank it or Tank it” and purged a number of tunes and made room for others, we’ll do the same thing in 2015 to try to keep the music fresh for our regulars.

 

You may keep up with news about Sweet Georgia Sound and their concert schedule via their Facebook page, which is easy to find under “Sweet Georgia Sound.”

If you have memories of hearing Sweet Georgia Sound, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.  I’ll update the article with some of your responses.

 

 

 

 



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