Earl Freudenberg Remembers His Friend Booker T. Scruggs

  • Tuesday, December 5, 2023
  • Earl Freudenberg

Some of my friends call me a pack rat for saving so much stuff from my broadcasting career and I guess that’s true. Recently while going through some old recordings, I found a few treasures by my good friend, the late Booker T. Scruggs.

The well-known musician, radio, TV host and educator died in June, 2017 while doing what he enjoyed the most, playing his clarinet with the Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.

Mr. Scruggs was a native Chattanoogan, born and raised on the Westside in the College Hill Courts. He attended E. 5th Street School and graduated from Howard High School in 1960.

Mr. Scruggs said his interest in music came from his mother and grandmother who were accomplished pianists. “I started playing the Flutophone in elementary school; when I was in the seventh grade my grandmother bought me a new clarinet. I started taking lessons in Junior High School and later continued with more training at the Cadek Conservatory in Chattanooga.”

Mr. Scruggs was a member of the Howard High Marching 100 which toured around the South and participated in the annual Armed Forces Day parade downtown.

He received a music scholarship to Clark College in Atlanta where he graduated.

Mr. Scruggs served as an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the Department of Social, Cultural, and Justice Studies from 1969 until his death.

He achieved the American dream, but more important was his friendship with so many people. Mr. Scruggs spent many hours with this writer talking about the struggles of the 60s. He was one of a group of Howard students who broke the racial barriers in the 60’s at Chattanooga’s downtown lunch counters.

I told the talented clarinetist, I never understood why everyone couldn’t sit together at a lunch counter; enjoy a hamburger, french fries and soda regardless of skin color. We did that several times at Woolworth’s on Market Street, one of his favorite places to eat before they closed.

Mr. Scruggs said those were challenging days but he never looked back. He credits State Rep. C.B. Robinson and Education Commissioner John Franklin who encouraged and inspired him to never quit, and he didn’t.

For many years (1970–2016) Mr. Scruggs was host of the Adult Education Council’s television program, “Point of View.” This writer was privileged to be one of his guests where he traced my broadcasting career from the very start.

Retired WDEF TV program director Doris Ellis said, “Mr. Scruggs was the most prepared broadcaster I ever worked with. He was a super nice person and so pleasant and courteous to his guests.”

Mr. Scruggs dedicated his professional life to education serving for 36 years as director of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Upward Bound program, helping those preparing to enter college. Mr. Scruggs was proud of his lifetime membership in the Alpha Pi Alpha Fraternity.

Mr. Scruggs was a pioneer in talk radio hosting “Real Talk” a morning talk show on WMFS – WNOO in Chattanooga.

He cherished his friendship with retired Chattanooga Police Detective Do-nut Williams, the city’s first black officer. Officer Williams was a frequent guest on his programs.

In those treasures I mentioned were several of Mr. Scruggs' recordings, but one especially caught my eye, “Harmonies of Heaven.”

Selections include the great hymns of the faith, “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Peace in the Valley,” “In the Garden,” “How Great thou Art” among others, but my favorite song on the recording is “He Lives.”

He gave me this CD while sitting in the lobby of St. Barnabas Nursing Home where my mother was a resident.

Mr. Scruggs said he made the recording with the prayer of providing a little comfort to those hurting.

At that time, I played the recording over and over and even included some of the songs on my radio broadcasts.

During the visit we talked about his parents and family but there was one special person in Booker T.’s life, his cousin, Charles “Chuck” Scruggs.

He said Chattanoogans may not know Chuck Scruggs but they do in Memphis, Tn. because of his lengthy career on radio and television.

Mr. Scruggs said, “Chuck encouraged me to stay positive and focus through my music on uplifting those stricken with grief.” His cousin died in 2013.

And stay positive Booker T. Scuggs did; he was such an encouragement when both my father and mother passed. He attended their memorial services and sent a lovely floral arrangement.

Mr. Scruggs said he grew up listening to the swinging big bands and some of his favorites were Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Pete Fountain, Count Basie, Quincy Jones and Woody Herman. “I wish I could play the clarinet like Mr. Goodman, he plays the stick with such ease,” he said.

The clarinet player said he was looking forward to seeing Mr. Goodman at Riverbend in 1986 but the “King of Swing” died a few days before he was scheduled to come to the Scenic City.

Mr. Scruggs said he’d call Luther Masingill on WDEF and request “Paper Doll” by the Mills Brothers. “They were real barbershop harmonizers and I loved their sound; Luther would always play the tune for me, so I decided to learn it.”

Another of Mr. Scruggs' favorite songs was “Swinging Gently” by Earl Grant. He said, “I never played the organ but always wanted to meet Mr. Grant; he was so good, he was a favorite of my mother.”

Mr. Scruggs was a fan of the group singers of the 60’s including the Platters and Supremes and his favorite male singer was Billy Eckstine.

Mr. Scruggs said he met American Jazz Singer Sarah Vaughn in Jr. Hi when she came to the Memorial Auditorium. He said, “Ms. Vaughn sang one of my favorites that evening, "Make yourself Comfortable"; but all of her songs were my favorites.”

During our conversation, Mr. Scruggs recalled his visit with Dave Brubeck in early 2000 when he played with the Chattanooga Symphony; they talked about his number one song, “Take Five.”

Mr. Scruggs said some his greatest encouragement came from Chattanooga educator and musical icon Jay Craven.

Mr. Scruggs said he went to the Tivoli Theater to hear Mr. Craven’s Clarinet Choir and after the concert walked back stage to meet the conductor. “Mr. Craven invited me to join, and I did; during the coming years Jay encouraged me to stay with the clarinet and never quit; Jay was my mentor,” said Mr. Scruggs.

Mr. Scruggs played with Mr. Craven during his last public performance in Hixson in 2015. Mr. Scruggs said that evening, “Jay Craven was my teacher, he’s my role model; I want to grow up to be just like him.”

As a musician, Booker T. Scruggs was popular around his home town even doing a concert at the Hunter Museum of Art. The Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble would travel across the United States and Europe sharing their music with anyone who would listen.

Mr. Scruggs was a Southern Gospel Music lover and said he rarely missed the Hey Earl Show. “I love Gospel music and am glad to see Bill Gaither featuring several black artists including my favorite Lynda Randle.” He often requested Randle’s, “God on the Mountains.” He joked, “I wish Mr. Gaither would call me to play my clarinet on his homecoming program.”

Mr. Scruggs was a member of the Chattanooga Gospel Orchestra, a group of accomplished musicians who performed around the Chattanooga area.

Mr. Scruggs would talk about his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his music reflected it. He enjoyed playing anthems during morning worship at several Chattanooga churches. During his ensemble concerts he’d always include a sacred song. He said among the audience favorites was “How Great Thou Art.”

Then there was the cold Saturday in December when Mr. Scruggs played Christmas Carols on his clarinet in front of Lanham’s Bible Bookshop at Brainerd Village during a live WDOD radio broadcast for the Forgotten Child Fund. Even though the temperature was in the 20s, Booker T. Scruggs warmed the hearts of those present with music of the season.

After entertaining for over an hour at the store front, Mr. Scruggs wrote a generous check for the fund.

After meeting Mr. Scruggs you would quickly find out how much he enjoyed doing for others.

One of Mr. Scruggs' last recordings was a Christmas project “Let Heaven and Earth Rejoice.” He said church members encouraged him to record the Christmas CD with five heavenly songs and five earthly tunes.

To my total surprise, in 2016 Booker T. Scruggs came to this writer’s induction into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame in Murfreesboro. He’d left the funeral service of a friend in Chattanooga and rushed over Monteagle Mountain to this special evening event for a host of statewide broadcasters who were being recognized.

As we approach the upcoming January observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, this writer is reminded of the many visits spent with Booker T. Scruggs just talking about his life’s struggles and accomplishments.

Some of this kind and gentle man’s last words to me were, “To God Be the Glory.”

The late Mr. Scruggs was a Chattanooga institution who contributed so much and helped make our community a better place to live and work. The musician was a close friend I’ll never forget.

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