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The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band: A history of music and marching

The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band: A history of music and marching

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For almost 120 years, Texas A&M's famed marching band has thrilled audiences on campus and around the country.

The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band began in 1894. It is the world's largest military marching band, with more than 450 members in 2013. Roughly 350 students march during halftime performances at Aggie football games.

The Aggie Band is recognized as one the nation's top college bands for its intricate drills and sounds. The band distinguishes itself with traditional march music rather than contemporary pieces. The band's reputation and success inspires Aggies to claim that Texas A&M has never lost a halftime.

Father of the Aggie Band

Joseph Holick was Czechoslovakian-born and a cobbler by trade, but he had an ear and passion for music, according to The Eagle's special edition for A&M's 125th anniversary. Holick found work at Blatherwick Boot Shop, where college faculty members frequented, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band by Don and Mary Jo Powell. A&M President Lawrence Sullivan Ross stopped by to have his shoes repaired one day and offered Holick a job. He left the shop to live in a dorm room and make the cadets' boots, according to a February 1994 Eagle article. For the growing Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, there was plenty of work.

When Holick arrived, the commandant asked him to play Reveille and Taps on the bugle every day for another $65 a month. Holick thought the $65 was too much and asked to start a cadet band, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

Aggie band 1894

The first Aggie Band had 13 members in 1894. From left, S. Kohn, Arthur Jenkins, J.K. Woods, W.M. Mathis, H .D'Echaux, T.B. Duggan, H.L. Williams, W. Bretchneider, A.W. Amthor, O. Gersteman, H. A. "California" Morse (drum major), W.C. Carothers and P.B. Bittle.

Holick played clarinet and led the 13-member band in 1894. Members distinguished themselves from the rest of the Corps with a double stripe on their trousers.

“[At first,] there was some controversy over who would get to be the drum major, so the gentlemen decided to fight it out [in a brawl],” according to a February 1994 Eagle article. The last man standing, California Morse, was appointed the to the rank.

Holick served as bandmaster for only the first year, focusing more on his cobbler duties. He would fill in when bandmasters left the post during the school year. Bradford Pier Day, the sixth bandmaster since Holick, arrived in 1904 and served until his death from pneumonia in October 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic, according to a notice in The Eagle.

Holick eventually moved his boot shop in 1929 to College Main. When the Reserve Officer Training Corps was established in 1914 and the uniforms were revised to be more in line with the military, cadet seniors started wearing tall, English-style boots. Holick's larger shop enabled him to make the senior boots, instead of having to order them from San Antonio.

For members of the Corps of Cadets, senior boots are as valuable as the Aggie Ring. The class ring marks a milestone in their undergraduate career, but the boots symbolize a right of passage recognizing all they've put into military and leadership training, according to Cathi Dudley, Holick's granddaughter, in The Eagle's 125th anniversary issue.

Holick died in 1971 at age 103. The shop moved in 2006 to its current location on Wellborn Road. Holick's descendants own the shop and continue the tradition of senior boots.

The 1920s and '30s were a period of growth for the band and the university. Previously, the membership was limited to 30, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band. James V. "Pinky" Wilson, a student, wrote the lyrics to The Aggie War Hymn in 1918. George Fairley, an Army bandmaster from England, set the words to music.

In 1924, Lt. Col. Richard J. Dunn began his tenure.

Richard J. Dunn: 1924 to 1946

Aggie Band 1930

Lt. Col. Richard Dunn, band director from 1924 to 1946, introduced the white canvas leggings and cross belts as part of the Aggie Band uniform, as pictured in 1930. Courtesy of Cushing Memorial Library

Dunn was a Spanish-American War veteran and an Army bandmaster. He was the 11th A&M bandmaster, and his title was changed to band director shortly after his arrival. Dunn accepted anyone who could play an instrument and aspired to meet his high expectations with practice and dedication, according to the Powells' book.

Aggie band block T

The Aggie Band has been forming the block "T" since the 1940s.

The band had more than doubled in size to 65 by 1925's spring semester, according to The Eagle. The band also began to incorporate patterns and shapes into its halftime shows, such as the famed "Block T," the outline of Texas and spelling out words, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

Band members had no distinguishing uniform elements from the rest of the Corps, so Dunn introduced white canvas leggings and white cross belts. Photos from the 1930s show a white belt around the cadet's waist and belts over the shoulders, crossed at the chest in an X.  Today, the band wears collar pins in the shape of a music lyre. Dunn also started the Bugle Rank in 1933. The bugles are adorned with a banner embroidered with the Block T insignia.

Dunn wrote the music to The Spirit of Aggieland. Dunn and Marvin Mimms, class of 1926, collaborated on the Southwest Conference's first original alma mater hymn. According to his personal notes with the Cushing Library, Mimms sent lyrics he called Texas Aggies, hoping Dunn could put them to music. The song was meant to be different from the Aggie War Hymn, which was more of a fight song, and be an alternative for formal occasions such as commencement ceremonies, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band. Dunn rewrote a few lines and added a yell at the end. There was even a second verse that Dunn cut to save on printing space. The original lyrics by Mimms were:

Spirit of Aggieland lyrics

The original words to the Spirit of Aggieland by Marvin Mimms and edits by Richard Dunn, band director.

Some may boast of their white and gold,

Of a school they think so grand;

But there’s a spirit that can never be told,

It’s the spirit of Aggieland.


We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we;

We are from Texas A. and M. C.

We’ve got to fight, boys, We’ve got to fight

We’ve got to fight for the Maroon and White.

After they’ve boosted all the rest,

They’ll all come and join the best,

For we’re the Aggies, the Aggies are we;

We are from Texas A. and M. C.

Second Verse

Though far from Alma-Mater I roam

My heart shall be with you ever;

I’ll always be proud to call you my own,

It’s Aggieland, forever.

Since band members still received military training as part of ROTC, the band was reorganized into infantry and artillery in 1939. The band units were housed in separate dormitories. The term "combined band" came about when the two units performed together. The split units and housing requirement ended in 1943.

In 1942, the band made its Hollywood debut in We've Never Been Licked, starring Robert Mitchum. It played the Aggie War Hymn and Spirit of Aggieland.

World War II caused a decrease in A&M's enrollment and Aggie Band membership. The band numbered 90 members, the lowest in Dunn's time at A&M, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band. All 90 were freshmen, including the drum major. Dunn retired in 1946. He started the music program at A&M Consolidated High School the following year.

Col. E.V. Adams: 1946 to 1973

One of the veterans returning from World War II was a band member and Bryan native from the class of 1929. Edwards Vergne Adams had been a student under Dunn's direction, and the band director told him to keep studying music, because he wanted Adams to come back and take over his job. Col. Adams reminisced in later years that he went to music school after graduating, "just in case" Dunn wasn't kidding, according to Texas Aggie in November 1966. All Dunn asked was Adams not alter his arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

It wasn't the first time an A&M band leader taught Adams. When he was 7 and a member of the community boys' band, former A&M bandmaster Alios Slovacek taught him to play the cornet. Adams then went on to attend A&M and teach music at several secondary schools, including starting the band at Bryan High School in 1934 before being drafted, according to his September 1982 obituary in The Eagle. After the war, the Texas State Guard also commissioned Adams.

After the war, Adams rebuilt the band, and it surpassed its pre-war glory. The band had 270 members by 1948. The bands previously known as the infantry and artillery units were renamed the Maroon and White Band, with 80 members in each. The remaining 110 formed the Freshman Band, which was housed at the Bryan Air Base along with the rest of the freshman class, according to a 1948 Eagle article. The Bryan Air Base is now A&M's Riverside Campus. The freshman band was disbanded in 1954. The treble clef was added to the Block T banners for the bugle rank, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

Former students reflected on Adams' expectations of precision and punctuality, according to his obituary. He made practices at odd times to ensure students arrived on time, such as 5:03, rather than 5 p.m.

"I judge a drill not by the audience applause, but by the looks of the men's faces when they come off the field," Adams said, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band. "If they did their jobs well, I can feel the glow of their pride."

Adams revamped the band's marching techniques upon being hired. Each step made by band members was 30 inches, so they would be able to march six steps between every 5-yard-line marker, according to a December 1952 article in the Texas Aggie. He designed the intricate drills that are the subject of envy by other band directors, with each performance becoming more complicated than the last, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

During Adams' leadership, the Aggie Band received national attention with TV appearances during halftime performances. In October 1955, the band traveled by train to perform at a game against the University of California at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The day after the game, the cadets entertained guests at Disneyland with a parade and concert.

Aggie Band criss cross

The Aggie Band performing the criss-cross maneuver in 1978.

By October 1958, Adams had completed 100 different drills, according to an article in The Battalion noting the milestone. The band debuted its famed criss-cross maneuver in 1947 at the annual Thanksgiving Day game against The University of Texas, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

To complete the original maneuver, two units march diagonally across the field toward each other. Once they meet at a central point, or axis, individual members make a right angle step, eventually creating an "X" as more members complete the turn. Drill formation software today claims this maneuver is impossible because it would require two marchers to be in the same place at once, according to Traditions Council.

Other variations begin with four units marching to the axis.

The band began to sell studio recordings of its music in 1968. The first volume of The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band became the top-selling college band recording in the nation, according to the Powells' book. The band has since released 11 more albums, the most recent in 2011. The albums have included recordings of live performances during games at Kyle Field and the now demolished G. Rollie White Coliseum, capturing the sounds of the athletic venues and fans.

Adams was also the dean of Southwest Conference band directors. He retired in 1973, handing over the reins to associate band director Col. Joe T. Haney. The new band hall next to the band dormitories was renamed in Adams' honor for the "dignity, self-discipline, and enduring pride" he instilled in Aggie Band members, according to his dedication plaque.

Col. Joe T. Haney: 1973 to 1989

Haney was an Aggie who marched under Dunn's leadership. He attended A&M briefly as a member of the class of 1948 before being drafted to serve in World War II. Before returning to A&M, Haney studied music at Southern Methodist University and built Mexia High School's band into an award-winning program.

Before Haney was even a faculty member for A&M, he was composing music for the Aggie Band. At Adams' request, he composed Gig ‘Em, which was recorded on the band's second album, Big! Brassy! Beautiful! It was released in 1970.

Haney founded and directed the Texas Aggie Concert and Stage bands while associate band director. His first season as band director, 1973, the band recorded its third album, this time including live performances from Kyle Field. Haney wrote Noble Men of Kyle Field. The march became a nickname for the organization and remains part of the band's repertoire. The band and the Singing Cadets performed on Kyle Field together for the first time in 1976 to commemorate the nation's bicentennial during the game against Texas Tech.

Aggie band women

Women admitted to the Aggie Band for the first time in fall 1985.

Enrollment at A&M was open to women in the late1960s and Corps participation was no longer mandatory. Women were admitted to the Corps in 1974, but its internal organizations and special units -- such as the band and the Ross Volunteers -- remained all-male. In a September 1973 article in The Battalion, Haney said, "The very fact that it is exclusively a male band contributes to its uniqueness. To my knowledge there are only two such marching bands in the country and it won't change for a long time to come."

That change did not occur for another 11 years. Melanie Zentgraf filed a lawsuit in 1979 against the university for not encouraging the Corps of Cadets to allow women in its special units. The first women were admitted to the band in fall 1985.

Three women joined the band at the beginning of the fall semester. Only one woman remained by the following spring, according to a March 1986 Eagle article. The female cadets started out living in separate dorms. Part of the experience in the Corps of Cadets is that members live together with their unit on the Quad dormitories "and build lifelong friendships with members of their class, as well as the upperclassmen and underclassmen," according to the Corps' website. Haney designated a section of the formerly all-male dorm for women, according to the Houston Chronicle in September 1986.

Three more women joined that fall. Andrea Abat, the female band member who stayed the entire first year, played the trombone and graduated in 1989. She was the first woman to participate in the band all four years and march as a senior, according to an August 1989 Eagle article.

Under Haney's leadership, the band traveled more than ever. The band performed at eight bowl games from 1974 to 1989, and attended every regular season game from 1982 to 1984. It was also during this time that the band grew to more than 300 members, according to The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band.

For a drill to work with the amount of space the field allotted, only 303 members, including three drum majors, could be on the field at the same time. Haney built up the instrumental portion of the band program that performed in more of a concert setting, without marching. The Aggieland Orchestra had been around since before World War II. It performed Big Band music of the 1930s and '40s. The symphonic band was established for students who wanted a musical outlet, but not  be members of the Corps.

With an expanding music program and so many students, new faculty positions were created. Maj. Joe McMullen was hired as associate director in 1973. He died in 1982. Bill Dean, the first band faculty member to not be in the military, filled the position. Student assistant Jay Brewer, class of 1981, was kept on as a full-time employee. Today, Brewer is the senior associate director. Haney retired in 1989 and the band drill field was renamed the Joe T. Haney Drill Field in his honor.

Lt. Col. Ray Toler: 1989 to 2002

Lt. Col. Ray Toler was hired as associate director in 1988 and assumed the full leadership role in 1989. Haney's advice to his successor: Don't change anything in the Aggie Band, because, "you don't mess with excellence," Toler said in a May 2002 interview with The Eagle.

"The Aggie Band is recognized nationwide as one of the true military bands in the nation," Toler told the Associated Press in November 1996. "If we were to change to the modern, contemporary style, that would really be the end of it — a distinct style of collegiate band would be no more."

Like Dunn and Adams, Toler also received music lessons from an Aggie band director. While Haney, a Marlin native, was a band director for Mexia High School, he would spend his vacation with family, and would give private trombone lessons to Toler. Haney and his pupil would remain in contact throughout Toler's career.

According to a May 2002 Eagle article, Adams advised him to make a choice between being an Aggie or a band director, because A&M did not offer a music degree. Toler went to Texas Christian University instead, graduating in 1964. He was teaching at a high school and performing with symphony orchestras when he entered the Air Force. Toler played trombone for the military band and attended Officer Candidate School, receiving a commission in 1968. Eventually, Toler became chief of the U.S. Air Force Bands and Music at the Pentagon, according to an August 1988 Eagle article.

Upon becoming band director in 1989, Toler said his goal was to keep the band performing at a high level and expand the program. "I feel very strongly that the traditions and heritage should remain the way they are," he said, according to a September 1989 Eagle article. Toler promoted Brewer to associate director and hired Jim McDaniel as assistant director. Kevin Roberts, class of 1989, was the band's first black drum major. The music program expanded with the addition of a Jazz Ensemble and Wind Symphony.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush requested that the band appear in his presidential inauguration parade. George W. Bush also requested the band for both his gubernatorial and presidential inaugurations. The band has participated in gubernatorial inauguration parades for Rick Perry, Aggie class of 1972, and other Texas governors.

The band celebrated its centennial in 1994. The Texas Aggie Band Centennial album was released and sold 100,000 copies, according to The Pride of Aggieland by Homer Jacobs.

The Texas Aggie Band Show premiered in 1995 to give a behind-the-scenes look at the marching program, the Corps of Cadets and complete halftime performances. Today, the program airs during the Aggie football season on KAMU-TV and is available to PBS stations and is live streamed at Bruce Bockhorn, class of 1974 and former Aggie Band drum major, hosts the program. The program information by KAMU Public Broadcasting reads, "The Aggie Band remains the only collegiate band in the nation with its own regularly scheduled weekly television show that can be viewed statewide and out-of-state."

The Aggie Band was recognized as the 2001 recipient of the Louis Sudler Trophy honoring college marching bands. The John Phillip Sousa Foundation administers the award, which is based on nominations by collegiate band directors all over the nation.

Timothy Rhea: 2002 to present

Timothy Rhea

Timothy Rhea, director of bands at Texas A&M University, conducts the Wind Symphony.

Toler retired in 2002. Timothy Rhea, who was hired to the band's faculty in 1993, was promoted to head the program that had grown to more than 800 students. Today, besides the Aggie Band, there are five different large bands and four smaller specialized bands. Rhea conducted the Wind Symphony in New York's Carnegie Hall and during four European tours. He has had more than 300 compositions and music arrangements published.

According to the Corps of Cadets' website, the band is the most traveled collegiate marching band in the nation. The band members participate in Corps and university events such as Silver Taps, Muster and Final Review.

As members of the Corps of Cadets, students in the Aggie Band are eligible to apply through A&M's ROTC program to receive military commissions in the armed forces upon graduation. The Corps reports it "consistently commissions more officers than any institution other than the service academies," according to its website. As in the Corps as a whole, about 45 to 50 percent of students in the band seek military commissions.

On Nov. 19, 2011, the rest of the Corps of Cadets joined the band on Kyle Field for Military Appreciation Day. More than 2,000 members formed the Block T that touched both end zones. It was the first time in 55 years that the entire organization formed the Block T.

The Aggie Band reached its highest membership to date for the fall 2013 semester. With 449 members, two units were reactivated in August.

— Compiled by Claire Heathman

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