Celebrating 100 years with the Million Dollar Band
The Million Dollar Band, one of The University of Alabama’s most beloved organizations, marked its 100th anniversary in fall 2012. Watch this slideshow for a pictorial history of the band.
The University of Alabama band began in 1912 as an informal, student-led ensemble. By 1913, however, the 15 musicians had their first director, Dr. Gustav Wittig (far right). Two years later, when this photo was taken for the Corolla yearbook, the band also had a uniform of sorts. Wittig held the director position until 1917. Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
On their way to play Florida at Montgomery, Alabama’s Cramton Bowl, members of the 1925 band posed on and in front of the train that would take them there. (Final score: Alabama 34, Florida 0.)
During the 1920s, as the nation celebrated victory in WWI, the University honored those lost in the war by dedicating 27 trees as “living memorials.” Oak trees were chosen as a nod to Tuscaloosa’s alias, “Druid City,” a reference to the many oaks planted throughout the city. The acquisition of the trees was financed by a band concert, sponsored by the American Forestry Association of Washington, D.C.
That same decade, the newly christened Million Dollar Band learned a freshly composed fight song, “Yea, Alabama,” and picked up its second director (the band was student-led from Wittig’s 1917 departure until 1927): Captain H. H. Turner, who led the band until 1934. Image copyright Bettman/CORBIS; used with permission.
This 1939 image marks the close of a decade that saw Carleton K. Butler added to the University of Alabama faculty. Known as “Colonel Butler,” he led the band from 1935 until his retirement in 1968. Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
Members of the 1945 band take the field. The 1940s saw their share of hardship, from the Pearl Harbor attack and America’s involvement in WWII to the localized heartache of many UA students gone to war. The 1944 Corolla notes the effect of their absence on the Million Dollar Band, calling it “another casualty.” The band was replaced by the Army Air Corps and A.S.T.P. bands, and students saw army khaki overtake the familiar crimson and white uniforms. But just two years later, the 1946 yearbook announced that the band was “fast regaining its strength with the peace” and that the MDB “owes its life … to the girls who gallantly filled the places left by boys called away.” Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
This photo from the 1950s finds the band back to booming, receiving recognition from Collier’s Magazine as second-best in the nation and playing original arrangements by a UA alumnus, Steve Sample.
But perhaps the greatest honor is one the band shares with the rest of the school — the rise of the football team to greatness by the reinstatement of Bear Bryant as athletic director and head football Coach. The Corolla touts Bryant’s good influence after an 18-year absence: “Coach Bryant began immediately to rehabilitate the decrepit football machine of the once-mighty Tide.” Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
Colonel Butler, the Bear Bryant of band directors, inspired 33 years of Million Dollar Band members. In this 1960s photo, Butler poses with a few of them.
Amelia Heath, who played flute in the band from 1960 to 1962, calls those years the band’s “golden era.” She says that Butler’s strict nature is what endeared him to her as one of her favorite instructors. “He had very high standards,” she said. “[But] if they care a lot about the end product, that helps you do your best.” Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
Miss Alabama Carol Self and drum major Bill Fuqua march at the head of the band for the 1964 homecoming parade. Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
In this photo, taken in the 1960s, band members practice for an upcoming performance.
Amelia Heath says the long bus rides to bowl games remain one of her favorite memories from that era. “One of the twirlers could tell jokes without stopping,” she said. “I laughed the whole time.”
Today Heath, who still plays the flute, enjoys marching with the alumni band at shows, where she often runs into old friends. “We’ll talk about a specific band trip that we remember, or other people in the band with us, wondering where they are now.” Heath, who holds a season pass to the games, declares, “I’m always going to go, as long as I can, because then I can sit right there and watch the band.” Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
Colonel Butler retired in 1968 and was replaced in 1969 by Earl Dunn (right, in a photo from the Corolla yearbook), who directed the band until 1970. Image courtesy of the Million Dollar Band, School of Music, The University of Alabama.
Dr. James Ferguson, pictured here, directed the band from 1971 to 1983. Phil Nix, who played the trumpet from 1979 to 1982, remembers him fondly. “Dr. Ferguson was a real character,” says Nix, recalling the director’s use of shoe polish to mark the field to position the members of the band.
Ron Johnston, who also played the trumpet under Ferguson (1972-1977), says he can’t single out a favorite memory from his band experience. “I got to march in the last Sugar Bowl in Tulane stadium, and the first in the Superdome. I got to stand by Bear on the field at pregame and halftime,” says Johnston, still awestruck after 40 years. “There’s just some wonderful memories.” Image courtesy of the Million Dollar Band, School of Music, The University of Alabama.
A new band uniform debuted during the 1970s — “kind of a mix between Star Trek and hotel doorman,” says Phil Nix. Inspired by the science fiction films and TV series of the era, the uniforms created “a futuristic image for a tradition-rooted band,” according to the manufacturer.
“We loved them!” says Ron Johnston. “While they may look dated now, they were a new concept in uniform construction — a one-piece coat with a built-in overlay that zipped up the front. They were light, comfortable, and easy to clean. The old uniforms were wool — hot and heavy.”
“I liked the uniform, especially the captain’s cap,” says Nix. “It was a user-friendly wardrobe: jacket, pants, and hat. The more parts to a uniform, the more likely something was going to be left at home hanging on the back of a chair. A lot of us in the band needed to keep it as simple as possible.” Image courtesy of University Libraries Division of Special Collections.
This picture finds Phil Nix (center) smiling as his section marches onto the field in 1982. Nix counts his participation in the Sugar Bowl his freshman year as the highlight of his time in the band. The game was against Arkansas, and Bama’s victory earned Coach “Bear” Bryant his last national championship. Nix says he also feels privileged to have been able to attend Bryant’s last game before retiring, the 1982 Liberty Bowl.
In recent years, Nix has picked up the trumpet, and while “it’s not easy to just pick up a wind instrument and start playing,” he was able to recall the notes for “Yea, Alabama!” Image courtesy of Phil Nix.
Kathryn B. Scott led the band from 1984 to 2002, making her the second-longest-serving director in Million Dollar Band history. Susanne (Marsh) Hibbard, who played clarinet in the band from 1986 to 1991, remembers Scott as “a perfectionist.”
“She made us work hard, but you could tell it was because she really cared about the University,” Hibbard says. “She wanted us to put on a great musical show that was also entertaining.”
Under Scott, the band performed a wide range of musical styles, Hibbard says. “We did a lot of patriotic shows, country music, Broadway. There were fireworks, cannons — it was always a big production.” Image courtesy of the Paul W. Bryant Museum at The University of Alabama.
Like many band alumni, Susanne Hibbard says the bowl trips were the best times. One of those trips became Hibbard’s favorite performance: “It was the 1990 Sugar Bowl. We did the Southern gospel show, where we played ‘Amazing Grace’ at the end. The crowd started getting to their feet, cheering. We thought the teams must be coming back onto the field, and that that was why the crowd was cheering, but they were cheering for us.”
Hibbard, who married while in the band (and honeymooned on a trip to the Blockbuster Bowl in 1991), says she always plays in the annual Alumni Band performance. “It’s so special to be back on the field at Bryant-Denny,” she said. Pictured here, left to right: Michelle Robinson, Hibbard, and Hibbard’s sister Ginger (Marsh) Bennett. Image courtesy of Susanne Hibbard.
This picture finds the mellophone section of the 1994 Million Dollar Band in Knoxville, TN. Featured in this photo is Kandy Ryland Wesson, a member of the band from 1994 to 1996. She recalls that during her first year a heat wave struck Tuscaloosa, keeping temperatures above 100°F for more than two weeks.
“Imagine that,” says Wesson, “with those heavy uniforms and those flashy capes.” During the first pre-game show of the season, several students passed out, one of them requiring an IV. But rather than succumb to the weather, the band simply altered its schedule to practice in the cooler parts of the day, as well as indoors.
This determination to perform regardless of circumstances is among many life skills that alumni and current members say they cherish as part of the Million Dollar Band experience. As Wesson says, “So many wonderful memories and lessons of how I wanted to live my life were learned in those years in the MDB.” Image courtesy of Kandy Ryland Wesson.
Color guard member Quina Rieves, part of the band from 1999 to 2002, joined under then-director Kathryn Scott (shown here). Rieves recalls marching with Scott down the 50-yard line during “Amazing Grace.” The walk was to be the director’s last before her 2002 retirement. Rieves, also in her last year with the band, says that she was reduced to tears: “It was at that moment while walking with Kathryn that I realized I had achieved something great and that I would remember for a lifetime.” Image courtesy of the Million Dollar Band, School of Music, The University of Alabama.
In 2003 Dr. Ken Ozzello accepted his current position as band director, and the band received the prestigious Sudler Trophy, the only national award honoring excellence among college marching bands.
Ozzello says he emphasizes interaction between the fans and the band. “I think the results have been great,” he says. “Our fans have helped make our pregame show high energy.” Ozzello also added pianos and guitars to the halftime show arrangements, broadening the spectrum of music the band can play. Images courtesy of Ken Ozzello (top right) and the Paul W. Bryant Museum at The University of Alabama.
Director Ken Ozzello says that the biggest difference between his band and his predecessors’ is the group’s size. The 2012 band, he says, “was the largest ever, with 426 members.”
Piccolo player Laura Phillips, who came from a private high school with a 17-member band, says she wasn’t expecting to see 400-plus members in the Million Dollar Band. “I was floored by the fact that my section of 25 was bigger than my high school band,” Phillips says.
But the band’s size doesn’t make playing in it an impersonal or daunting experience, says Shea Stripling, who played piccolo from 2009 to 2011. “It’s a neat, tight community,” she says. “Band members are still concerned about every person in the band.” Image courtesy of the Paul W. Bryant Museum at The University of Alabama.
Former piccolo player Shea Stripling says that one of her favorite memories is the January 2010 trip to Pasadena, CA, for the Rose Bowl. Stripling remembers sitting on the plane awaiting takeoff when, with a crackle over the intercom, “Yea, Alabama!” began to play.
“The flight attendants wanted us to play our instruments,” she says. Although the band’s instruments remained in their cases, “The drum major did get up and ‘direct’ and we sang the fight song as we took off.”
Shown here: Stripling (second from right) and fellow band members at the 2011 Florida game. Photo by Mary Hoffman; image courtesy of Shea Stripling.
Shown here: Members of the 2011 Million Dollar Band color guard.
Quina Rieves, who marched with the band from 1999 to 2002, spent her high school years as a musician in a military band. But upon joining the Million Dollar Band, she switched to color guard.
“Musicians and color guard members all work together to tell a story and present that story collectively,” Rieves says.
Image courtesy of the Million Dollar Band, School of Music, The University of Alabama.
Andrea Jaegge (first in right line), a junior majoring in environmental studies, was a piccolo player in the Million Dollar Band during the 2011 season and traveled with the band to the national championship in New Orleans.
“It’s hard to explain what it felt like, standing on the field before pre-game,” Jaegge said. “So many people were chanting at once, you could feel the ground move beneath you. I won’t forget that soon.” Image courtesy of Andrea Jaegge.
More About the Band’s History
Formed during the 1912-13 school year, the band has its roots in UA’s military background and was formed as a way of training students to march as a unit. The name “Million Dollar Band” was first used in 1922 by W. C. “Champ” Pickens, an Alabama alumnus and former football team manager.
The most widely accepted version of the story is rooted in the band’s trip to the 1922 away game against Georgia Tech. Because the band’s budget at the time was little more than what it spends on T-shirts and water bottles today, members were forced to fundraise extensively just to cover the cost of the over-crowded bus ride to Georgia.
During that game, won by the Yellowjackets 33-7, an Atlanta sportswriter asked Pickens, “You don’t have much of a team, what do you have at Alabama?” Pickens replied, “A million-dollar band.” The name, now more appropriate than sarcastic, stuck.
More than 25,000 students have played in the band in the last 100 years; today, the band boasts more than 400 members, making it the largest student organization on campus. The group has performed before hundreds of audiences at football games on college campuses across the United States.
In 2003 the band was awarded the prestigious Sudler Trophy, the national championship for collegiate marching bands, which any band may win only once. Recently, its performances were seen by millions during halftime shows at the national football championship games played in 2009 and 2011.
To begin this year of celebration, the Million Dollar Band added another accomplishment to its list: first marching band to parade in the streets of Florence, Italy. In May 2012, more than 100 members of the band traveled to Italy for two weeks to perform in concert halls throughout the country and interact with Italian music ensembles.
The on-campus celebration included a September 2012 Centennial Concert by the Alabama Wind Ensemble, featuring directors from the past 100 years, followed by a Centennial Gala where members and alumni received commemorative rings. The following day, the University of Alabama Alumni Band performed with the Million Dollar Band during the halftime show at the football game with Florida Atlantic University.
For more information about the Centennial Celebration, visit http://bands.ua.edu/mdb-centennial-celebration.