It’s Halftime!!!!!!

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: August 31, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — Saturday afternoons in the fall mean college football. But Saturday afternoons at historically Black colleges and universities mean Showtime!

No matter how good or bad a team is, no matter how good or bad the game is, two things are a given at a HBCU game One, someone goes home happy — after all, their team won. Two, and most important — no one goes to the bathroom during halftime.

Let’s be real here — while normal Division I school bands march — HBCU bands strut. Division I school bands sing fight songs; HBCUs live them. Division I schools play; HBCUs perform.

From the hot stepping of the drum majors, the precision of the flag bearers, and the universal sounds produced from an army of wood, brass and steel, HBCU bands have transformed halftimes into their personal 15 minutes of fame.

Although the movie “Drumline” focused on the competitive nature between schools, it is usually not considered a complete victory until the school’s band kicks butt along with the football team during the unofficial “battle of the bands” at halftime.

Of all those HBCU bands that have graced the gridiron, some have reached mythic status.

In northern Florida , you will find the capital, Tallahassee , and snakes. Children raised in Florida know early on not to walk in tall grass because a snake may be lurking. But opponents of Florida A&M University (FAMU) know a Rattler can strike anywhere.

The Green and Orange of FAMU, while just across the tracks from their Division I neighbor Florida State, has enjoyed its own niche as a HBC power, winning the inaugural Division I-AA title in 1978.

Self-proclaimed as the “marchingest, baddest, most electrifying band in the world”, the “Marching 100′s” accomplishments stand on their own as well. In 1985, FAMU was awarded the Sudler Trophy, the highest honor a collegiate marching band can receive.

FAMU’s Marching 100 became the first Southern band, the first HBCU band, and first and only in the MEAC to receive the award, considered by many to be the “Heisman Trophy for college bands.”

Hampton University has become a bellwether franchise for academic and athletic excellence, and their band has been trumpeting their success for decades. Al Davis, band director for the 220 members of the “Marching Force” gives a “Who’s Who?” dialogue on bands at HBCUs: “The Hampton Band program goes back to the late 1800s,” reveals Davis . “And my working experience included influences by some of the greatest band directors of all time. People like Isaac Gregg (Southern University), Merritt at Tennessee State, Harold Harden ( Jackson State ) and Donovan Walls down at Bethune-Cookman.”
“All of these gentlemen strove not only for technical excellence, but always sought to entertain and give the audience their very best each and every show.”

Davis says many schools work the kinks out at band camp, which can sometimes be as demanding as any football practice. “We don’t practice as much — our kids are students and degrees are important. At band camp we go from 8 am to 11 pm for about three weeks, usually around the second week in August.”

“And we do strive for perfection — it doesn’t matter how much you shake that tail if the music ain’t right.”

While “Drumline” focused on this aspect of Black college life, Davis says the producers were about 80% right in their depiction.”Incorporating popular music has always a staple of most bands’ repertoire,” says Davis . “If it’s hot on the radio, we’ll play it. And certain bands get more play because of their style, along with fight songs and alma mater songs.”

“Many of the HBCU bands will jump on new stuff that comes out — but the better stuff that becomes standards come from the funk/jazz fusion coming from the 1970s and 1980s.” Asked who stands out among that, Davis replied, “Without a doubt, Cameo. Before they revised their group, they had 12-13 cats in their first lineup. Their horn arrangements and rhythm fit what we do like a glove.”

“We have performed to Cameo songs like “Talking out the Side of Your Neck”, “Skin I’m In”, “Knights of the Sound Table” and “Word Up” — and many other schools have as well.”

If you happen to dote on the sound coming down from Washington , D.C., then the 160- piece Howard University Showtime Band may be your on-field cup of turf. John Newson has been a band director for 35 years, and says Howard knows how to go to the go-go.

“From the 1980s, go-go has been a big thing around here,” says Newson. “Performers like Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, E.U. and Redds’ and the Boys are cultural icons for this area, and their music is reflected here as well as Morgan State (located in Baltimore).”

“With the dancers, flags and the sound we produce, it’s a full package — that’s why we call it the “Showtime Band”.
But any discussion about bands begins and ends with Grambling State University .

Success never spoiled Grambling. The Black and Gold have used the school’s band to gain further notoriety as a centerpiece of the university, having performed from Africa to Japan and through North America .

In 1952, then President Charles P. Adams asked Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, to start a band at the school. After establishing a line of credit through Sears & Roebuck, Jones bought instruments and started what evolved into the Tiger Marching Band.

The 1960s television documentary “100 Yards to Glory” prominently displayed the band’s popularity in a town so small (at that time, anyway) people had to flag trains down for them to stop.

Coupled with the success of the football program, the Tiger Marching Band is arguably the greatest collegiate marching band in the country. From recording albums, commercials (remember the Coca-Cola spot?) movie appearances, playing in the first Super Bowl (as well as SB’s IX and XX) and performing in nearly every domed and open-air stadium in North America (often times for teams other than Grambling), they epitomize the spirit of the Black college experience.