Great Soloists of the John Philip Sousa Band September 18 2013, 0 Comments

Contributed by: Jack Kopstein

The renown of the Sousa band was not accomplished without a most serious and comprehensive search for established talent among the musicians. Sousa prided himself in hiring accomplished soloists. Beyond that he also realized the need for performers whom he could rely upon year after year.  

One such player for which he hired for many concerts was the bass drummer August Helmke. Sousa often played his marches in different tempi. There were reasons why there were different opinions on how Sousa played his marches.  August Helmecke, Sousa's bass drummer, commented that: Sousa wrote for performance, not for publication.  In odd moments on trains, in hotel rooms, or shipboard, he'd simply jot down his immortal themes, hand them over to the band copyist, and then snap right into action on them.  Consequently, when they came to be published, nothing but the notes got onto the printed page.

August Helmecke Jr was born in 1872 in Germany. His father was a percussionist in a German military band. He began studies of drums at an early age. In 1888 he joined a travelling concert group as the percussionist. The group made their way to the United States only to meet failure thus leaving Helmecke without employment. He soon however got a position with the New York Metropolitan opera orchestra. In 1905 he also joined the newly organized Goldman band during their summer concert series. Mostly he played vaudeville houses across North America. His style of bass drumming fitted Sousa’s musical instincts and in 1916 he was hired remaining with Sousa until 1932. Helmecke revolutionized bass drumming and he was considered a world class performer on the instrument. He authored book on drumming which was published by Conn in 1930. After appearing for several years with Sousa he joined the Goldman band and continued to receive rave notices. He often appeared as soloist almost right up to his death in 1954.  

Simone Mantia was born on 6 February 1873 in Palermo, Sicily. In 1890, at the age of 17, he immigrated to the United States along with his family. He would spend much of his life in and around New York, performing in many ensembles and also teaching privately. In later years, he resided with his wife in a very small New York apartment. Simone Mantia died on 25 June 1951 in Flushing New York. He was survived by his wife. Mantia is remembered by his students as “very kind, very modest, and very unassuming” as well as just generally having been a “nice guy” who rarely allowed any frustration or anger to enter into his demeanor. He suffered from a speech deficit, though what portion of that may have been merely accent is not well documented.He was the star Euphonium performer with Sousa from 1895-1903. He played trombone with several orchestras including the NBC orchestra.  

Herbert Lincoln Clarke, acknowledged to be the greatest cornetist of his time, was certainly the most celebrated. Not only was he a virtuoso cornet player, but "an excellent composer, an accomplished violinist, a prolific and highly talented arranger for band, and a most distinguished band conductor. As well, he wrote several study books for the cornet that are still used today. Clarke was born in Woburn, Massachusetts on September 12, 1867. He moved with his family to Toronto in 1880. Since his father was the organist at the Jarvis St. Baptist Church and his three older brothers played with the Regimental Band of the Queen's Own Rifles, it was not surprising that the young Clarke showed an interest in music. He himself said in his autobiography, How I Became a Cornetist that it was growing up "in a musical environment that played a large part in turning me to the musically artistic as a life profession".

In the spring of 1881 he attended a concert of The American Band of Providence, Rhode Island, at the Horticultural Pavilion in Toronto and he heard Bowen R. Church play a cornet solo. Later, Clarke was to remember this event as the most significant of his childhood. He taught himself to play the cornet, using his Brother Edwin's instrument. At about the same time, he joined the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Dr. F. H. Torrington, as a violinist. The cornet had captured his heart, however. In 1882, he joined the Queen's Own Rifles band as the last chair of a 12-man cornet section in order to obtain a government-issue instrument on which to practice. Between 1884, when he graduated from high school, and 1887, Clarke drifted between playing in the pit orchestra of English's Opera House in Indianapolis, where his family had moved; working (unhappily) at the John Kay store in Toronto, while playing second chair cornetist with the Queen's Own; and playing at the Ontario Beach lake resort in the summer. It was in 1887 that he joined the Citizen's Band of Toronto, under John Bayley, as the band's cornet soloist. He spent the next five years playing in and leading several bands around Toronto (the Taylor Safe Works Band, Heintzman Piano Company Band, Streetsville Ontario Band) and teaching at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (where he also played in the Toronto Conservatory String Quartet) and at Trinity College in Port Hope, Ontario.

In September of 1889 he married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Loudon, with whom he had two children: Vivian (Grace) in 1890 and James (Edward James Watkin) in 1892. In the spring of 1892, he left Canada once again, after successfully auditioning for the Gilmore Band. In 1893, he joined Sousa's Band as a cornet soloist. After playing at the Chicago Exposition in the same year, he left to play with various other bands, continuing to do so over the next five years. It was during this period that he divorced Lizzie Loudon and married Lillian Bell Hause, with whom he had two more children, Ruby Bell and Herbert L. Clarke, Jr. In 1898 he returned to Sousa's Band, with whom he toured extensively, and later became Sousa's assistant director, conducting the band in many recording sessions. He resigned from Sousa's band in September of 1917 and returned to Canada to lead the Anglo-Canadian Leather Company Band in Huntsville, Ontario from 1918 to 1923. Under Clarke's leadership, this band became one of the most celebrated commercial bands in North America. In 1923, he moved to Long Beach, California due to his wife's health and conducted the Long Beach Municipal Band until 1943. In April of 1934, he was elected President of the American Bandmasters Association. He died in January 1945 and his ashes were interred at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., near the gravesite of John Phillip Sousa. His papers and memorabilia are held at The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the course of his musical career, Clarke recorded most of his own solo cornet compositions, other cornet solos and conducted Sousa's Band in over 200 recordings. Among his recordings were "Bride of the Waves", "Sounds from the Hudson" and "Caprice Brilliante", as a soloist; "Hunting Scene", conducting the American Band of Providence; and "The Stars and Stripes Forever", "Semper Fidelis" and "Favourite Songs of Canada", conducting Sousa's Band. Several of his recordings were reissued on Crystal Records disc S450 around 1979. A discography can be found in Roll Back the Years.  

Arthur Pryor was arguably America's most important non-jazz trombonist of the early 20th century; on top of that, he was revered during the acoustical recording era for his skills as both a bandleader/conductor and a composer. Pryor, whose influences ranged from ragtime to European classical (especially waltzes) to 19th century pop, was never a jazz musician, but his recordings were admired by people in the jazz world (including Louis Armstrong) and arguably influenced Paul Whiteman's orchestra as well as some of the sweet bands (jazz-influenced pop orchestras) that emerged in the '10s and '20s. Pryor's well-known compositions included "The Whistler and His Dog," "Polka Fantastic," "The Victor March," and "Razzaza Mazzaza."

Pryor was born in St. Joseph, MO, either on September 22, 1870 (the date most often given), or in April 1869; because he was listed as being nine months old when the United States Census was taken in early 1870 (according to music historian David Sager), April 1869 might be accurate. Pryor came from a very musical family; his father, Samuel Dallas Pryor (b. 1844, d. 1902), was the leader of Pryor's Military Band, which was also known as the 4th Regiment Band of Missouri and was popular in and around St. Joseph in the 1870s and 1880s. Pryor's older brother Walter D. Pryor (b. 1867, d. 1937) became a cornetist, and his younger brother Samuel Pryor, Jr. (b. 1881, d. 1943) played drums. By the time Arthur Pryor was 11, he was being featured as a trombonist in his father's band; as an adolescent, he became a local celebrity in St. Joseph. In 1889, Pryor joined the band of cornetist Allesandro Liberatti (b. 1847, d. 1927), and in 1892, his visibility continued to grow when he joined John Philip Sousa's well-known band as a featured trombone soloist. Sousa's band included some of Pryor's compositions in its 1890s repertoire, including ragtime material. It was during the 1890s that Pryor was first recorded; one Victorian-era gem that has survived is Pryor's trombone solo on the sentimental 1897 recording "There'll Come a Time," released by the Berliner Gramophone Company.

In 1895, Sousa promoted Pryor to assistant conductor, but in 1903, Pryor left Sousa's employ and formed his own band -- which was recorded extensively in the 1900s and '10s and was a popular live attraction in Asbury Park, NJ, and elsewhere. In the '20s and early '30s, Pryor did most of his conducting for radio. Pryor had been semi-retired from music when, in 1942, he agreed to conduct a summer concert series in Asbury Park. But Pryor, who had reached his early seventies, suffered a major stroke on June 16, 1942, and died in the hospital two days later on June 18, 1942. Regrettably, only a few collections of Pryor's recordings have been released in the U.S. during the CD era.  

Frank Simon (1889-1967) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He studied cornet under William J. Kopp and later, Herman Bellstadt, both charter members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and at the age of 23 performed with the CSO.  In 1914 he left the Symphony and joined the internationally renowned John Philip Sousa Band, and in 1917 became solo cornetist and assistant conductor of that great organization.  In 1921 Simon as approached by a senior executive at Armco Steel to begin a company band.  Simon reluctantly agreed and by 1929 the Armco Band was a household name.  NBC and WLW broadcast performances every Sunday afternoon across the nation.  In addition to his work with Armco, in 1930 Simon joined the faculty of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  Frank Simon suggested to Miss Bertha Bauer that it might be a good idea to begin a band department and he would be willing to run it.  She accepted his offer and became a trendsetter.  He not only established the first band department, but he attracted so many students to the band program at the Conservatory that Bertha Bauer frequently admitted to friends that by beginning the band department she was able to save the Conservatory from bankruptcy during the Depression.  Frank Simon was a cornet soloist with the band from 1914-1920, and after Herbert L. Clarke retired in 1917 he assumed the assistant conductor`s position.

Prior to his Sousa years, he was with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Weber`s Prize Band of America. On the recommendation of foremost cornet soloist Herman Bellstedt, he was accepted into Sousa`s Band without audition. He was an emotional man, and this quality was reflected in his artistry. After leaving the band in 1920, Simon founded and conducted an industrial band for the American Rolling Mill Co. (Armco) in Middletown, Ohio. The Armco Band started as a band of amateurs and grew to a fully professional band with weekly network radio broadcasts. Simon then turned to music education. He taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the University of Arizona and was a mentor to several students who eventually rose to the top of their profession. He was one of the first men elected to the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and later served as its president.


- Jack Kopstein