by Joe Levinson
Dave Remington invited me to play bass in his newly formed Dixie Six in 1956. The band was assembled to play for the summer at Walt Williamson’s Wagon Wheel resort in Rockton, Illinois, just south of Beloit, Wisconsin. I was a writer at the time for CBS/WBBM in Chicago but was unhappy with my assignments and when Dave called me, I was ready for a change. It meant a summer in the country playing with the new band and time to rethink my options.
I’d met Dave at Jazz, Ltd. in its original location on Grand Avenue and State Street in Chicago. I’d gone there often to hear Bill Reinhardt’s quintets play traditional jazz and at times, when invited, to sit in with the band. They didn’t use a bass; the rhythm section was just drums and piano.
One of the guys who hung out there was Chuck Hedges, a clarinetist who was beginning to find his way into the Chicago jazz scene. Chuck, Dave, and I became friends and for a period Dave was the resident trombonist in Reinhardt’s band. Norm Murphy was their trumpet player and I never ceased to marvel at his creative playing—and his creative drinking.
Anyway, I made what I thought would be a summertime move to Rockton, Illinois and in late spring I joined up with the rest of the sextet at the band’s summer venue, the Wagon Wheel Theater.
Wayne “Hap” Gormley was the drummer. I’d met him briefly before going to the Wheel but hadn’t played in any bands with him prior to that. Not only was he a fine drummer, he turned out to be a valuable member of the band in ways which I’ll get to a bit later.
Mel Grant, the grandfather of all of us on the band, was the pianist. He was a legendary stride piano virtuoso and one of the best timekeepers on keys I ever knew. He guided us through the absolutely exact chord changes of every tune, and he knew more tunes than any of the rest of us would ever know. If you have a chance to hear any of the albums we recorded you’ll understand what a talented pianist he was.
On clarinet, Chuck Hedges filled the role brilliantly. He worked diligently all the while we were at the Wheel to improve his style and technique. He brought a tremendous sense of humor with him which kept us in stitches. His comic alter-personna “Chicken Kamikazi” the Japanese pilot, never ceased to get huge laughs from the audience.
I shared a room with him. The first night, as we prepared to go to sleep. Chuck took off his socks and threw them at the ceiling, where they bounced off and fell back down. “What’s that for?” I said. “It’s simple,” he answered. “If they stick to the ceiling, I’ll wear a fresh pair tomorrow.”
The trumpet chair was filled by Bobby Lewis, whom I had never met. Bobby had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin where he had made a reputation as a virtuoso trumpet player. Remington gave him his first big job away from the university when he brought him to Rockton. Bobby is now a nationally known trumpet player and bandleader with many CDs under his leadership. Back then he was beginning to display the talent we all see today.
Dave Remington, trombone and leader, began his career in upstate New York and had made a name for himself with the Salt City Five. His work at Jazz, Ltd. was also a great training ground and made him well known to Chicago jazz fans. Then, as now, he was a demanding leader, great showman, and front man for the band. He has since shifted to playing piano which he does very nicely, with nods to Tommy Flannagan and Hank Jones. At this writing he lives and works in northern Michigan and is on the faculty of the Interlochen Academy in Traverse City.
I was the sixth member of the group and had been playing a wide variety of gigs in Chicago. I’d worked with players like Sandy Mosse, the wonderful tenor sax genius, and Tom Hilliard (with whom I had formed the Metropolitan Jazz Octet several years earlier). I'd also worked with many of the society bands playing the usual fund raising parties and weddings. I’d done big band work with Bill Scott’s orchestra and had a pretty wide background in large and small bands.
This, then, was the band that played shows in the theater at the Wagon Wheel Lodge, six nights a week, on its proscenium stage.
The theater had been built for summer stage theater productions. Walt Williamson, the heavyset owner of the Wagon Wheel resort and a string of gas stations, was a northern Illinois millionaire entrepreneur. He liked jazz, heard Dave Remington play at Jazz Ltd., and decided to book Dave’s band into his summer theater. He felt we would be a welcome change for the guests. The theater held 400 seats. Along one of its sides were rooms originally designed as living quarters for the actors who played there. Most of us lived right there during our time at the Wheel.
Following several days of serious rehearsals, our debut was filled with comedy and ensemble and solo performances. A full house loved what we played, including our lighthearted staging. We felt that we could make the summer sail by.
Remington sometimes got long winded on the microphone, to the consternation of the rest of the band. We referred to his malady as “diarrhea of the mouth.”
Hap Gormley, whose talents included the ability to construct various props and contrivances, figured out a solution. He located a store that sold magic equipment, bought some bright red "chatter" teeth, and rigged them high above the stage. The next time Dave yakked too much, Hap pulled on a string which started the teeth chattering and switched on a spotlight to illuminate them.
The effect was magical. The audience roared with laughter, Dave blushed, and the rest of the band looked smug. Then he shut up and we played another tune.
We generally filled the Wagon Wheel Theater every show. The crowds loved us and we were having a great time during the day swimming in the pool, driving around the area, and savoring the great food in the lodge’s dining rooms.
At the end of each show, the band played “When the Saints Come Marchin’ In.” What else would you expect? Dave, ever the showman, decided to take that dreadful old warhorse a step further, devising a guaranteed crowd pleaser. He, Chuck, and Bobby—the band's front line—marched off the stage, down a few steps, and into the audience. They walked through the aisles playing the Saints and wound up back on the stage for final bows.
It was, without question, one of the corniest finishes to any performance you could ever imagine, a total sellout. But...it worked every time! Yet, I got to wishing that we all could march together. It would have been a much better presentation, I felt.
Weeks passed, the summer was ending. We got wind that Walt Williamson was wavering about keeping us on. Dave, and the rest of us, felt that we’d like to keep playing there. We liked the area and the show, and we’d made friends there. How could we lock down that job permanently? Just asking Walt to keep us on wouldn’t work. We needed a hook.
Williamson ran his northern Illinois resort empire like a king. His “throne” was at table number one in the bar of the large main lodge where an aging lady played a Hammond B-3 organ and sang corny songs.
One evening, he asked us to bring our instruments into his bar and play a few tunes with the lady B-3 player after our show. We groused about it, but Dave talked us into going along for public relations’ sake. It was a success, cash-register-wise, and a total flop musically. Talk about mixing apples and oranges! A dixieland band with a B-3 organ! Especially a B-3 player who had absolutely no jazz inclination or ability.
But sure enough, the folks in the bar loved it, proving once again that most people have tin ears. The cash register never stopped ringing.
It was then that I was hit with the germ of an idea. As I said, our shows always ended with the front line playing The Saints and marching through the aisles of the theater with the rhythm section stranded on the stage. I recalled the historic jazz bands of New Orleans that paraded in the streets and I thought: the six of us really should march around the theater together. It would certainly look better and sound better.
I took Hap Gormley aside and told him my idea. We knew that we needed some gimmick that would make Walt Williamson retain us. Could Mel Grant, Hap, and I form a marching band rhythm section to make the Dixie Six mobile? And more “keep-able?” If we could, I told Hap, we’d keep it a secret until we could spring it on Dave and the rest of the band.
Hap loved the idea and, true to form, even proposed a solution. The high school kid who worked the lights and the curtain for us attended nearby Hananegah High School in Rockton. Hap asked the boy if the school had a marching band for its football games and he said it did. You can begin to see where this is all going.
The kid "borrowed" a bass drum, snare drum, and a pair of beat-up hand cymbals from the school’s band room. I was assigned to play the bass drum. It was the first time I’d ever played one but I caught on fast and soon could twirl the beaters stylishly. Mel played those awful cymbals, which he hated, but he loved the idea of springing a gag on the rest of the band. Hap handled the marching snare perfectly. After two surreptitious practice sessions we decided to spring the gag on Dave, Chuck, and Bobby.
One night, with a full house of about 400 people, we stashed the marching instruments in an unused coat room. We asked Dave if, at the end of the show, instead of marching into the theater, he would remain up on the stage and keep the audience in their seats. “Just talk, tell them jokes, do anything!” we said, “but keep them there.”
As Dave talked, Mel, Hap and I hurried off the stage. In seconds we strapped on the drums, Mel grabbed the cymbals, and we began a street beat. We opened the door leading into the theater and marched slowly down the main aisle toward the stage. There was amazement in the eyes of the guys on stage, but Remington’s look was different—he had dollar signs in his eyes and a shit-eating grin on his face.
By the time we reached the stage, the front line was playing the Muskrat Ramble. Of one mind, the six of us marched up the aisle toward the front door, pulling 400 people along with us. We were mobile all right! And we were Pied Pipers. We lead the entire crowd out into the night, about 200 yards along a two lane state highway, through the doors of the main lodge, and into the bar where Walt Williamson held forth at Booth Number One.
Imagine the scene! A six-piece dixieland band pulling hundreds of people into a bar that couldn’t hold 75! The cash registers started to ring and didn’t stop; booze was pouring into glasses as fast as the bartenders could move, and the lady on the B-3 was overwhelmed. It dawned on Walt Williamson that he had a band not just capable of playing a show, but that could be used any way he wanted to use them.
And use us he did.
Did I say I’d helped create a monster? From that moment, our lives weren’t our own. We’d solidified our jobs at the Wheel all right, but were now at the beck and call of King Walt. We purchased our own bass, snare drums, and pair of hand cymbals. Dave had “Dave Remington and the Dixie Six Chowder and Marching Society Band” lettered onto both sides of the bass drum. (You can see it in living color on several of our LP record jackets.)
Walt had us play at the first tee of a big tournament at his golf course—at 7 a.m. Another time, he transported us on his air boat to his secluded little island on the Jim River to play a private party. We had to play while that air boat roared over the water! “I think I’m gonna fall!” I shouted to Dave. “Don’t worry,” he shouted back, “You can use your bass drum as a life raft! It’ll float!”
At the dedication of his new Olympic-sized ice rink, Walt put us on ice skates. We played the Star Spangled Banner and dixie tunes, trying to skate at the same time. I couldn’t do it very well with the bass drum strapped to my shoulders as my center of gravity was askew. I fell several times, to great laughter.
It was Chuck Hedges' first time on ice skates. He spent the gig with his clarinet in one hand and grabbing whichever band member was nearest with the other. Dave, a native of Rochester, New York, was a good skater. He shot out onto the center ice, brandishing his slide trombone as if it were a hockey stick, playing all the while. Walt loved it. The crowd ate it up. We hated it.
We made several albums during our years at the Wheel which were recorded at Universal Studios in Chicago. One, titled “Dixieland Jazz On the Rocks,” included a color picture of the band on skates and on the ice rink. In the picture, Chuck Hedges is balancing himself with one hand on my head (I was kneeling by the bass drum) and his other holding the clarinet, pretending to play.
Many nights we were “asked” to march the crowd over to the bar and struggle with that lady who played the B-3 organ. We rang the cash registers all night. Walt was ecstatic. We were pissed. We’d locked in the job, but at what cost?
One night, trying our best to play with the B-3 lady, was particularly dreadful. My foot brushed up against the B-3's electric plug and I “just happened” to jerk it from the socket, causing the organ to go dead. She was irate, but the guys in the band suddenly began to play better.
By the end of our first year at the Wheel, Walt had gutted and rebuilt the theater, turning it into a huge night club with the band on a riser, dozens of tables, a big dance floor and a service bar. It opened on New Year’s Eve and was an instant financial success, assuring the band’s long future year-round home at the resort. It created good jobs and a good living, too, for a number of cocktail waitresses and bartenders.
Well, here’s how the story ends for me: After 22 months of work at the Wheel, I quit the band and drove to New York City to try my luck playing in the Apple. Hap Gormley left for New York, too. He’s still living and working there. The Dixie Six and its auxiliary marching band continued to work at the Wheel for several years with our replacements. Years later, Dave finally had enough of northern Illinois and brought the Dixie Six back to Chicago to play at a bistro on Rush Street. There was no marching unit, though. That marching band is dead.
The moral to this tale: Be careful what you wish for; it might just come back to bite you.
Joe Levinson plays bass frequently around the Chicago-area and sometimes contributes to Bill Crow's column, "The Bandroom," for the Allegro (the NY union monthly paper).