Presented by Bettye Lessley:
“We had all tried so hard, worked, prayed and worked again. There are ten of us. Time and time again we had played, this group of ten, composing an orchestra. We played in our home town, and in other towns always getting a good word and a fairly good name. But we must do better. Our chief aim in the orchestra was to play for one dance which would please our leader “Fes.” Now Fes was hard. Never a word of praise, just continuously showing us our faults and errors. Constant nagging, prodding, etc., to make us better. He demanded it. Oh, our tempers were short, and apt to fly, but to no good. We had our fun, we each enjoyed our playing, but we couldn’t, we weren’t good enough to Fes. We must work harder.
Mr. Lewis Simpkins “Fess”. Picture from the 1947 Sylacauga High School yearbook “The Syhiscan.”Now tonight, as I walked among the orchestra, talking to this one and that one, the thoughts were many and varied. Larry, our second trumpeter, was in a brown study, mentally rehearsing his music with a frown on his brow, and not saying much. Bill, our manager in the absence of Fes, and first trumpeter, was rather nervous, and on edge, trying to keep everything in order, and deciding which numbers to play. Talking to Rosie, the drummer, was Eldridge, our baritone sax player. Rosie is the life of the orchestra, always has a bright saying or just the right thing at the right time. Jolly, teasing, laughing, imitating, the comedian of our set. Eldridge is rather quiet with a droll wit, and is the fill-in in all the orchestra doings. Good-natured and easy going.
Over in a couple of chairs playing away in harmony, are Williard and Melford. Casually, as though nothing unusual were afoot. They are the harmony men of the outfit assisted now and then by me at the piano, though they need none as they are very capable. They make up the trombone section of our orchestra: Melford on first, Williard, second.
Gathered around the piano are the saxophone section: Carolyn-tenor, Bonnie-fourth, and Betty – first, all three talking excitedly over the night’s work ahead of us. Hoping we will all do our respective parts right and putting that intangible something into the pieces that makes a good orchestra. Hoping against hope that tonight we will hear the words we so long to hear from Fes, “Well done.” That is what we have worked for so long and now we think the time has come. Fes will be dancing tonight instead of playing and directing us. Secretly we are wishing to see him smile and lift his head, giving us the O.K. signal which we shall be watching for. But I must get in my place as it is time to begin, and everyone is on his toes with anxiety.
Nine o’clock sharp and the music begins. While I play my head is drumming with thoughts. I glance out over the crowd and see them moving with the rhythm of the piece as one. I look back to my fellow players, all absorbed in their respective parts. Rosie and I catch each other’s eye and smile, while Melford starts his solo without batting an eyelash; plays it through and ends it with a flourish. The dancers are smiling, evidently they like trombone solos, especially those played by Melford. Right at this time, we swing into the chorus, give it all we have and end in a loud blast. I grab my music, slip it in place, open the next one and get ready to go again. Bill says, “ready, one, two, three,” and the introduction to “I Don’t Know Enough About You” swings out. The dancers shift, move with the rhythm, and are happily encased in their thoughts and partners.
The tenor sax solo drifts the room and is played perfectly, a sigh of relief would probably be heard if all were quiet, but the trumpets are in the lead now and bring that piece to an end.
While changing pieces, a couple steps up to the stage and requests a number. Yes, we will play it right now. We get the music set up and start. About half through the piece, Rosie takes a solo with dash and skill, never missing a beat, then swings it into the last phrases to the end and it is time for intermission, welcomed by us all. Once again in our places to play on into the night until the last strains of “Until Tomorrow” die away, so ends the work of tonight. The big moment is at hand, Fes is right here in front of me, and, look! with a smile on his face. Everyone is looking at him expectantly; a hush so quiet you feel it, then he speaks, “What has happened to you kids? I’ve never heard you play like that before. It was swell. I think you kids have got something there.” All the faces are one big grin, ‘pleased as punch’. As we all go out to pile into cars to go eat, everyone sighs with smug satisfaction, happy to the nth degree, knowing that for once, we pleased Fes.”
At the Forks, where we go to eat, Fes with us, we have a jam-session, everyone talking, eating, etc. Then into the cars again and home, tired but happy, each one proud, fiercely proud of this, our orchestra.
This story was written by Lorena, one of the members of Mr. Lewis Simpkins’ orchestra.
In June of 1940, Sylacauga City School Officials announced the election of Mr. Lewis Simpkins as band master of the city schools. Mr. Simpkins had extensive training and experience in his line of work. He had been band master at Gulfport Military Academy for three years. Following this he had a similar position for thirteen years at the Avondale Mills in Pell City. His many students in Sylacauga called him “Fess.”
(Although we know the names of nine of these students in the orchestra, we were unable to learn Melford’s last name).