Last Thursday night I ventured to the Grandview Library to hear local author David Meyers speak about the history of music in Columbus. Only a dozen people attended the free lecture, but those who made the sojourn were gifted with spirited tales of well-kept local music secrets. A Columbus native, David has interviewed more than 500 musicians. Two years ago, he wrote Columbus: The Musical Crossroads with Arnett Howard, James Loeffler, and Candice Watkins. “The history of music in Columbus remains largely unwritten,” reads the first line of the book. So David dedicated himself to discovering and showcasing both acknowledged and forgotten Central Ohio musicians.
According to David, the Columbus music scene began gaining traction in the 1900’s. Precocious vaudeville performer Elsie Janis was “one of the biggest stars to come out of Columbus.” She starred in her first Broadway production at the age of 15 and was later nicknamed “Sweetheart of the AEF” for her tireless commitment toward entertaining World War I soldiers. In addition to minstrels and traveling shows, we had a number of military bands led by people like Frederick Neddermeyer, a “largely forgotten” composer who wrote operas and cakewalks. Several companies, including Roxane Labs, had their own in-house bands. And several historic Columbus musicians led double lives, like Charles Parker who was a barber by day and violinist by night who managed a whopping 38 bands.
Like many other cities, Columbus had a cast of unique musical characters. Archie “Stomp” Gordon played piano with his feet. Rahsaan Roland Kirk played three saxophones at once. Madame Rose Brown sang with such projection that she didn’t need a microphone. We also bred musicians who later formed powerful alliances. Guitarist Austin “Skin” Young performed with Bing Crosby. Trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison played with Frank Sinatra. Art Ryerson played guitar with Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets. My favorite tidbit was learning that vocalist Billy Valentine penned “Money’s Too Tight To Mention,” which Simply Red covered decades later.
In addition to jazz and big band, Columbus was known for cowboy songs and Wild West shows. At one time, we even had bands of policemen like the Singing Sheriffs and Hot Pursuit. Local country musician Hank Newman (of the Georgia Crackers) made such an impression on the national scene from his home on Johnstown Road that Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn summoned his assistance for various projects. Throughout the 90-minute presentation, David’s desire to pay tribute to under-recognized Columbus musicians grew increasingly apparent. He wants people to know about Chuz Alfred, Hank Maar, and Rusty Bryant. He praised Dick Stolzman (of The Embers) as being one of the greatest clarinetists of all time. And in 1995, he co-created The Columbus Senior Musicians Hall Of Fame to honor prolific Central Ohio performers. I’m grateful to him and his colleagues for helping to preserve and protect our musical heritage.