In 1978, while Santa Clara Vanguard was gearing up to finish the season with a 0.10 victory over Phantom Regiment and stopping Blue Devils from earning DCI's first three-peat, as the Madison Scouts was playing "Malague?±a" for the first of five times in the DCI era and the Bridgemen were bouncing back from a tumultuous end to the previous season, a second-year corps from the deep South was turning heads and pinning back ears with a horn line volume unlike any that had been previously witnessed. The year before 1978, Spirit of Atlanta had hit the scene as a brand new corps with a show that was all over the stylistic map—from opening with a Dvorak overture to closing with an R&B funk hit. Founded as the first corporate-sponsored corps (by television station WXIA, which fulfilled the sponsorship through the corps' first four seasons), Spirit had great potential—If only the right combination of arrangers and instructors could be found. For its second season, Spirit brought in future Hall of Fame member Jim Ott to write for and instruct the horn line, straight off his involvement with Blue Devils that helped lead the corps to its first two DCI World Championships the previous years. Jim was joined by another future Hall of Fame member Tom Float, who was brought in to write for and instruct the drum line. That collaboration of those two titans working with fairly new talent resulted in the horn line coming within 0.10 of winning the High Brass trophy in 1978, an award that is now named in Jim's memory. With the 1978 program, Ott and Float helped the corps create the southern identity for which it became widely known, and propelled the corps into sixth place. Being that we didn't have the luxury of Internet drum corps chat boards in 1978, when the corps rolled into a town for a contest in the early part of the season, many fans had no idea what to expect. Word had trickled out that Spirit's horn line was outstanding, but still, it was difficult to imagine them being brilliantly spectacular.
1978 Spirit of Atlanta
The show opened with a 20-second soprano bugle solo from "Walk Him Up the Stairs" (from "Purlie," which won five Tony Awards in 1970, including the award for Best Musical). This was very low-key and gave no indication of the power that was soon to be unleashed. When the entire horn line finally unleashed that awesome Jim Ott sound, believers were instantly created. A brief drum solo from Wendy Carlos' Moog synthesizer-generated "Geodesic Dances" followed. Carlos was best known for her "Switched on Bach" album, which brought classical music to millions of people whom otherwise would never have given it much of a listen. "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" by Billy Davis and Richard Miner followed, which was recorded by Jackie Wilson in 1967 and reached number one on the R&B charts. Standing still, the brass players could really cut loose, and they held no reservations in doing so. One thing to look out for in the DVD of this Spirit performance is the monstrously heavy marimba/vibraphone combination used during the concert production, which some hapless soul had to carry the entire show. By rule, only two mallet players were allowed back then, so 1977 percussion arranger/instructor Dan Spalding combined the two instruments into one so the corps could have three different mallet sounds on the field. The performer would flip the keyboard over to move between instruments. (I had a chance to pick it up once during a rehearsal and could hardly lift the thing.) An instant drum corps classic was found in the corps' closer, "Let It Be Me" by Johnny Nash, popularized by the Everly Brothers, who used it to end each of their concerts. (The work was originally a French pop tune titled "Je t'appartiens.") Mellow after the opening fanfare, the beautiful harmonies of the horn octet sent chills down my spine the first time I heard it. At the DCI World Championships in Denver, the magnificent volume of the big company front push sprung the fans out of their seats, and I feel safe to say that everyone on the deck where I was at stayed standing from there until the end of the show a minute later. I have never witnessed that phenomenon before or since. Not only was a legend born in 1978; fans now had a new favorite corps to root for and follow with keen interest. For this week only, you can save on the Legacy Collection DVD that contains this complete Spirit of Atlanta performance, along with all finalists from the 1978 DCI World Championships. Buy the 1978 Legacy Collection DVD. (Available this week only for $28. Regular price: $35.)
1978 Spirit of Atlanta performance excerpt.
Discount DVD offer ends Monday, May 14 at 8:30 a.m. ET.
Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than a quarter century and serves as a staff writer for various Drum Corps International projects. Boo has written for numerous other publications and has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating. As an accomplished composer, Boo holds a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music theory and composition. He resides in Chesterton, Ind.