The Drum Corps International World Championships headed south for the first time when the big show went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1979.
The Blue Devils’ World Championship score of 93.55 was the highest Finals score up to that point, a full two points over Santa Clara Vanguard’s winning score from a year earlier. The corps scored within a tenth of a point of earning a perfect score in the General Effect caption, in the process scoring nearly a point over Phantom Regiment in total score.
By now the Blue Devils uniform, unveiled in 1976 with its split jacket and fluffy blouse, had been copied by a spectacular number of marching bands across the country, and was now seen in every conceivable color. Just as the uniform revolutionized marching uniform designs, the Devils continued to revolutionize drum corps performances in ways previously unimaginable. The group’s brass technique and demand reached new levels, as did the exploration of new percussion instrumentation. Color guards, which typically spun, tossed, and threw things, were pushed by the Blue Devils to be trained in dance techniques.
The corps’ 1979 show opened with “Chicago III Suite,” brought back from its production a year before. Arranged by Kenton band trombonist Bob Curnow for the “Stan Kenton Plays Chicago” album of 1974, the album came to be recognized for its influence on large ensemble jazz composition and for channeling Kenton’s bands into the new territory of jazz-fusion. According to Kenton’s bass trombonist, Mike Suter, “Bob (Curnow) was the best at melding rock and Kenton. He squeezed the music into the Kenton mold, writing great arrangements—let's say 85 percent Kenton and 15 percent rock—that worked.” Curnow ended up producing the last six of Kenton’s albums.
The source material for that arrangement was by the popular rock band Chicago, a group created in 1967 that became known for a multitude of hits through the 1970s and 1980s. Its prominent horn line helped the band’s music translate well to the drum corps field.
Chicago’s “Chicago III” album was released in 1971 and contributed four songs played by the Blue Devils. The corps’ 1979 rendition was considerably tightened up from 1978, the corps’ first year without horn arranger/instructor and future DCI Hall of Fame member Jim Ott, who had moved on to work with Spirit of Atlanta. The first piece in the medley was the brash fanfare of “Canon,” written by Chicago trombonist James Pankow, followed by “Mother” by Robert Lamm, the band’s keyboardist and one of its lead singers.
Pankow also wrote the ballad of “Once Upon a Time” and Lamm wrote “Free,” off the album “Travel Suite.” In “Free,” fans were treated to one of the most discussed drill maneuvers of the era. Two rotating circles of high brass players, symmetrical to the 50-yard line, backed up and broke apart, attaching to the moving arcs being pulled to the sides just behind the former circles. It marked a huge advancement in drill design in the late 1970s.
Next came “La Suerte de Los Tontos” from Johnny Richards’ “Cuban Fire Suite,” written for Stan Kenton’s 1956 “Cuban Fire!” Mellophonium Orchestra album. Meaning “Fortune of Fools” or “Fools Luck,” the piece was part of the work that introduced Latin music to a wider number of jazz fans.
1979 Blue Devils
Following, Blue Devils turned the third movement of Gino Vanelli’s 1977 “Pauper in Paradise” into a percussion feature. Off the Canadian singer’s fifth studio album, the movement highlighted the three keyboardists of Vanelli’s jazz-rock fusion ensemble. When the corps’ horns came in, a massive arc expanded by backing up at the same time its two front sides wrapped forward and inward, leading directly into the closing tune “My Heart Belongs to Me.”
By Alan Gordon, the piece was originally performed in 1977 by the composer, but achieved much greater success when recorded on Barbra Streisand’s multi-platinum “Superman” album of the same year. It became Streisand’s fourth hit to achieve number one status on the Billboard Easy Listening Chart. During the song the brass players formed a block down the 50-yard line, condensing to a “V-gate turn” that pushed forward while opening up to a company front.
The opening “V,” accompanied by snare and tenor drummers playing with red streamers attached to the beads of their sticks, was performed to a closing tag written by corps arranger Wayne Downey, combining original material with melodic fragments heard previously in the show. According to Downey, he decided to write a new and improved closing tag for the gate turns introduced by the corps in 1976, the year of the Blue Devils’ first DCI title. That drill maneuver became known as the corps’ prime visual signature of the 1970s.
On August 17, 1979, the day of the DCI World Championship Prelims, Stan Kenton suffered a stroke after fracturing his skull while on tour with his band in Reading, Pennsylvania. A week to the day after the corps won its third DCI World Championship title, Kenton passed away at the age of 67.
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Michael Boo was a member of the Cavaliers from 1975-1977. He has written about the drum corps activity for more than 35 years 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, Indiana.