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Part 5: An interview with drum corps arranger Larry Kerchner

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff
DCWphotog@aol.com

Publisher’s note: The first four parts of this interview appeared in the December 2006 and January, February and March 2007 editions of Drum Corps World. This segment appeared in the April 2007 edition. You can find parts 1 through 4 in the archives of this Web site.

Harry Heidelmark: You were in on the ground floor of Star of Indiana and part of their very first staff. What was it like? “The best corps money could buy” is something Bill Cook admits he once said and regretted. What do you think of Bill Cook and how was it working for him?

Larry Kerchner: The short answer to the question of what it was like is that it was magical. Jim Mason, the corps’ director, approached me in September 1984 about writing the music for this new corps in Bloomington, IN. It didn’t even physically exist at that point, yet it sounded   exciting, especially when he told me I might be working with Dennis DeLucia and George Zingali as the other members of the creative team.

With collaborators of that lofty caliber, how could it NOT sound exciting? We were all flown to Bloomington to get the lay of the land and to look around. Bill and Jim had been looking for a facility in which to rehearse and ultimately, Mr. Cook bought a former school building.

Mind you, at this point it was still like the boy’s band in “The Music Man,” which had members, but no instruments. Except, in this case, not only were there no instruments . . . there were no members either! (smiles) Not even a corps name!

But, there was a building, and there was heavy machinery out back making a football field to practice on!

HH: Not to interrupt, but how and when did the corps get its name?

LK: That’s an interesting story. Two of the first “working names” were, I believe . . . (drum roll) . . . the Hoosier Assembly and the Hoosier Hotshots! Mercifully, neither one stuck, so Bill instituted a contest among the Cook employees to come up with a name. I’m still not sure what the prize was! (smiles)

Jim, banking on my creative nature I guess, asked me if I would come up with some name ideas, too. He wanted something “flashier” and more “show biz.” I said I would give it a shot and came up with two suggestions: Indiana — just plain Indiana, along the line of the group Alabama, and Star of Indiana.

I thought Star of Indiana not only had a bit of “show business,” but it also pinpointed the corps’ location, just as Indiana would have. It also had a familiar ring to it because of the famous sapphire, the “Star of India.”

It must have worked, because, at the corps’ very first appearance in Normal, IL, we were announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Star of India!”

Anyway, back to the naming saga . . . I was leaning toward Star of Indiana, but I wanted to run it by someone first, before presenting it to Jim, so, from my office, I called my then-wife, Kathy, and ran the two choices past her. She concurred that Star of Indiana was the better name, so I called Jim and presented it to him.   He loved it, and the rest, as they say, is history. BUT . . . this is one instance where I wish I could change history.

HH: What do you mean?

LK: It’s small potatoes, but, wanting to have my spouse feel a part of things, I told Jim that she came up with the name. She gave her stamp of approval to the name Star of Indiana, but it didn’t originate with her. That’s one piece of errata in “A History of Drum and Bugle Corps” for which I have only myself to blame! (laughs) Regardless, the name worked, didn’t it?

HH: It sure did.

LK: On many levels, too. Jim had quickly identified the strong graphic possibilities of the star shape, which proved to be a very astute observation.

HH: Back to the corps’ beginnings.

LK: Okay. As the fall and winter of 1984 progressed, beautiful new King instruments came and members came, along with beautiful busses and a magnificent equipment truck. I’ll never forget seeing them painted with the corps’ name and logo for the first time. What a sight! The Star of Indiana really existed now!

If I may make one more movie reference, it was like “Field of Dreams,” where the voice said, “If you build it, they will come.”

HH: Didn’t you ultimately have a falling out with Bill Cook?

LK: Unfortunately, yes. But it doesn’t diminish the respect I have for him as a businessman, or as a person for that matter. The last contact I had with Bill wasn’t under the most pleasant circumstances. I instituted a civil action against Cook, Inc. in regard to a contractual dispute involving Kerchner Music Group, a company that Bill and I had formed together.

From this action emerged another round of hurtful and repugnant misinformation and gossip in the drum corps community. I still hear vile remnants of it to this day. I was unsuccessful in that suit, but, you know what, I learned from the experience and, believe it or not, harbor no ill feelings toward Mr. Cook. After all, the man got where he is today because he’s smart and knows how to win.

He started with $1,200, borrowed from friends, and worked out of a small room in his apartment, developing his first catheter system. I remember him telling me how he would “go to work” in his little room and not see his wife, Gail, all day, until he emerged again — even though they were in the same apartment! Now, that’s discipline.

Bill went on to parlay a small sum and a large dream into a business empire that’s worth billions. That he loved drum corps so much he wanted to fund one is something we all should think about for a moment. Was it a bad thing to have formed the Star of Indiana, or that Star gave rise to “Brass Theatre,” or that, from both of these, sprang “BLAST!”?

I don’t think the hundreds of musicians and performers who have been given the opportunities spawned by his initiative would say “yes” to that question. When Bill Cook said that Star of Indiana was “the best corps money could buy,” he was making a self-effacing joke — something I believe you’re entitled to do if you’re the one shelling out the money!

Many others have made similar comments, but they weren’t being kind when they’ve made them. There is a large amount of jealousy at work here . . . not to mention another example of trying to tear down the big guy.

HH: Why, if you had a falling out, would you have such nice things to say about Bill Cook?

LK: I’m finding that life is too short to carry around such heavy baggage as hate or animosity. I’ve made many mistakes in my life and wish I could do so many things over again. I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this and that others have their regrets, too. So, what’s the harm in opening my heart to forgiveness? It just may come back to me someday.

HH: I really hope readers will take away from your frankness that what they say about others — and claim to know about others, but really don’t — reaches farther and much deeper than they realize.

LK: Amen.

HH: To change the topic as we wind down this interview, could you recount the events in your life that stand out as the most memorable or life changing?

LK: You mean like the time I peed my pants in the first grade because Mrs. Fluhardy wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom?

HH: Hahahahaha!

LK: . . . or, in the fourth grade, when I played the piano in public for the very first time . . . I learned this piece called Indian Dance and it ended on a loud, percussive, staccato A-minor chord, with an all-important “A” in the right hand.

I was doing great right up until the last note, when the middle finger of my right hand was reaching for the coup de gras — the “A” that would surely have classmates and teachers alike telling their grandchildren about the high water mark of their listening experience — the famous Indian Dance, played by some kid in concert at the Lafayette School.

Then it happened! My finger, for some inexplicable reason, landed squarely on the “G,” one step below my note of notes! There was no going back. There it was, out there for eternity.

I ended on the wrong note!

My fourth grade dreams of Van Cliburn-like immortality were shattered in that one second. There wasn’t a time, from that day forward when driving by the school, that I didn’t look at the basement window, just beyond which had lain immortality, and think about that “G.”

In my adult musician mind, I’ve often tried to rationalize that the “G” really wasn’t so bad, because now I know that it just made the A minor chord into an A minor seventh chord, which works, sort of . . . who am I trying to kid? It was terrible!

HH: (Still laughing) That’s a great story, but I was thinking more about GOOD memories!

LK: Oh, okay. The birth of my daughters; getting a collie puppy for my tenth birthday; hearing something I had written played on the radio for the first time; hearing the first commercial jingles I had written for TV; the first time “The Tonight Show” band played one of my charts; Doc Severinsen complimenting my writing; the first time I heard a live string section play an arrangement of mine at A&R Recording Studio in New York City; being in the wings on the Broadway opening night of “The Wiz” at the St. James Theater; Henry Mancini waiting to shake my hand at an ASCAP Songwriters’ Showcase . . . MY hand!

Peter Lemongello and I sitting in Jilly’s, having a private visit with Frank Sinatra; my first home run in Little League; the year I flew home from Florida on Christmas Day, after a month with the Ringling Brothers Circus, and having my little girls run into my arms to greet me as I got off the plane, wearing Santa hats and yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” THAT one’s the best, Harry.

As you see, tears still well up when I think about it.

HH: I see that. How about telling me some good drum corps memories?

LK: Marching in my first parade, past my Mom and my Grandparents — my Mom told me that my Grandfather cried; sneaking down onto the grass at a senior show in Harrisburg, PA, to see the Caballeros up close — Ralph Silverbrand looked like he was 8 feet tall!; hearing John Simpson play Hayden’s Trumpet Concerto on his G-D baritone at Hawthorne’s individual contest where he got a score of 100 from Don Angelica, who changed it to 99, saying, “Nobody’s perfect,” (but, he WAS perfect!; watching the Bridgemen at the 1976 DCI Finals in Philly; walking alongside the Bridgemen Alumni in their first parade in Bayonne, NJ, on Memorial Day, 2005; having the chance to tell Truman Crawford how much I admired him before he passed away; knowing and working with Jim Costello; having had a wonderful friend and co-instructor like Frank Pisillo in my life.

HH: Speaking of memories . . . You’ve already talked about the Bridgemen, but what’s it like working with alumni corps like the Yankee Rebels and the Caballeros   — corps with histories that date back to the 1940s?

LK: I have to tell you, Harry, it’s a privilege, and I’ll tell you why. These are the corps that started the whole thing — the WHOLE thing! They started drum and bugle corps! They’re the Electric Light Bulb, the Wright Brothers’ Flyer and the Rosetta Stone of the modern drum corps movement. Without them, there would be no DCI, no DCA, no DCW, no DC anything!

The fact that they’re still here in the form of alumni organizations, some with original members, makes them deserving of the respect of the entire drum corps community. What they did with the crudest of crude instruments is nothing short of amazing.

They should be honored, cherished and, most of all, thanked. This goes for not only the Caballeros and the Yankee Rebels, but for all of the alumni corps. I hope that today’s competing corps members can learn to appreciate their ancestry and to treat alumni corps members like family, with kindness and without condescension.

HH: Hey, how about a quick, stream-of-consciousness list of the best soloists in drum corps?

LK: Sure. I’ll just do a few of my earliest “young kid” remembrances or this will take forever. I only heard a lot of these players on early recordings. Others I was lucky enough to have heard in person: Vince Deegan, Jack Keely, Ray Eyler, Dave Fite (Archer-Epler Musketeers); Bob Adair, Gene Bunting, Ritchie “Barney” Longhitano (Reilly Raiders); Bill Hayes, Don Angelica, Jimmy D’Amico, George DelMonte, Frank Pisillo, George Rodriguez (Hawthorne Caballeros); Jimmy Murphy, Denzel Wallace, Eddie Denon (Princemen); Riggie Laus (Pittsburg Rockets); Ace Peterson (Appleknockers); Buzzy Bergdoll (St. Kevin’s Emerald Knights); Charlie Frasco, John Pugliese, Dewey Smith, “Barney” Longhitano (Bracken Cavaliers); Tommy Martin, Pepe Nataro, Bucky Swan, Gus Wilkie, Hy Drietzer, Vinnie Castanza, Harry Hazelwood (New York Skyliners); Bob O’Connell, John Leonhardt, Dick Burns (Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights); Bill Hightower (St. Catherine’s Queensmen); John Sasso (Sunrisers); Frank Buchemi (Selden Cadets); Ricky Gentile, Skip Groff (Yankee Rebels); John Simpson, Tommy Martin, Dave Fite, Ray Eyler, Skip Groff (USAF Drum and Bugle Corps).

HH: How about the ones you taught or worked with personally?

LK: Let’s see . . . “Bart” Bartholomew, Bruce Boyes, Mike Dennis, Kenny Dennis (Blue Rock); Gary Caffrey, Matt Niess (Crossmen); Jeff Kievit, Bill Doty (Muchachos); Al Chez (Saints); Ed Irwin, Jim Brady, Keith Griffin (Bridgemen); Jerry Noonan (Northstar); Jim Centorino (Boston Crusaders); Gene Marotta, Mike “Bushman” Melvin, Steve Raclowski, John “Murph” Pugliese, George DelMonte, Kent Pennell, Bobby Burke (Caballeros); John Ursbruch, George Richardson, John Girardi, Eddie Lawrence (New York Skyliners); Tim Bartholomew (Blue Eagles); Sylvia Hernandez Perbetski (Westshoremen); Bill Vallee, Rick Connor (Valleyaires/Mass Brass); Mike DelVecchio, Frank Ponzo, Steve Raclowski, John “Duke” Terreri, Curt Hawkins (Caballeros Alumni); John Pugliese, Bob Gaff, Jim Cossetti (Reilly Alumni); Dave Hughes, Ray Eyler, Ricardo “Gabe” Gabriel, Robbie Ellis (Yankee Rebels Alumni); John Ursbruch, Bob Gaff, Deb Knisely, John Pugliese, Kenton Clarke, Reuben Areola, Buzzy Bergdoll (The Music Express).

You know, Harry, in addition to people who simply slipped my mind as I rattled off those names, there are many other great soloists I didn’t mention that certainly deserve recognition. Guys like Matt Krempaski, John Arietano, Ritchee Price, Joey Pero, Eddie Haywood, Billy Pusey and so many others.

They just happen to be among players I didn’t work with personally, but are all great talents.

HH: Who are some of your favorite brass guys you’ve worked with over the years?

LK: Worked with? Okay. Frank Pisillo, John Simpson, Rick Connor, Tom Lizotte, Mike Dennis, Bill Tabeling, Bob Bunce, Red Winzer, Gregg Neuleib, Donnie VanDoren and Jim Prime, Jr. Currently, I’m enjoying working with Ray Eyler, Gabe Gabriel, Matt Krempaski, Dennis Argul, Gabe Gulino, Jim Jordan and James Sheckler.

HH: Can you list some things you would   consider groundbreaking moments in drum corps?

LK: Reilly introducing the use of the tuning slide for chromatics; the Princemen introducing the rotary valve (thanks to Scotty Chappell); Archie introducing “characters” into a show like Vince Deegan as the King in “The King and I”; the Troopers’ starburst circle drill and precision spinning rifles; the Yankee Rebels’ “Requiem for an Era”; Blue Rock’s “elephants” in Baby Elephant Walk — Bob Santa and Chuck Quackenbush — and the sound effects in Quiet Village; the Muchachos’ aforementioned re-entry (see comment in part 1); introduction of the contra bass; the introduction of the mellophonium; legalization of the G-F horn.

HH: Do you have one best moment in the marching arts, whether it be drum corps or marching band?

LK: It would have to be the November 2003, Alabama-Auburn halftime show in Tuscaloosa, AL. It was the last show for Kathryn Scott, who was retiring as director of the University of Alabama “Million Dollar Band.” It was billed as the “Halftime of a Lifetime” and was it ever!

Kathryn was the MDB’s director for 18 illustrious years and holds the distinction of being the nation’s first female college marching band director. I was lucky enough to be not only her arranger, but also her friend. She knew how to please her audiences and kept me on a short leash to get what she needed.

All of her shows — three a year — were great, but THIS one . . . man! To say it was jam-packed with excitement and emotion is an understatement. In addition to her wonderful 350-piece band, Kathryn hired the renowned United States Army Herald Trumpets and the Atlanta Pipe Band from Atlanta, GA. I was like a kid in a candy store writing for all of these unique combinations of instruments.

The Herald Trumpets, under the direction of Lt. Col. Tony Cason, can play anything put in front of them with one lip tied behind their backs! I had a field day writing for them. I worked them into every number of the show . . . The Planet Krypton, Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Olympic Spirit, The Lord’s Prayer, Amazing Grace, Yea Alabama and My Home’s in Alabama — all personal favorites of Kathryn’s.

Let me describe a couple of highlights: when the Atlanta Pipes followed their award-winning DM, Jim Thompson, down the 50 yard line in a stately procession, playing Amazing Grace, I think all 90,000 people in Bryant-Denny Stadium got goosebumps at the same time. I had written a lush, full-band accompaniment to support the bagpipes and, after their chorus, the band modulated and took over the melody, with the bagpipes now playing counter lines and the Heralds soaring above it all. It was almost sensory overload.

Then, as if this weren’t enough, the band turned to face what normally would be the backfield and gave the loyal fans, who never get to hear the music presented toward them, the thrill of being the recipients of an “ending-to-end-all-endings.” The band was playing an emotional My Home’s in Alabama, when suddenly they gave way to the Herald Trumpets, who burst forth with a Copland-esque fanfare I had written for them, which concluded with a statement of Yea Alabama.

The crowd went nuts as Kathryn brought the band back in for the final chords, replete with a statement of Dixie and fireworks shooting up from the field. There is no way I can describe the sound of SO much music and SO much love pouring from all 360 degrees of that colossal stadium.

I was the first one to hug Kathryn when she climbed down from her ladder. It was   bittersweet and the end of an era, but it was magnificent.

HH: Is there anyone you would like to thank or give regards to before we conclude?

LK: Now, that’s a nice thing to ask. I’m going to take you up on that offer. I would like to thank Donnie VanDoren for being a friend when I really needed a friend. I was an emotional mess and a very confused individual, yet he extended his home and his friendship to me at a time when almost everyone else had turned their backs. For this, I’ll always be grateful.

HH: How best can someone contact you for a chart or other musical endeavor?

LK: (laughs) Is this the Drum Corps World equivalent of Jay, Dave or Conan holding up someone’s book on his show?!

HH: Yep.

LK: Here’s my info: Larry Kerchner, Suite 101, 2202 Concord Pike, Wilmington, DE 19803, phone: 302-765-3898, e-mail: bossofworld@verizon.net.

HH: Many thanks for taking time to answer my questions. Anything you’d like to add?

LK: Just this. Henry Mancini told me that a good arranger has to be a great editor and that I shouldn’t fall in love with every note I write. This advice has served me well and I’d like to pass it on to those arrangers out there who want to prove to the world how many notes they can cram into one chart.

It’s in the economy, guys!

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

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