The following article was originally published in Vol. 21, #1 (Fall 1993).
There were almost 50 of them. Some became legends; others faded into drowsy retirement. But they all shared one common glory-they were tuba section members of the Sousa Band, a phenomenon that toured America and the world for nearly 30 years.
The actual number of players in the section varied from three in the founding year of 1892, stabilized at four through the 1910-11 world tour, increased to six by 1915, and then varied between four, five, and six until Sousa’s death in early 1932.
The tuba section of the Sousa Band, ca. 1920-25. L-R Earl Fields, Arthur Raymond, an unidentified player, William Bell, Jack Richardson (names may be incorrect)
The most illustrious section member was the late William J. “Bill” Bell. He joined in the mid-years of the Sousa Band, played for four years (1921 -1924), and then left for the Cincinnati Symphony, thence on to the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, the New York Philharmonic, and, finally, a professorship at Indiana University. But there were others.
Herman Conrad was a member of Sousa’ s original band formed in 1892. He is pictured, replete with a huge handlebar moustache, in an 1896 edition of Musical Times and Band Journal published by the J. W. Pepper Band Instrument Company. It is significant that beneath Conrad’s photograph it says, “Sousaphone, Sousa’s Band.” This is the first mention of this instrument and predates C. G. Conn’s fabrication of this, then unique, instrument by several years. Leaving the Sousa Band in 1901, Conrad became part of the infant recording industry that thrived in and around New York and Philadelphia.
The Hellebergs-August Sr. and his sons August Jr. and John
During the lifetime of the Sousa band, manufacturers in exchange for endorsements and an advertisement in the band’s program supplied all of the instruments, with few exceptions. J. W. Pepper was, apparently, the first supplier of instruments, but C. G. Conn enjoyed the longest relationship. Although encouraged to play these sponsor provided instruments, Sousa would make individual exceptions, mainly for soloists.
The band did not begin using all sousaphones until 1923-24. Up to that time only one, played by John W. “Jack” Richardson, was used while the others played what appear to be Conn 26 or 28Js or other tubas from the Conn line. In all probability, Conn gave the sousaphones to Sousa, and upon his unexpected death in 1932 the members simply kept them.
One of the most interesting individuals ever to don the Sousa uniform was John Kuhn. He was a member from 1915 until 1919, although he also played the band’s 1920 summer season at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Kuhn was a full-blooded Sioux and previously attended the then Carlisle School for Indians in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The school building now partially houses the United States Army War College. Kuhn also played football at Carlisle, whose graduates numbered such illustrious Native Americans as the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe.
John Kuhn, “The Chief, ” ca. 1920
Following his years with Sousa, Kuhn lived and worked in Chicago where he was universally known as “The Chief.” In the 1920s, C. G. Conn marketed a mouthpiece designed by him that was appropriately named The Chief. I knew a tuba player who used one that he claimed was given to him by Kuhn. When I worked summers during my college days in the brass repair shop of Lyon & Healy, one of the other repairmen knew The Chief and related an amusing anecdote.
Although odd for a Native American, Kuhn began to lose his hair, or thought he was. He sought several remedies and ultimately went to a quack who made daily applications of a salve to Kuhn’s scalp. In order for the wonder salve to work, Kuhn was instructed to wear a paper bag on his head much in the manner of a chef’s hat. Needless to say, he was the object of much humor, which he did not totally appreciate. Ultimately, as the story went, the salve burned Kuhn’ s scalp and that terminated the treatments.
Kuhn was reported to be a master of the pseudo-string bass style of playing. In the 1923 Conn catalog it states, “Mr. Kuhn is world -wide renowned as a Sousaphone virtuoso whose performance has never been equaled in pianissimo song renditions.” Kuhn was on staff at one or another of the Chicago radio stations for many years, and then, as the tuba lost ground to the string bass, drifted into obscurity.
For sheer longevity, John W. “Jack” Richardson takes the prize. He performed with Sousa from 1903 until the final performance of the Sousa Band in late 1931. A towering man, standing six-feet-six-inches and having big, square shoulders to match, he was an impressive sight when wearing his huge large-bore, four-valve sousaphone. Richardson, although reportedly not the player Bell and others were, led the tuba section throughout his tenure with Sousa. In a short article written by E. L. Freeman, another of Sousa’s tubists, he compared the two four-valve bell-up sousaphones that were then fixtures in the ensemble. Freeman stated, “Gabe Russ (1925-1927 seasons) played one of these which was constructed of heavy brass; with four valves it seemed to weigh about twice as much as the others [three-valve, upright-bell Conn 34K sousaphones]. The No. 1 tuba [Richardson’s horn] in contrast to this was equally large, but the material was lightweight and flexible. The tone on this original model was very flexible and seemed to have resonance that the others did not possess.”
Richardson was a real character who rode the Sousa train for 28 years as it wound its way throughout America. Sousa realized that the railroad, which in the first half of this century could tour his band as nothing else could, would bring him and his music to the public. I had the fortune to perform with a few of the Sousa band members as well as those of Kryl and Creatore during the mid-1960s. When I joined the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1966 the personnel manager was the late Eugene “Gene” Bishop, who had been a cornetist with Sousa.
Occasionally Gene would bring out some little piece of Sousa memorabilia. One morning he brought around a tour itinerary. It was taken in stride that the band moved each morning, by train, to a new town where they played a matinee and evening performance, except when the town could not support two concerts. Then there was an additional move following the matinee. The itinerary, printed in very small type on, I recall, either light green or reddish paper, completely covered the back and front. Bishop said that the band traveled so far and so fast, by 1920s standards, that they often could only tell where they were by referring to the itinerary.
It was said that during these every-day morning train rides that Jack Richardson could always be found in a poker game with bass drummer Gus Helmecke and a couple of others. Whenever the train would slow going through some tiny hamlet Richardson would look up and proclaim, “This must be…. ” and resume playing cards. Other Sousa bandsmen said that he was seldom wrong.
Although Bill Bell was the most famous, other names were well known in tuba circles of the first half of this century. Luca Del Negro was a stock name in New York. In the spring of 1966 while in New York I paid Walter Sear a visit. He had, among several interesting tubas, Del Negro’s pair of Holtons. As I recall, one was a medium-large bore, the other a small bore. They both had side action piston valves and unique leadpipes that could be changed from the normal position to the other side of the bell so that in an orchestra pit the bell would always point out. Furthermore, these horns had the valve cluster set very close to the bell. Sear, who had known Del Negro, said he had very short arms and needed the valves set close so he could reach them.
Among many others was Rueben Clinton (Johnny) Evans who played with the Sousa Band in 1928-29, and then went on to tour with Merle Evans and Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey for many, many seasons. Evans had an early influence on Harvey Phillips’s career when they toured together for several seasons with the circus.
One of the other names associated with the Sousa Band is relegated to the outside of a mouthpiece-August Helleberg, Sr. The senior Helleberg played with Sousa from 1900 until 1904. Following his departure his two sons, August, Jr. and John, played with Sousa. August, Jr. stayed with Sousa until 1911 and John through 1909. In a photograph taken in 1904, all three are using nearly identical Sanders tubas.
The senior Helleberg’s instrument has its main tuning slide bent much like the main slide of the Conn CC pictured in the Geib tuba method book (King also made tubas with this style slide), but his sons’ tubas are made with a typical German-style main slide. All four instruments have four rotary valves (August Jr.’s may possibly have a fifth valve) but, with these exceptions, all three instruments appear to be of similar design and manufacture. On the first European tour, Helleberg asked Sousa about ordering a set of Sanders tubas, but for whatever reason that never happened. There was some speculation that they were made to order for the Hellebergs by Conn, but from appearance, they seem to be all by Sanders. Professional performers, especially those employed by Sousa, were held in high esteem by the instrument companies of that era, and, in exchange for an endorsement, would construct any special order instrument desired. It is interesting to note that the first, third, and fourth valve slides were made to be accessible to the performer’s left hand to adjust tuning. Such a feature is sometimes touted by today’s manufacturers as revolutionary.
August, Sr. is mentioned in the 1923 C. G. Conn catalog as, ” … premier bass [tuba] soloist of New York City, [who] has for years been connected with such organizations as Sousa’s and Conway’s Bands, Metropolitan Grand Opera, and the Philharmonic Orchestras of New York as well as the best phonograph companies.” In that catalog is also shown, along with the “Chief,” the Helleberg mouthpiece marked with a simple “H”-the genesis of most of today’s tuba mouthpieces.
Of those who knew or knew of “Augie” Helleberg, all stated that he believed that each tuba required its own, individual mouthpiece. When he acquired a new tuba, he would, in turn, have a mouthpiece crafted for it.
The basic Helleberg is a funnel-shaped mouthpiece that has been made in a variety of rim diameters. Conn made several different Hellebergs at various times that mainly differed in rim diameter. In their 1923 catalog, both the Chief and Helleberg models are illustrated. If the illustrations are at all close, the Chief has a cup diameter of 1 1/2 inches and the Helleberg is smaller at 1 3/8 inches. Walter Sear had a Helleberg that belonged to August, Sr. that he had gotten from John who, in the mid-1960s, was living, in retirement, on Long Island. Sear had that Helleberg copied and it was a popular version.
It is truly sad that nothing even approaching a high-fidelity recording of the Sousa Band exists. It would be interesting to be able to listen to the tuba section of the March King’s band. Surely the tubists of that golden-era phenomenon shaped tuba performance styles past mid-century. The pseudo-string bass style was certainly prevalent, but the musicianship must have been first rate. Sousa paid well and could afford to employ the very best. For example, August Helleberg, Sr. was the original tuba with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when it was founded by Theodore Thomas in 1891. In the early years, Sousa personally auditioned all of his personnel, but as the years became decades and many soloists and section leaders became established members, the audition responsibility was passed to them. In the last years, many men were hired based upon the recommendation of other section members. In total, less than 500 men played with the Sousa band.
During the Sousa Band era the tuba was an integral part of nearly every musical endeavor, both legitimate and popular, and it is not hard to understand why individual members frequently took jobs that did not involve the grueling tours. Employment opportunities were far greater than can even be imagined today. Only with the rise of the string bass in popular and dance music did the tuba drift into a more specialized role.
Sousa brought music to the masses when communications as we now know them were just visions. Radio had only begun to make inroads by the time Sousa died, and traveling entertainment, although fading, remained part of Americana until the advent of television. Surely those tuba players of long ago shared a unique, unequaled experience that none of us can realize, but, regardless of the years, their legacy lives within each and every tuba player.
Special thanks to Loras John Schissel, Senior Musicologist of the Library of Congress music division for his help in obtaining personnel lists, anecdotal material from Sousa fraternal association sources, and photographs.