In September of last year the tuba world lost a man who has been all but forgotten. He had a brief day in the sun and was miles ahead of just about every tuba player of his time.
In the fall of 1961 I left tiny Oil City, PA, and went away to study music at Indiana State College in Pennsylvania, now called Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I was really a hayseed, an unschooled, ignorant tuba major in the music ed. program. When I got to school I met an older tuba player who was also pursuing his teaching degree. His name was George Pheasant. George was a small but intense guy who had had an interesting career as a teenage tuba soloist with the Horace Heidt Orchestra. He played some in the college concert bands, played bass in the Mellowmen Jazz Big Band and was a frequent soloist with various college groups. I played guitar in the Mellowmen and sometimes sat second tuba to him in concert bands.
George had a serious eye disease that slowly got worse throughout his life. When I was at IUP with him in the early ‘60s he had a lot of difficulty reading music. He had very thick rim glasses and had to hold the music close to his face—but became very good at memorizing music. In his final years he was completely blind. We hear so much about blind musicians who compensate for their eyes with great ears. George was one of them. He really had great ears and played all kinds of jobs on tuba and bass through his entire career. He played a three valve BBb King recording tuba (see photo). It was a 1950s vintage instrument and the same model that I played at college. Harvey Phillips knew about George and spoke fondly of him.
George with his King recording tuba
When I was at college with George he played many featured solos with the various bands. He specialized in the Herbert Clarke style virtuoso pieces like “The Carnival of Venice.” He played featured jazz melodies and Boogie Woogies with the big band. By this time it was a reflection of his young days as a boy sousaphone wonder. I remember he had amazing technique and a good jazz style when playing those tunes. He was not an improviser but was a real showman.
George Pheasant was born on New Year’s Day, 1930, in Johnson, PA. At age five he had a cataract operation. At 12 he started to play the tuba. Carolyn Bruno was his music teacher. In 1947, as a 17 year old, George won the Horace Heidt “Parade of Stars” Talent Contest in Altoona, PA. He later traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, for the Regional Talent Contest. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Horace Heidt was a big name in the music world. His orchestras had many hits and he was famous for discovering the talents of young people. Heidt was like an early version of the reality talent TV show personalities today. He was very impressed with young George’s musical abilities. George played “In The Mood” followed by “When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba.” His performance brought the house down. It was broadcast nationwide on NBC radio and the 5’4” boy with his huge sousaphone become a national star. In his intro Horace said, “I thought a tuba only played ompah-pah. Let’s hear you play.” Afterward he declared, “The boy is sensational. He is one of the greatest finds I have run across in my travels across America.” Heidt then asked George to join his famous Musical Knights group touring the East Coast. George was a senior at Dale High School, so they used a tutor for him to continue his studies. As he left on tour, he was idolized by the locals in Johnstown.
Pheasant was a local idol in Johnstown, PA (1948).
George had a great sense of humor and took part in comedy skits with Don Rice and The Parade Of Stars. He shared equal billing with the other acts including Al Hirt. In one of his onstage skits Heidt asked “What caused the Johnstown Flood?” George’s answer: “I just opened my spit valve and the water rushed out.” In another bit, George was chased through the theater and a dummy likeness of himself was thrown from the balcony into the audience. They played many county fairs in the summers too, often getting there and setting up in the dust after the horse races. George played at many well-known theaters all along the East Coast. In 1951 he did an early performance of “Tubby the Tuba” and composer George Kleinsinger said, “Johnstown has one of the finest tuba players in the country.” George remembered these years as “The best time of my life.”
Pheasant played “Tubby the Tuba” in 1951.
When The Musical Knights was disbanded in 1952, George returned to Johnstown and worked at Penn Traffic Department Store in the produce department. He would travel by train to New York City to study with Bill Bell, a renowned tuba player and teacher. He took lessons on the string bass and played local engagements with both instruments. He also taught himself the trombone, becoming very proficient. He was encouraged to further his talent; that was when he enrolled at IUP, where he would receive his bachelor’s degree in 1963.
George taught music in my home town of Oil City, PA, from 1964 to 1968. He went on to teach music in Matawan, N.J., until he retired in 1983. He taught music from early grade school to high school and was always proud of his concert and marching bands.
After retirement George moved back to Johnstown, where he continued playing with the local bands. One of the bands he played with and enjoyed was The Little German Band, which played at church festivals and art centers. Everyone enjoyed his tuba solos with his church orchestra. His eyesight got progressively worse but he lived alone in his own home in Johnstown. I visited him once at his home and was amazed at how well he lived, regardless of being blind. He insisted on living alone until the last year or so of his life, which he spent in a nursing home. Being in the home depressed him a lot and his health steadily declined. He was a proud man who valued his independence. To this day, folks in his home town talk about his great musical abilities.
George died September 16, 2010. In their obituary the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat said, “George’s life was music, music, music!” For me (as a greenhorn from the sticks), George Pheasant was amazing and inspired me to play solo music on the tuba. He was my first tuba hero! He was a fan of my recordings and came to several of my concerts in the East. His close friend, trombonist Paul Walker, drove him to gigs and concerts and was a true angel to George. George and I stayed in touch by phone for many of his last years. He had a witty sense of humor and we shared many good jokes. We tuba players sometimes forget that all that we do today was begun many years ago by people like George Pheasant. I have been unable to find any recordings of him but hope that someday something will turn up. We all need to know this lately unsung virtuoso of the tuba!
Special thanks to George’s sister and brother-in-law, Carol and Bob Rager, and George’s niece, Carole Piato, for their help with this memoir.