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tiggerpolice 08-09-2005 08:22 AM

Sometimes, the music is more memorable than the game
Sometimes, the music is more memorable than the game
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Peter Finney
An entertaining Saints omen: The band is back.

What band?
The house band, that's what.

Assuming you're a superstitious sort, this could be a good sign for our gladiators in black and gold.

The last time our Saints had a band to call their own was in 1992, the year Jim Mora's football team finished the regular season 12-4, best record in franchise history, good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to finish ahead of the 49ers and Joe Montana.

Now it's up to Joe Hebert, new director of the New Orleans Saints Band, and his group of 17 music makers, to become the kind of good-luck charm Ronnie Kole's seven-piece Dixieland crew proved to be when Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling were keeping the Saints competitive week after week.

Hebert, director of bands at Loyola University for the past 41 years, goes back to the franchise's first seasons in the late '60s, a time the expansion Saints were better known for what took place at halftime in Tulane Stadium. It was a time when such things as chariots race, ostrich races, hundreds of pigeons filling the air, a re-creation of the Battle of New Orleans (when one of the participants lost part of his hand) took the edge off what was happening during the game.

"We had a 30-piece band at Tulane Stadium, sitting in the northwest corner," Hebert said. "When the Saints moved to the Superdome in '75, we had to cut the band down to 17. But they were just as loud."

The star of the show, of course, was Al Hirt with his trumpet and, on many Sundays, his sidekick Pee Wee Spitelera with his clarinet.

"What an accomplished pro Al was," Hebert said. "He'd join the band every now and then, and he'd perform solo at halftime. Never missed a beat, when it came to music. But, during the game, he was focused on football. He was a rabid Saints fan."

Unlike his favorite team, Hirt made five Super Bowl appearances. In Super Bowl IV, when Minnesota played Hank Stram's Kansas City Chiefs in Tulane Stadium, Hirt, dressed as a Viking, joined another famous trumpet player, Doc Severinsen, dressed as an Indian, in the halftime show.

The show produced a classic gaffe when Hirt and Severinsen walked out of range of the TV cameras. The director found out later that they were simply walking around a large pile of manure left by one of the animals also in the show.

Which reminded Barra Bircher, now in his 35th year as Saints director of entertainment, what can go wrong when it comes to show biz.

Usually, said Bircher, the problem is not the band, it's the national anthem.

During the days at Tulane Stadium, Mel Torme, who wrote "The Christmas Song," and John Gary, a local vocalist who made the big time, were among a list of singers who didn't get much beyond "O say can you see" before losing their way. After that, they would turn to the "Star Spangled Banner" lyrics that were posted, in large type, at the podium.

Lyrics were not the downfall of Carol Lawrence, famous as the first Maria on Broadway in "West Side Story."

"Like Mel Torme," Bircher said, "Carol Lawrence was in town playing the Blue Room at the Roosevelt. She arrived at the Superdome to sing the anthem and everything looked great. Thirty seconds before she stepped up, I checked the sound system and it was perfect. Well, she started singing and, suddenly, no sound. Dead. She soldiered on, but you could see the smoke coming out of both ears. When the ordeal was over, I remember being hit with, let's say, some classic language that would make a sailor blush.

"I learned later Carol was going through a bad time. Her musical director had quit. And, during one of her shows at the Blue Room, the sound system failed. All I could do was send her a note of apology and a large bunch of roses. That's show biz, I guess."

Joe Hebert remembers a brighter side to our anthem, one sung by Ella Fitzgerald at Tulane Stadium.

She arrived by limo, went right to the center of the field, delivered a Hall of Fame performance. Walking off, Ella said, "How was that for an audition?"

"We had a special seat for her in the stands," Hebert said. "But she turned it down. 'I'd rather be with the band,' she said. She stayed for the rest of the game."

. . . . . . .

Sports columnist Peter Finney can be reached at or (504) 826-3802.

TallySaint 08-09-2005 08:28 AM


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