April 2011

Old timers will fondly recall the popular 11-piece Marion Mercer Band that featured the bandleader’s equally talented sister Nelle on piano. Debuting in the 1930s, this musical ensemble was the only major one in these parts until its success later spawned other groups. Marion Mercer could play a variety of instruments: trombone, vibraphone, violin, accordion, piano, organ and chimes.

Top: Marion Mercer Band, Bottom: Nelle Mercer Band, Gene Young on Drums

In 1980, the late Press writer Dorothy Hamill interviewed Nelle. The bandleader showed the reporter a photo of her brother’s early band and identified band members. Duke Barron played saxophone and clarinet. Doc Welch, Tony Farris and Edwin Bowman played saxophone. Trumpeters included Dan Zoerb and Bill “Rocky” Stone. Park Johnson was on bass fiddle and Junior Campbell pounded the drums.

Because musicians had regular jobs then, they worked weekdays and performed on weekends. They were in heavy demand throughout East Tennessee and usually stayed booked most of the time. Aside from vocalist Frieda Ricker Rose, Nelle was the only female performer in the band. The gifted lady, who in private life was Mrs. Earl Dotson, could assume Marion’s bandleader responsibilities during his absence at a moment’s notice. Ms. Rose later became a receptionist for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.

The three Mercer siblings, Marion, Nelle and Beulah, grew up in a musical family. When Nelle was about three years old, she stood on her tiptoes in order to reach the piano keys and plunk out tunes. At age 12, the youngster played piano for Unaka Avenue Baptist Church. Later, her mother would hold her on her lap and let her play.

When World War II broke out, Marion took a military hiatus and began serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army Special Services. Before departing, he turned over the reins of his band to Nelle. The new leader’s first order of business was to compose a theme song, “Study In Rhythm.” Doc Welsh served as arranger for every new piece that the group played. Nelle’s genre was primarily easy listening big band music – soft and sweet in the fullness and richness style of the Glenn Miller Band. Those were the days of the fox trot, Big Apple, waltz and jitterbug.

Jean Bowman Moore, who lived a block away on E. Myrtle Avenue, recalled going to Nelle’s residence at 515 E. Fairview when the bandleader and her band would practice their music on the porch and draw a sizable crowd of spectators on the steps, sidewalk and street below. Jean recalled that those were fun times.

During the war years, Nelle and her band purchased a bus and began traveling to distant gigs in Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. About this same time, she saw the need for and hired a booking agent.

When the war ended, Nelle and Marion did not reunite, but instead led separate bands. By then, added competition came from others such as Vernon Weaver and Rocky Stone who formed their groups.

Patrons once asked Nelle to organize an all-girl band, but she could not locate enough qualified, available musicians to meet their request. The bandleader’s witty solution was to begin introducing her male band members with ladies names: Mabel (Doc Welsh), Agnes (Park Johnson) and Nanny (Marion Mercer, when he played with them). Not to miss out on the fun, Nelle acquired the name Butch.

Over time, other female vocalists performed with Nelle’s band, such as Lucille Young, Georgia Horne, Margaret Harrison, Ginger Dennis, Betsy Ross and Pat Archer.

In 1947, Nelle and Earl bought the Country Kitchen in 1947. It was located near the old structural steel bridge over the Watuaga River in the Austin Springs community.

In 1956, Marion moved to Crystal Springs, Florida where he remained active in the music entertainment business by forming a new band, which he called the Marion Mercer Trio. He was active there for many years playing at local venues.

The musician opened the first Radio Shack in that area and became the owner of Mercer Music Store in three nearby cities. Many people knew him through his music at the Port Paradise, Plantation Club, Yardarm, Holiday Inn, Citrus Hills and Seven Rivers Golf and Country Club. He passed away in March 2000. 

Nelle’s group later became known as the Nelle Mercer Tenor Band, consisting of tenor saxophones, trumpets and drums. Band personnel were Robert Moore, Tony Farris, Gene Proffitt, Charlie Showalter, Gene Young (drums), Rex S. Rowe, Daley Fine, Clay Slagle, Joe Morrell, Al Bryan, Mac Blackwell, Joe Henley (trumpet) and 13-year old singer Pat Holden.

The Country Kitchen was apparently a successful business enterprise for the Dotsons because they operated it for 21 years until they closed it in 1968. The building stood vacant for many years as a drive by tribute to its big-band heyday era before it became dilapidated and was finally razed.

Although Nelle quit playing professionally, she never abandoned the music she loved. At her home on Austin Springs Road, she owned two organs and a piano and played them with gusto. Since she and Beulah composed numerous songs during their lives – gospel, sentimental and ballads – they ushered in their senior years by getting together frequently and harmonizing their tunes.

Although the three Mercer performers have long passed from the scene, their popular music added rays of sunshine to people’s lives, making them smile at a time when the world’s war situation greatly saddened them. 

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I love to read old newspapers because I never know what I might come across. Such was the case when I examined an article in an April 1931 Johnson City Staff-News titled “Major Lyle Is Chief Speaker for Kiwanis – Old Resident Describes Development of City from Days of Long Ago.”

Major Cy H. Lyle, former editor of the city’s first daily newspaper, The Comet, offered interesting tidbits to the club of the development of Johnson City from a diminutive village of less than 400 people to a thriving town of almost 30,000. The occasion was the Kiwanis Club’s regular luncheon meeting Wednesday noon at the John Sevier Hotel.

Fortunately for club members, he offered very specific information about the city’s growth from 1887 until 1931. However, regrettably for newspaper readers, the account provided a dearth of specific information about the history he was so fluently discussing.

The noted newspaperman supplied details of the city’s gradual growth from the days when the town consisted of the Hoss House, a single water tank (used for trains at Johnson’s Depot), a water ram (hydraulic pump that operates without electricity) and a few scattered houses. Lyle further related numerous anecdotes involving some of the early citizens. Again, the newspaper writer saw fit not to mention their names or what they said. Cy proceeded to describe the struggles of producing a daily paper.

Major Lyle depicted the various residences and business buildings that sprang up as Johnson City grew, relating specifically where each one had stood. The newspaper indicated that older members of the club enjoyed his address because they remembered the things he said. Younger members were also interested because they had heard about them from hearsay.

Lyle recalled the days when Bob Taylor, Augustus Herman Pettibone (member of the United States House of Representatives for the 1st congressional district of Tennessee) and others engaged in heated political battles.

 “I quote these facts from memory,” said Lyle, “but there is none here who can dispute them. I can remember Johnson City from 1878, when I went to work for the Jonesboro Times. I moved to Johnson City in 1881 and lived here much of the time since.”

After Lyle concluded his speech, Mayor W.B. Ellison, who was in charge of program entertainment, introduced some pupils from West Side School The young artists gave a varied program, including a piano and xylophone number, the chorus from a song titled “The Levve,” a reading called “Moonlight on the Colorado” and a song by a quartet of harmonica players.

F. Stewart Crosley, newly elected governor of the Kentucky-Tennessee district, was introduced by president and businessman F.B. Hannah and, in a brief response to a standing tribute by the club, expressed his intention of carrying out the agenda launched by the late Dr. E.B. Bowery, whom he succeed in office.

Afterward, the president handled several items of business. One was an invitation from the Miami Kiwanis Club for the Johnson City members to attend the international meeting in that city sometime in May. District trustees Charles Edwards of Kingsport, L.M. Allred of Erwin and Walter Hunter of Kingsport were present to name a successor to the post of lieutenant governor. It was announced that W.T. Watkins won the award for having the greenest necktie at the previous gathering.

The meeting concluded on a humorous note. Ralph Carr was introduced as the club’s “Baby Kiwanian.” 

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In 1954-55, Miss Sophia Boring was my sixth grade teacher at Henry Johnson School on W. Market Street across from Kiwanis Park. This pretty lady had taught there since 1936, after previously being employed at Columbus Powell School.

Our room was on the second floor in the southwest corner of the school overlooking the playground, Miller and Keezel Garage and the Pepsi Cola Plant. One of the first lessons our teacher taught us was to never call her by her first name. One student deviously tested her sincerity and reaped the consequences.

Subjects that year included reading, writing, spelling, English, geography, history, arithmetic, health, physical education, art, music and duty. Miss Gordon Grubbs, the other sixth grade teacher, taught us geography. John Manning, the city’s elementary school physical education director, visited the school on Fridays to work with the boys.

Sophia (oops, Miss Boring) possessed a special talent for reading stories to her students. She was anything but boring. She read and even performed portions of Homer's “Iliad” and “Odyssey” for the class. She was not opposed to standing on her desk for added dramatization. I can still picture in my mind the massive Trojan horse that she word painted for us. She received her training from Science Hill High School’s Dramatic Club in 1927. She also wrote a school play each year, but that is another story.

Weekly Readers were distributed to students at no charge. They were popular juvenile newspapers that contained stories as well as national news, written in a style fitting for six graders. Once a month, a “Classic's Illustrated” comic books was also handed out to students who could afford the 15 cent charge. 

In those days, we did not have ballpoint pens. Instead, we used fountain pens that had to be filled with ink. Miss Boring had a cabinet along the back of the room with one shelf dedicated for students’ inkbottles. We identified our bottle by scratching our last name on the cap. To fill a pen, you placed the tip of it into the ink and simultaneously pulled a small lever on the side. This created a vacuum, causing ink to flow into the chamber. We filled our pens each morning before class, which usually lasted us all day.

Our classroom had slate blackboards along the north and east sides. Within a few years, green boards began replacing black ones, but the newer ones did not seem natural to us. We still referred to them as blackboards.

Assigned daily duties, which were graded, included carrying out trash, dusting erasers, sweeping the floor and washing blackboards. A fundamental rule was to erase the boards thoroughly before washing them to prevent streaking. We took the erasers to a designated outside door on the west side of the school for cleaning, which consisted of beating two of them together. We were strictly forbidden to strike an eraser against the steps or side of the building. About half way into the year, the school purchased an electric eraser, which was actually a small vacuum cleaner. It was kept in the back of the cafeteria for all classes to use. It was especially loud. 

After I graduated from the sixth grade, I did not see Miss Boring again until 1967 when I learned that she lived on Highland Avenue. I just had to see her. I shared several memories with her from that era, but sadly she was unable to recall any of them. When I bragged on her wonderful teaching skills and story telling ability, she seemed pleased. I concluded the visit and departed happy that I had seen my former teacher. She passed away shortly thereafter. She stands tall as one of my better schoolteachers.

Miss Boring (upper left inset) probably took the column photo showing her 32 students posing on the upper set of front steps of the school. The photo was her 1927 Sciience Hill High School graduation picture.

Classmates that I can identify are (left to right):

Front: 1. Carolyn Patrick, 2. Joan Curtis, 3. Tonda Nave, 4. Jean Senter, 5. ?, 6. Janice Blevins, 7. Dorothy Greene, 8. Robert Cox, 9. Charles Willingham, 10. Frankie Lewis.

Middle: 11. ?, 12. Brenda Lady, 13. ?, 14. ?, 15. Janie Buchanan, 16. ?, 17. Nanci Biddix, 18. ?, 19. ?, 20. Allen Davis, 21. Jimmy Laughren, 22. Bill Durham.

Back: 23. Johnny McKenzie, 24. Ralph Miller, 25. Wyndham Frye, 26. Edward Johnson, 27. Harold Tyree, 28. Leonard Smith, 29. Stanley Bishop, 30. Kyle Bulla, 31. Larry Hodges and 32. Eddie McKinney.

If anyone can supply the missing names, drop me a note for inclusion on the History/Heritage page.  

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In its heyday, Johnson City’s Southern Railway Depot was a scene of constant activity as travelers embarked and disembarked passenger trains.

Today’s column deals with a young lady, whom I will identify as Jane Doe. It is early summer of 1938 and she is anxiously waiting for the big locomotive to arrive to take her on an extended journey away from the city. Since she has never been on an overnight train trip before, she is understandably apprehensive.

It is imperative that she follows a few common sense rules of train etiquette while on board. First, she needs to dress fittingly for the long ride. Summer wear calls for her to adorn a silk or non-crushable linen suit and a lightweight woolen coat. Her hat should be small yet comfortably stay on her head. She needs to wear sturdy comfortable leather shoes. Her luggage should be sturdy enough so as not to come apart at some point during the lengthy jostling ride.

If at any time she needs a question answered, either at the station or on the train, she should consult a railroad employee not a fellow passenger, lest she be offered erroneous advice. Most trains have signs posted advising people not to play cards with strangers. That is not to say she should not participate in a friendly game of bridge or similar pastime, providing no wagers are involved.

When Jane enters the dining car, the steward will escort her to a table and offer her a menu card. Afterward, a waiter will take her order and deliver her food. After she finishes the meal, he will bring her check on a tray. She should place her money on it and wait until he returns with her change. If her bill is under a dollar, the appropriate tip is ten cents. If the meal totals more than a dollar, the suggested amount is 10 to 15 percent of the bill.

Pullman cars can present a formidable and awkward challenge to travelers. Jane can choose a lower berth or an upper one. Since she is young, she picks a higher one, which is slightly cheaper and often more comfortable, although more difficult to get in and out of. A small, agile person can fully dress in his or her berth, but others may find it difficult. Miss Doe should bring along a dark robe or appropriate gown to wear when going from her berth to the nearby dressing room. She needs a small bag containing brushes, combs, cosmetics and other toiletry items for use in the washroom.

Some folks prefer to dress entirely in the dressing room, which requires getting up early ahead of the morning rush. Passengers who chose lower berths are entitled to sit in the seat that faces forward. If the young traveler wants to retire early, she can request the porter to have her berth made ready. The lower occupant must move to an unoccupied nearby seat or go in the club car until this task is completed. When ready to turn in, she again notifies the porter to bring a ladder. In the morning, she uses a bell to signal the porter that she needs the steps again.

Another courteous suggestion is to ask for additional blankets before retiring. Train blankets are heavy but often provide little warmth. Ringing for a porter in the middle of the night is inconsiderate because it awakens other passengers plus the porter may not be available or on break. If Miss Doe wants her shoes shined, she places them on the floor under the lower berth. Payment for the shine can be included with the tip upon leaving the train.

Before Miss Doe reaches her final destination, her porter will brush her clothing, wipe off her shoes and carry her bags for her. This is the appropriate time to tip him. The amount should be 25 to 50 cents for each special service rendered such as a shoeshine or providing a card table. Bon voyage, young lady, we hope to see you back in Johnson City soon. 

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