The bandmaster king of Baltimore

Baltimore Glimpses

May 03, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

IT'S PROM time, and attention is drawn to the flowers, the tuxedos, the gowns and the limos and the flowers and the tuxedos and the gowns and the limos -- and of course, to the band!

A quick survey of which bands are playing around the area at high school proms this season turns up the following: At Dundalk High, a group called "Wite Noyze"; at Dulaney High, "The Klassix"; at Northwestern High, "M & M Productions"; at Towson High, "Ordinary Joes"; at City College, "Bobbe and Company."

Say, whatever happened to Rivers Chambers?

For most of the years from the 1930s to the 1970s, the Rivers Chambers orchestra was far and away the most popular band for Baltimore's proms, parties and bashes, and there has been none since to rival its glory.

To make a splash, party planners would first "clear the date with Mr. Chambers" -- then build their party around that date.

They don't make bands like that in Baltimore anymore.

Rivers Chambers was a black kid from a poor family who was born on Etting Street in East Baltimore. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he was playing in the pit band at the old Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue. In those days a musician had to have, as he once put it, "more courage than good sense" to eke a living out the business.

Chambers once found himself playing with sidekicks Buster Brown and Leroy "Tee" Coggins in the Wilkins Tavern on Harford Road. The year was 1937, and what happened that night not only changed the life of the Rivers Chambers orchestra, but of a generation of young people in Baltimore.

Chambers gave them a new way to dance and sing and celebrate and to remember their high school proms, party days and romances.

From that night on (up until the 1970s) the Rivers Chambers musicians played at thousands of Baltimore parties -- from the junior prom in the high school gym to the white-linen-and-crystal set at the Valley country clubs -- proms, cotillions, weddings, sweet-16 parties, graduations -- Chambers did them all.

"What happened," Buster Brown recalled for us, "is that somebody out there that night in the crowd beyond the bar called out, "Play 'Cut Down the Old Pine Tree!' We knew that tune as a country-western, about a lover mourning for his dead sweetheart.

"The words were, 'Build a coffin of pine,' and 'She's not alone in her grave because my heart will always be there with her.'

"We were in no mood to sing about coffins and graves -- that night or any night, that's not what we did. So when I started to sing, I just ad libbed 'cottage of pine' for 'coffin of pine,' and for a refrain that sounded like, 'Oh, see her grave,' I substituted 'Oh, cut it down.'

"Well, the minute we started singing 'Oh, cut it down,' for some reason everybody started singing and clapping and joining in:

Oh, cut it down, Oh cut it down

Yes they cut down the old pine tree

To build a cottage so fine,

for that sweetheart of mine

Yes they cut down the old pine tree

"That song carried us for the evening."

With all due respects to the Great Man Himself, on this he was only part right; it carried him for more than 40 years.

Rivers Chambers died in 1957, while playing the organ at Odd Fellows Hall on Fayette Street. After his death Buster Brown and sidekick Elmer Addison took over the band.

Chambers' funeral was held May 14, 1957, at 2:30 p.m. at Sharp Street Methodist Church on Etting Street. A friend, Leon Wilmore, sang the words from "Matthew": Come blessed father

Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.

The congregation was mostly black, but many of Chambers' white friends also came to pay their respects. Every person there had his or her own private memory of who he or she was dancing with at some prom, so many years ago.

Leonard Wilmore had his memory. He said it was of Rivers himself years ago, "asking me to be sure that I sang this song at his funeral . . .

I was hungry and ye gave me meat,

I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . ."

Mr. Coggins was there too.

"I got my own memories of Rivers," he recalled. "I can see many a dance floor, crowded with couples, at white parties and black, clapping and stomping and singing, 'Oh, cut it down . . .' "

Mr. Addison had his memories, too. "We played every party George Mahoney (a prominent, wealthy contractor who was also a perennial gubernatorial candidate) ever gave."

Later Mr. Addison told a reporter, "After the funeral, Buster and I came back to my house on McKean Street and sat on the back porch. We talked long into the night. We had a lot of memories of Rivers."

What's yours?

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