Eugene F. Oliver Jr., 70, founding member of Dixieland jazz band

April 24, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Eugene Franklin Oliver Jr., a Baltimore clarinetist whose spirited Dixieland jazz band was a fixture at bull and oyster roasts, fraternity parties, outdoor summer concerts and charity fund-raisers for more than 50 years, died Wednesday of cancer at his Ocean City home. He was 70.

Mr. Oliver, who was known professionally as Gene Franklin, led the Pier Five Dixieland Jazz Band, which he founded in Baltimore in 1949.

He continued to play with the band until his death, said his wife of 12 years, the former Loretta Copsey.

"He was still playing in Ocean City and at private parties at Jerry D's in Parkville," Mrs. Oliver said.

The former Cub Hill resident, who lived in Ocean City since 1996, had worked for many years in the home improvement business before establishing Joppa Home Improvement Co. in 1965.

A tall man with blond hair and a carefully trimmed mustache, Mr. Oliver was the epitome of a band leader who always dressed like the rest of his band, in blue blazers worn with light-gray wool or white duck pants in the warmer months.

"Gene always had a large following," said Tylden W. Streett, a Roland Park artist who played drums with the group from 1967 until the 1980s.

"We played at the L'Hirondelle Club, Baltimore Country Club and the Elkridge Club. We played at Washington & Lee, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Rutgers and Bucknell. We did weddings and even funerals but never debutante parties," he said, laughing.

"For many years, he was the only Dixieland band in Baltimore. I don't know where he got the name for the band. I think it was something he just picked out of the air," Mr. Streett said.

A self-taught musician who never learned to read music, Mr. Oliver was gifted with the ability to hear a song once and then play it.

"He'd ask, `What key are we in?' " said Mr. Streett, with a chuckle.

"When he played, he sounded a little like Benny Goodman. He played forcefully, fast and quite hot. And I must say that I never heard a bad note come out of Gene Franklin's horn," he said.

"Because he played seriously hard, you couldn't be a slacker and work in his band. It just wasn't possible," he said.

The band was known for its rousing renditions of "Tin Roof Blues," "A Closer Walk With Thee," "Deep Purple," "Poor Butterfly" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."

"I think he got tired of playing `When the Saints Go Marchin' In,' because he had played it so much over the years. He called it a $25 tune. After playing it once in an evening, if someone requested it, he'd say it would cost them $25 for the band to play it," Mr. Streett said.

Known for his rapport with audiences, Mr. Oliver was able to summon emotions from tears to encouraging spectators to leave their seats and dance in the aisles.

"A lady once said that every time Gene played `Poor Butterfly' it made her cry," Mr. Streett said.

In 1986, Mr. Oliver was honored by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation for 20 years of concerts that had raised $250,000 for the charity. He also had participated in fund-raising concerts at the Lyric Theatre to benefit Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Eugene Franklin Oliver Jr. was born and raised in Dundalk and graduated from Dundalk Senior High School, where he played the clarinet. He was a Navy veteran.

He was a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Towson Moose.

His marriages to Rita Bone and Margaret F. Langhirt ended in divorce.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church, 144th Street and Lighthouse Avenue in Ocean City.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Oliver is survived by two sons, Eugene Franklin Roberts of Baltimore and Benjamin Franklin Oliver of Ocean City; two daughters, Valerie Jean Streb of Carney and JoLynn Schull of Severna Park; a brother, Benjamin Franklin Oliver of Hagerstown; two sisters, Joyce Newcomb of Bethesda and Joan Pfister Howells of Baltimore; four stepsons, Ronald Neff of Alexandria, Va., Martin G. Neff of Baltimore, Victor Neff of Bluffton, Ind., and John Moylan of Parkville; and five grandchildren.

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