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Auburn Knights

John D. Fair, University of Texas, Austin
The Auburn Knights is a musical group that was founded at Auburn University, in Auburn, Lee County, in 1930, during the early years of the Great Depression. The group performs swing and jazz from the big-band era and other genres at popular music halls throughout the South and East. The Auburn Knights has attracted some of the finest talent in Alabama and has been associated with numerous nationally known entertainers, including Frank Sinatra. Although most of the performers have been Auburn University students, the group has had no formal association with the institution. Members of the organization and its off-shoot alumni association have gained widespread respect for their authentic musicianship and preservation of big-band traditions.
The ensemble was founded by 10 students of the Auburn University music program in September 1930 in an old music building on Thach Avenue. Jimmie Robbins (alto saxophone) of Selma and J. R. Quinlivan (tenor saxophone) of Mobile were elected leader and business manager, respectively. Other notable members during these early years included Howard Upchurch (piano), Louis "Red" McRae (drums), and Frank Tennille (banjo and vocals), who was the father of singer Toni Tennille and who later performed (as Clark Randall) with the Bob Crosby Orchestra. The "Auburn Knights" name had a triple connotation as boosters of Auburn, participants in Auburn night life, and defenders of Auburn. The group rehearsed at the WAPI radio studio in the agriculture building and soon added a series of Monday-evening broadcasts on its Montgomery affiliate, WSFA. The show became very popular, and by February 1931 the Knights were playing for every dance on the Auburn campus, including the Military Ball, the Interfraternity Council Dance, the Ag Ball, and the monthly A Club dances. Their repertoire, played with the traditional big-band orchestration, featured covers of popular songs of the era such as "Little White Lies," "Confessin'," and "Star Dust."
The ensemble was soon invited to perform at local high school dances and made a long-remembered 1931 Christmas trip to Mobile to play dinner music at the Battle House Hotel and at various one-night performances. As statewide bookings increased, members typically received $25 to $100 for a four hour-performance from their 400-song repertoire. William Arms Fisher's folk song "Goin' Home" became the band's theme song. Throughout the 1930s, the Auburn Knights made road trips to perform every weekend during the school year as well as summer-long tours arranged by the Music Corporation of America and the Holt-Pumphrey agencies. At casinos in Myrtle Beach and Virginia Beach, the Knights mingled and played pick-up baseball with members of the famous swing bands headed by Harry James, Les Brown, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey. They even played after-hours with a young Frank Sinatra to the delight of fans behind the bandstand. Sinatra and Brown gave the band some new arrangements that it later used in performances at Auburn's Tiger Theater. In 1936, saxophonist Gerald Yelverton was recruited by Glenn Miller as his lead saxophonist, bringing the Knights recognition as the best college band in the country. In summer 1940, the Knights played at the Sea Side Casino at Virginia Beach under the direction of John Philip Sousa II, grandson of the famous march king. It continued to play beachfront resorts until 1942, when America's involvement in World War II caused a thinning of the band's ranks and a disbandment for several years.
With funds raised by the sale of the band's bus, zoot suits, and equipment, the Knights reassembled in 1946 under the leadership of saxophonist Shel Toomer with trumpeter Bob Hill as manager. During the next decade, members of the orchestra accompanied such celebrities as Julie Christie, Joni James, George Jessel, Dave Gardner, and the Four Freshmen. Many went on to musical careers with such orchestras as Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, and Lawrence Welk; indeed, the Auburn Knights was likened to a "farm club" for big-band orchestras. Two of the Knights became celebrities in their own right. Trombonist Urban "Urbie" Green of Mobile became a solo performer in the 1950s with the Gene Krupa and Woody Herman bands, and vocalist Toni Tennille (who sang with the Knights during her college years in the late 1950s) became a world-renowned recording artist with husband Daryl Dragon as The Captain and Tennille in the 1970s. The Knights gained such a significant reputation that Lawrence Welk's trumpeter Ronnie Bretz resigned his position in 1957 to enroll at Auburn University so he could join the Knights. Also in the 1950s, alumni of the band began returning to the Auburn campus for annual reunions. And in 1969, they organized formally as the Auburn Knights Alumni Association and drafted a constitution.
In 1968, the orchestra recorded its only LP, entitled Total Eclipse. But by this time, big-band music began to go out of style. The Knights' engagements became limited to country clubs and nightclubs, and few Auburn students even knew of their existence. Meanwhile, former members, including current Knights, would gather at reunions, organize themselves by decade, and play tunes reminiscent of their era. The 1972 reunion was notable for appearances by Urbie Green and Auburn football coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan, who sang "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" with the band. Auburn president Harry Philpott, who sang "My Blue Heaven" the previous year, was made an honorary member. In 1979, the Knights were joined by the first African American member, trumpeter Mike "Shed" Hollinshead. In 1981, the first woman, saxophonist Kyle Caldwell, joined the band.
Despite a constantly changing line-up, the band, having 20 members in its current typical roster, has continued to attract some of the best fledgling musicians in the region and has maintained its following into the twenty-first century. The Knights still perform regularly, although more locally. Much has changed with regard to arrangements, instrumentation, and repertoire, but the Auburn Knights still maintains its commitment to keeping up the traditions of the dance-band genre. And whereas their three-hour engagement at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta after World War II earned the sum of $300, a similar contemporary gig would likely bring in about $3,000.
Additional Resources
Cumming, Joseph B. "A New Day for the Auburn Knights." Atlanta Weekly Constitution, November 2, 1980.
Kazek, Kelly. Hidden History of Auburn. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2011.
Robbins, Jimmie. "The Organization of the Auburn Knights." Auburn Knights Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Auburn University.
White, Dave. "Auburn Knights' Reunion Starts Memories Flowing." Birmingham News, August 16, 1981.
Published:  September 6, 2016   |   Last updated:  September 6, 2016