Peninsula Banjo Band
The following was written by Gene Sandberg and appeared in the PBB News and Views January 2000.
Chuck Ray was the pivotal person in the formation of what has become known as the Peninsula Banjo Band. In the evenings, Chuck played his plectrum banjo at Shakey's and Big Al's pizza parlors and on weekends gave banjo lessons in the basement of the Cupertino Music Store on the Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road. Chuck's students thought, in 1962, that practicing and playing together might be interesting and helpful. Chuck agreed and they began. Gradually they improved and before long were asked to entertain. They called themselves the "Cupertino Banjo Band" (Glenn Atkinson, Jerry Deerwester, Don Flora, Pearl Nicolino, Chuck Ray, Manuel Rodriques, Steve Sedlak, Sidney Steele, and Merle Wilhelm). Later, as the group increased in size, they temporarily called themselves the "Golden Gate Banjo Band" before voting in 1971 to be known as "The Peninsula Banjo Band".
In 1965, the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Mt. View, Sakura Gardens, while visiting in Japan, discovered a young devotee of Harry Reser, a fellow who played the tenor banjo with extraordinary skill. He invited the youngster to come to Mt. View and to play regularly in his restaurant. Zenzo Tagawa rapidly became the Americanized "Charlie" Tagawa and was soon discovered, not only by numerous restaurant patrons but also by the banjo players in the area. Asked to join the Cupertino Banjo Band, he did so and soon became their leader. He has remained so for all but two of the subsequent 33 years. Charlie played regularly at Sakura Gardens and its successor restaurant, Imperial Gardens, for fifteen years. On many evenings, one or another of Charlie's banjo or gut-bucket playing friends would drop in to listen or to jam with him.
In 1974, the group elected Charlie as President, preparatory to filing as a charitable, nonprofit California corporation. Succeeding Presidents have included Leo Campey, Glenn Atkinson, Cas Stockard, Bob Delaney, Chuck Daley, Terry Bull, John Goulais, Carl Adams, Paul Nearhood, Tom James, Gene Ripley, Helen Wick Martin, George Thum, Ray Ferrie, Flo Lewis, Floyd Oatman, Steve Adkins and, currently, Jim Strickland.
The first and early records of donations to charity by the band are obscure but the first clear recollection of stable and continued donations were those made to the Braille Fund. Two members of the band were blind (Emil Hakkila and George Chung). Charitable contributions then and since have always favored those organizations having some emotional connection to the group.
In about 1970, Keith Pinckney, the 10 year old son of Bob Pinckney and brother of 12 year old Doug Pinckney, all members of the band, developed leukemia. Keith died from his disease a year or two later. During that time he was treated regularly at the Stanford University Hospital by Dr. Richard Wilbur, a pediatric medical oncologist on the full-time faculty. In sympathy with this situation, the band's donations were directed for the next twenty years to the Stanford University Hospital and to Dr. Wilbur's research efforts. During that interval, the Hospice of the Valley (Santa Clara) was added to the band's recipients on the recommendation of Dell Coy. Donations to this organization often included playouts at their fund raising dinners.
Since 1994, the band has transferred its donations to other organizations in recognition of the attention and assistance given to ill or dying members of the band (e.g. the Diabetic Society of Santa Clara, O'Connor Hospital in San Jose, El Camino Hospital in Mt. View, Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, the American Diabetic Society, the San Jose Visiting Nurse's Association and, more recently, the Ronald MacDonald House in Palo Alto. Contributions to these various organizations over the years now total approximately $170,000.
Recently, focus has also been placed on preserving the banjo and encouraging the development of new banjo players through scholarship training programs. Scholarships have been established for banjo lessons and a scholarship for tub-bass training has also been established.
This, in principle, is reminiscent of the development of the Banjo Youth Band by Charlie and Don Obertone in the early 1960s. The band was composed of their students (ages 6 to 16) and included banjos, guitars, a piano and both standup bass and gut-buckets. Don moved away within a year or two but Charlie went on to lead and teach the group through the early 1980's. The highlight for this group was their two-week-long trip to Japan in 1974 during which they called themselves the "Banjo Ambassadors". They traveled from Tokyo in the north to Nagasaki in the south playing at several points along the way plus on TV and in the first Tokyo Banjo Jubilee. In 1975, they played at the FIGA convention in Atlanta and Charlie treated them to a visit to Disney World in Orlando on the way home. Several of that group have progressed to brilliant professionalism, for example, Bill Lowery, Kevin McCabe, Scott Hartford, Bruce Jolly, Pat Dutrow and Nori Tagawa.
Charlie's dominate influence and his years of contribution continue unabated even now in the form of the adult band itself. A large percentage of the members have been or continue to be Charlie's students. Moreover, the PBB playbook consists of more than 220 songs, each of them Charlie's arrangement. Charlie has been the major figure in the continuity, success and reputation of the PBB through the last 33 years and continues to be its nationally recognized leader.
The source of income permitting charitable donations and scholarships has been, as from the beginning, "playouts", the entertainment of groups for a fee. The band's popularity in this business has varied considerably over the years, but during the last several has amounted to about 2 to 4 playouts per month. In addition to the standard and recurring array of local playouts, the band has enjoyed numerous unique engagements in San Francisco (e.g. at a Giant's baseball game in Candlestick Park, for the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the de Young Museum, the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Black and White Ball, the re-establishment of the cable cars, the World Trade Center, the Convention of American Mayors, where Willie Brown directed the band for a short stint and did a little cakewalk and for President Clinton, and later Vice President Gore, at local Democratic Party fund raisers in Portola Valley). The band was also on the program for the completion of Highway 85, the opening of the McEnery Convention Center and, more recently, the inauguration of the Technology Museum of Innovation, all in San Jose.
The band made a record album in 1975 (Just Because). It recorded an audio tape in 1981 (More, More, More) and recorded both an audio tape and a compact disc in 1996 (Just One More Time). All three albums are now available as CDs. Profits from the sale of these recordings have regularly added to the band's income. While production of the record album has been discontinued, sales of the other recordings remain brisk and annual profits are often greater from those than from playouts.
In 1972, the Band initiated the first of a series of annual Banjo Jubilees. In 2003, the 31st, was held on the weekend of Labor Day in Palo Alto. It followed the typical format of previous years. There was a pre-Jubilee party Friday evening, a workshop Saturday afternoon and a banquet Saturday evening. The big show was held from noon to 5:00 P.M. on Sunday. The program played to an audience of roughly 700 and featured seven banjo bands, a Dixieland band, professional soloists. The Band also sponsored the 1st International Banjo Jubilee in San Jose in 1975. Headliners included Peter Meyer (Germany), Clem Vickery (England), Maurice Bolyer (Canada) and Charlie (Japan?).
The Band practices at Harry's Hofbrau 390 Saratoga Ave. San Jose every Wednesday at 7:00 PM. There's usually a full house with a large percentage being individuals who have attended regularly for years. Visiting banjo and gut-bucket players are welcome to play with the group upon receiving permission from Charlie Tagawa, or the presiding director of the evening.
The inclusion of other instruments, particularly those that are electrically amplified, is not permitted.
Membership has varied from 30 to 100. It includes both banjo and gut bucket players and additionally includes an Auxiliary. The Auxiliary, formed in 1998, is an open membership, exceptionally loyal and exceedingly helpful group. The Auxiliary plans and produces essentially all of the band's social events (e.g. Spring Picnic, Jubilee Banquet, Christmas Dinner, birthday recognition's, memorial gatherings, etc.) and, in addition, has been the predominant force behind the sales of the band's audio tapes and CDs.
The band is governed by a seven member Board of Directors (see below). Meetings are monthly. Elections are held the first Tuesday of each December with instant inauguration of the new officers. There is no limitation on the duration one may hold an office, but no one may hold two offices at the same time. The Minutes of each meeting of the Board of Directors is published in the band's monthly newsletter (News and Views) in which playout announcements and other items of general interest are published.
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