R Douglas Therrell of North Carolina Talks Music, The Early Years

An article by R. Douglas Therrell

It is sometimes said that children who make career decisions at a young age usually have an abundance of exposure early on, are complemented on their efforts, and thus come to believe that that is something they “can do” or should grow up to do. Thus with the absence of any other strong later influences, the tendency is to move to the default position of what one was told they could do, or were good at when still in their young formative years. Such was likely the case with Robert Douglas Therrell.

The earliest memories of Therrell abound with things musical and rhythmic. Before his first memories he was told of standing in his crib and shaking it in rhythm until it moved across the room to the radio playing an old up-tempo ragtime piece titled “The South”. In Charlotte, then still an emerging town, everything stopped at a set time about dusk every afternoon. Every radio in range tuned to WBT to hear the live studio band, The Briar Hoppers playing Texas swing and country and always opening with their snappy theme song Wait Till the Sun Shines Nelly. They included the Whitey and Hogan duo, Claude Casey, Shelton on banjo and fiddling Hank doubling as the comedian and others. Some of their favorites were Westfalia Waltz, Want You Ride in My Little Red Wagon, Under the Double Eagle and You Are My Sunshine…… Many years later Douglas would surprise his parents with a 50th anniversary surprise party. It was a surprise because his Mother, though talkative and extroverted, always seemed to avoid ceremony in her honor.    Performing for the small group of guests at his home would be, you guessed it, the gray-headed aging – in person and still lively– Briar Hoppers. What a hit they were with all in attendance including longtime family friend evangelist Billy Graham’s only brother Melvin Graham and his wife. You may recall that the Graham’s grew up on a dairy farm in South Charlotte. At Melvin’s funeral, Billy Graham said of his brother, “the first few years my brother was not convinced I had received God’s calling. Melvin thought I was just trying that to avoid milking cows.”

Younger Years

Little Douglas Therrell was constantly surrounded with music. His mother and three of her sisters all played ragtime piano and would frequently gather in the living room at his grandparents big farm house to take turns playing the piano and dancing the Charleston. This was a practice that his Grandfather encouraged and applauded. For rhythm one of the sisters, usually Doug’s Mother, would play the box or a magazine. Yes that’s correct. A nifty practice of holding a box or magazine in the left hand against the forearm, rapidly and rhythmically striking it like a guitar or tambourine like motion with alternating licks with the fingers and then the elbow to produce an unusual but exciting rhythmic sequence. Douglas would sit and listen and soak it in and managed to get into a rocking chair whenever possible so he could keep moving with the music.

Still living in Charlotte his preschool years were filled with even more musical influences as he was surrounded even in the city with relatives in the music related industry or musicians. One nearby first cousin worked for Decca records and an uncle just one block away for RCA. That meant a new record player and many records of all musical styles. Getting new records was always exciting: Symphonies, Chopin, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Vaughan Monroe. On Saturday night Douglas got the living room to himself. He always sat in his little red rocking chair with his ear about a foot away from the speaker on the huge three way radio console, yes even having shortwave receiving capabilities. He would listen to the New York Philharmonic, then pop with The Saturday Night Hit Parade and singer  Snuky Lanson, and finishing, as he was nodding off in his pajamas and robe, with Texas swing music or the Grand Old Opry. Pop, swing jazz, or Texas swing and country, he could sing them all and it seemed that no one could shut him up.

One day his cousin played for him the wow wow muted trumpet solo with Clyde McCoy’s orchestra playing Sugar Blues. Quickly he learned how to imitate the wow wow sound of the trumpet mute by singing into his clasped hands, until five years later when he got a real trumpet. From that day on there was never any silence to be had anywhere or in anyone’s house. Two young aunts in their early 20s frequently spent the weekends with Douglas and his parents as it was quite a distance out to the farm where they lived with the grandparents. The young, extroverted, popular and extremely attractive aunts were really into music of the day and made sure that Douglas was always involved. To his delight he discovered that one of the aunts was dating a trumpet player. From then on Jimmy Pharr brought his trumpet every time he came to visit and played the required number of tunes for Douglas before being allowed to take his aunt out on a date. For his birthday aunt Evon and trumpeter boyfriend took Douglas to his first grown-up movie featuring the real Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with Sonia Henning. Could it ever get any better than this?

On the other end of the block lived a cousin nine years older than Douglas. Cousin Charles was quite the musician, vocalist, pianist, composer and brass. So in the same neighborhood we had relatives named Robert Douglas, Charles Robert, and Herman Douglas etc. so you begin to get the idea that Robert and Douglas were popular names in the family and had been since before 1100 A.D. For his first full-length program, cousin Charles wrote, produced, directed and conducted a musical revue with the pop songs of the day, woven together with a creative plot and appropriate dialogue mostly set in a soda fountain Café with a jukebox. However it was better than that as the sound for the jukebox was a full orchestra in the pit. So, at age 5 young Douglas had his biggest musical debut, with the exception of solos at church functions of course, and boy was Robert Douglas hooked for life. But not so fast there was a humorous hitch. The Bobby Sox girls in the cast lifted Douglas off of a café table and on to the floor where he was to walk down to center stage to sing one of the pop hits of the day. It was then that he noticed the hundreds and hundreds of people in the audience, standing room only, while still more or less in character he began to gaze around the auditorium while conductor Charles and the orchestra played the introduction….. No singing…… Then played the introduction again,….. Still no singing….. Conductor cousin Charles stopped the orchestra, looked up at younger cousin Douglas and said: “Douglas you can start now”. These words startled and simultaneously embarrassed Douglas and so to preserve his dignity he spoke out in a booming voice easily heard throughout the hall and said: “well Charles you said not to start until everyone got quiet and there’s a man out there sliding his foot”. With that, the house went crazy with standing applause and laughter and cheering. With his dignity restored, the introduction replayed by the orchestra, and no one in the audience sliding their foot, Douglas proceeded to give a fantastic performance which again brought the house down. As he sat in the back seat of their spotless 1938 black Pontiac sedan riding home with his parents that evening he was thinking Wow (fully aware that he did a great job), I’m an entertainer just like those guys on the radio will it ever be any better than this and when can I do it again.

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