CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Billed as "The Double Sax Man," Ernie Dunlap wowed audiences for years by playing two saxophones at once, tenor and alto, melody on one, harmony on the other.
He entertained in bars and clubs all over town, in Las Vegas and Nashville and Myrtle Beach. He cut a couple of albums. Often he performed with his vocalist-keyboarder wife, Corba. They packed the house wherever they played, especially at the Plaza Lounge.
Nine years ago, he suffered a devastating stroke. Through arduous rehab, he learned to walk again and has regained much of what the stroke stole from him.
He's back on track, playing whenever he can, grateful for normalcy but still baffled by the misfortune that befell him.
At 66, the big-time dreams are dead. But hey, there's a lot of life left in him. And a gospel album, too.
"My dad was a draftsman and a professional photographer. He and my grandpa had Dunlap Studios in Hurricane. They took pictures of everybody in town.
"My mom had a baby clothes store in Milton. Like everything else, the mall closed her down.
"My dad taught me three or four chords on mandolin when I was about 6. I played mandolin in a talent show and sang 'Do Lord' when I was 7.
"But I couldn't find anything to blow on, so I quit until I found me a saxophone. I'm not the greatest singer, so God knew what he was doing by putting a horn in my mouth.
"When I saw the movie 'Rock Around the Clock' with Bill Haley and the Comets, the saxophone blew me away. I knew I had to do that.
"As fate would have it, Bill Haley and Comets came to Charleston one time to play at the Ritz, and the saxophone player didn't show up, and the union called me. We played 'Rock Around the Clock' and the whole bit. That was a thrill.
"When I was 12, my dad bought me a King Super 20 saxophone, a professional model worth a fortune. He didn't know what he was buying. I didn't know what I had until 25 years later. I thought it was a student model. He probably had to go without lunch for a while to pay for it.
"You ought to see the movies when I was in the junior high band marching and carrying that big old tenor sax.
"The sax I've got now retails for over $10,000. I wouldn't take $25,000 for it. I've had it since my son was born, and he's a full bird colonel in the Army now.
"Darrell Rappold and Rodney Campbell, musicians from Hurricane, got me playing as an entertainer when I was 17. They were practicing one Sunday afternoon at this service station, and I said I had a sax at home, and they said to go get it. I just started improvising, and it just came naturally, just like with the mandolin.
"Corba and I started performing together in 1963, before we got out of high school. I married the singer so I don't have to pay her. Now she makes all the money doing karaoke.
"One night at the Athletic Club in 1970, I played two saxophones on a dare. I started with one song, 'Sentimental Journey.' It's on the album I made in 1982.
"I would play the double sax five hours a night sometimes. I can only do one or two songs now. My balance is totally off since I had that stroke.
"In the '70s, I made 100 trips to Nashville trying to sell songs. I've written 13 songs. Thirteen. Maybe that's the problem.
"Everybody in Nashville is a songwriter, even the cab driver. And there are monster players. You see some bum walk in a beer joint and pull out a guitar worth $5,000, and he can't even buy his lunch. But he can play that guitar. Making it is politics, just who you know.
"I got lucky. A lady who worked at the Elk River Holiday Inn got transferred to the Nashville hotel. We got booked at the Roger Miller Top of the Inn. Through that, I sent my press kit to a guy on the Music City Queen riverboat, and we went up and down the Cumberland River seven nights a week. One season we worked 113 straight nights.