Innerviews: Band director keeps the music playing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He wasn't born with a director's baton in his hand, but it was close. Son of a county school bandmaster, Bob Leighty knew early on that he wanted to direct bands like his dad.
He played drums in school bands in St. Albans and at Marshall, then found his niche as a band director and itinerant music teacher for Kanawha County Schools.
In retirement, at 73, he wields his director's baton with as much feeling as ever. He was the first director of the Mountain State Brass Band and now directs the Kanawha Valley Community Band. He's preparing them for a free Father's Day concert Sunday in Kanawha State Forest.
Years ago, he helped start the ragtag River Rat Band, an indication of the mirth lurking beneath that quiet band director demeanor.
"I grew up in St. Albans. My dad was the band director at St. Albans High School. That's how I got into music, through his influence. My dad played clarinet. My oldest brother played clarinet. My second brother played tuba. Mother played piano.
"My uncle got me a pool table one year. It was about a foot and a half by 3-foot. There were two pool sticks with it that I turned into drumsticks. My dad finally gave up and finally got me a set of real drumsticks and a practice pad.
"I bought my first drum set with money I saved from my paper route. I bought it used from Gorby's for about $200. I still have it. I've played on it all my life.
"We started band in fifth grade at Central Grade School in St. Albans and I played through high school. I didn't take lessons until I was a senior in high school. My dad helped me a lot before then.
"I made All-County Band my junior year, but the fellow trying us out recommended I take some private lessons in percussion and drums. My teacher was Bill Wiant. He helped start the Symphony.
"I wanted to be a band director like my dad. I was in his band until my senior year when the schools split and he went to junior high. So I went to St. Albans my senior year with a new band director.
"I went to Marshall and majored in education with a field of music. A lot of people at Marshall just said you were a music major, but you were an education major with a field of music.
"I played in the Marshall band, which wasn't always a good thing. I belonged to Pi Kappa Alpha, and on Saturday afternoon, I'd be at the stadium in the band section while my fraternity brothers were in their section doing their thing.
"I was in ROTC at Marshall, graduated in 1961 and spent two years in the military, first at Fort Eustis, Va., then Fort Ritchie, Md., the underground Pentagon.
"It's decommissioned now, but back then, in case of warfare, the Pentagon could move from D.C. up to Fort Ritchie. There were places for all the workers to sleep and eat. I was the post transportation officer.
"That was a good two years. There were a lot of first and second lieutenants with my background, college graduates fulfilling our military obligation.
"My dad arranged an interview with Ralph Brabban, the personnel director at Kanawha County Schools. There were four schools that did not have a band director. I picked Thomas Jefferson Junior High and spent three years there. I didn't know what I was doing, but I got through it.
"I went to Hoover the second year it opened and stayed seven years. They didn't have a fight song. They had an alma mater, but it wasn't arranged for the band. It was written out in piano form in back of the yearbook. I took it to the WVU band director who arranged it for band.
"For a fight song, they played the old Clendenin High School fight song. Elkview and Clendenin had merged, so I didn't like that. I found a march, and we changed it a little, and that became the Hoover fight song.
"I left Hoover when I got sick with Crohn's disease. After I got over the sickness, I spent the rest of my career on the elementary level. I was an itinerant band director mainly in South Charleston. But the last year, I had 18 schools. I retired in 1995.
"My last two years at Marshall, I played tympani with the Symphony and played with the Symphony again after I got out of the Army.
"I got involved in the Shrine Band in 1972 and became the director. After I resigned as director, I stayed a member.
"I was the first director of the Mountain State Brass Band and directed that for five years. I've been with the Kanawha County Community Band as director for eight years and was a member five or six years before that.
"The Community Band was started by a fellow named Lee McMillen. I belonged to the Musicians Union, and the union and Lee didn't get along, so I didn't join the Community Band until I dropped out of the union and quit playing professionally.
"The Community Band is a volunteer group. We practice in the Scottish Rite Auditorium once a week. When I took it over, there were 17 members. We have about 60 now, so it has come a long way. We have some ex-music teachers, a couple of lawyers, people from all walks of life.
"When they can come to practice, they do. Some miss a little too much. We do four concerts a year. We did a concert in April for the Alzheimer's Association. In September, we do a concert for the St. Albans Ministerial Association that benefits four St. Albans charities. We do a Christmas concert at the LaBelle Theater in South Charleston.
"We have a concert coming up on Father's Day in Kanawha State Forest, near the swimming pool. It starts at 3 and it's free. We are not the West Virginia Symphony, but for what we are, we are good.
"The River Rat Band started at the Red Carpet with Jack Hamrick, Ralph Bevis and me. We discovered that we were not going to play in the Regatta Parade. We were usually there with the Shrine Band or barbershoppers. We all sing barbershop chorus.
"So we decided to throw a group together ourselves. The River Rat Band is still going. They do not practice. They get together the day of the parade and go through some music, and they go down the street and play. We might have 25 in the band. We might have 40.
"I want to direct the Community Band a couple more years. The art of directing is getting along with the people in the group. They are very attentive and responsive to what I ask of them. They like to play their horns, and they're pretty good players, so we have a lot going for us when we walk in the door as far as producing a product.
"When I'm directing, I'm trying to relay the emotions and feelings of the music. I've always been fascinated by band music. There's just something about a band. The Meredith Wilson thing.
"I'm pretty content. The only thing I can think of I would change is, I might not have taken ROTC. It's a good program, but I might have been better off had I joined the military with my degree and served my time as a musician. I could have been a warrant officer in the field of music and then maybe a director.
"Dad died in 1972. He didn't push me into directing. It wasn't any one thing he did. It was the environment of being around him with the band work. I think he'd be proud of me."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.