clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:


New, 44 comments

Southern University’s Human Jukebox is your favorite marching band’s favorite marching band.

Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

The song is “Neck.” It’s a marching band classic, based on the track “Talkin’ Out The Side of Your Neck” by Cameo. The Human Jukebox didn’t play it first. No one’s exactly sure who did, though most agree that Texas Southern was at least an early adopter before everyone else in the world of HBCU marching bands followed suit. Each school brought their own variations and tweaks into it, but the basics of the song have stayed the same: a big horn part, a singalong chorus, and a drumline-compatible beat. Even better, the lyrics let you cuss a little, if you want.

The original track came out in 1984 and became a standard for HBCU bands through the 1990s. At one point, though, “Neck” broke contain. It wandered from the world of HBCU bands into the wider ranks of FBS football bands. LSU plays it, and that’s the one people probably know best. Ohio State’s The Best Damn Band in the Land plays it. In 2019, it’s so widespread that even Duke’s basketball band plays it.

“Neck,” for HBCU bands, is one of those songs chosen because it was a great song, but also for them. It was on R&B radio, and it almost never came on MTV. Like so many other songs in these catalogs, “Neck” was for black college students and the people who showed up in the stands first.

When Southern University’s band played a 2003 victory parade with LSU in Baton Rouge, to celebrate their schools’ national titles in football, they were playing a standard they’d known for 20 years. When LSU boxed up Southern’s version of “Neck,” they took it across town to Tiger Stadium, worked it into the Golden Band From Tigerland’s rotation, and created a monster.

Southern didn’t play it first, but their claim on the song stands up more than anyone else’s. Cameo guitarist Charlie Singleton co-wrote “Talkin’ Out The Side of Your Neck,” the song “Neck” condenses into a marching band track. Singleton was in another band before Cameo: He played trombone in the Juke, a.k.a. The Human Jukebox, a.k.a. the marching band at Southern University.

Here is Southern University. It has lived and breathed and thrived and struggled and survived in Louisiana since 1881 when it was founded in New Orleans, “for the education of persons of color.” In 1914, starved for space and growing with the demand for higher learning, it moved to a spot by the river, on Scott’s Bluff in Baton Rouge. Southern was born out of the bureaucratic savagery of Reconstruction, in a cauldron of racism, segregation, and bitter poverty, nestled under the tall shadow of the state capitol, a building filled with legislators busily passing laws keeping Southern graduates from fully existing in the same world as white citizens of Louisiana.

Southern undertook that daunting work in Louisiana’s state capital, where they could not help but see every institutional advantage the white state school across town had. When Huey Long funneled federal money into the state coffers for the expansion of a university, it was for the benefit of LSU. A surreal photo of the governor himself strutting along with a marching band’s drum majors happens at LSU, not Southern.

Southern continued to help crank out the professional class of black Louisiana anyway. Enrollment nearly reached 10,000 students at one point, made possible by the perverse effects of segregation along with Southern’s ability to leverage that for the benefit of the school. When Southern students demanded admission to LSU’s law school after World War II, the Louisiana legislature instead gave them enthusiastic permission to start their own.

Generations go to Southern, mothers to fathers to sons to daughters. That continuity is a metaphor, but also actual university policy. Legacy awards waive out-of-state tuition for students with one parent who graduated from Southern. Effectively, the territory in terms of admissions for family is not in Louisiana. It is in Southern University, its own state.

That state has its own politics and its own internal battles. Leadership can come and go, sometimes because the school is outbid for teaching talent by schools with bigger payrolls.

Sometimes, as with any other state institution, upheaval occurs via scandal. That can include the band. Nathan Haymer, the popular former director of the Human Jukebox, was fired in 2018 when almost $300,000 in appearance fees for the band was discovered to have been routed into his personal bank accounts.

The school budget — perpetually tied to the endless barfight that is the Louisiana state legislature — is always a struggle. Basic line items like building maintenance are where losses in that fight show up most everywhere for Louisiana state schools, but at Southern the degree of neglect is different. In the middle of a statewide budget crisis, the roof of the library at LSU might start to leak. At Southern, the roof will leak, mold will threaten to poison entire buildings, and campus maintenance workers will have to check a pump twice a day to prevent raw sewage from backing up onto the floors of Southern’s Stewart Hall.

Those basic issues like underfunding building maintenance were dramatic enough to lead to the worst moment in the school’s history. In the fall of 1972, the state’s neglect of Southern became serious enough that students launched protests against conditions at the school. Sit-ins and demonstrations were common in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and protests in general weren’t unheard of on campus. In 1960, 16 students were expelled for protesting segregation.

This generation of protestors, however, took a truly drastic step for a school in the South. On November 11, they interrupted a football game between Southern and the visiting Florida A&M Rattlers. The demonstrations soon escalated. A boycott of classes followed, along with the arrest of some of the movement’s leaders. A student group responded by peacefully occupying the administration building. The governor of Louisiana at the time, Edwin Edwards, called in the National Guard.

On November 16, 1972, National Guardsmen and local police in riot gear rolled onto campus. The cops were driving an armored car named “Big Bertha,” facing off with the students across the grass of the quad. Nothing happened for a while. Then a state trooper threw a can of tear gas into a group standing outside the campus administration building. One student reached down, picked up the smoking can of tear gas, and hurled it back in the direction of law enforcement.

In the chaos that followed, against orders and without provocation, an officer fired a shotgun into the crowd, killing two Southern University students, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith. Despite a crowd of witnesses on the scene and an FBI investigation into the murders, the officer was never formally identified, officially sanctioned, or charged with any crime. The campus was closed until the following January.

Most writing from that fall at Southern covers the murders, the protests, the arrests, the aftermath. There are two little details that don’t really fit in with the rest of the school’s worst year, or at least stick out as happening in a totally different world. The first: Members of The Human Jukebox played Radio City Music Hall for two weeks, and were so successful they were invited to stay for another three. The second: An IMDB hit for Dr. Isaac Greggs, listed as “Convict #2” in Sounder, and as “Marching band director for Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1969-2005).”

The Southern University Marching Band was founded in 1947. But it became the Human Jukebox under the leadership of Greggs.

A Southern alum and educator of astonishing endurance, he led an often underfunded band for 36 years. Greggs, more than anyone else, was the force that turned the Southern band into the Human Jukebox. He amped up the showmanship by adding a dance team, updating the uniforms, and working in flashy but precise drill choreography. A classical musician by training, Greggs took an unlikely turn by not only having the kids perform tunes people could hear on the radio, but by doing his own arrangements of those songs.

That’s still the case today. The Jukebox does not buy sheet music. They make it themselves, rotating between at least three different arrangers on staff.

Combine Greggs’ decades of toil with the existing glut of musical talent in South Louisiana, and the Human Jukebox — that sound — is forged.

The sound, for lack of a better word, is power. There is something in the sound of Southern, and every other HBCU band who evolved with and alongside them, that registers loud at any volume, like you asked a horn player to blare each possible note in their register as strong as possible, and then built a gigantic brass pipe organ off that single sound. The tubas bounce along at the bottom, like the left hand of a slightly heavy-handed but on-time piano player. The trumpets somehow scream even at low volume.

It is the controlled loud of a beehive. Even at a distance, it hints at barely contained intensity, like the sound of crackling power lines over your head. That sound, and that look, and that identity all carry through. Go watch a Southern show from 1980, or 1990, or 2000. People post them on YouTube. They compare them via the Human Jukebox’s official channel, in Facebook groups, and through old cassette tapes made in barely air-conditioned rehearsal spaces.

There are constants. The warmth of the sound is always there, even if older Human Jukebox alumni might gently suggest the sound has gotten a touch aggressive over the years. (How anyone plays “Mo Bamba,” which Southern did in 2018, without sounding more aggro than bands that first strutted out to “Casanova” by LeVert seems impossible, but still.)

The moves on the field are another through-line: the rolling, toe-first step, the horn flashes on turns, the side-to-side head waggle. There is still only one drum major, and they are still nothing short of rock star famous within the confines of campus. The entire band still dances en masse. Unless your band is an HBCU band, they have been dancing longer than your band has. If your band happens to be an HBCU band, Southern’s will confidently insist that if they were not first, then they do it better anyway.

Halftime is still as much of an attraction as the rest of the football game. That continuity is not an accident. The current director, Kedric Taylor, went to Southern himself. So did assistant director Cedric Todd, and assistant director Brian K. Simmons, and percussion instructor Lorenzo Hart. Their predecessors went to Southern, all the way back past Greggs to founder T. Leroy Davis.

Think about that, dynastically speaking. There are sports regimes built on generational insularity who haven’t known that kind of continuity. The University of Alabama football program hasn’t had that kind of taprooted cultural focus. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t had that. Neither have the Yankees, the Patriots, or Barcelona FC.

That thing where a school sells its football team as something that isn’t coached or run as much as it is inherited? That’s actually true with the Human Jukebox, and there are names on the walls to prove it. Greggs said it so often that everyone who worked under him still says it, too: often imitated, never duplicated.

The setlist evolves, though. The 2019 slate includes “Liberian Girl” by Michael Jackson, standards like Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna” or “I’m So Glad,” a zydeco song or two for the road trip to McNeese State in Lake Charles. The band’s vaults are bottomless, stocked with obscurities like Mel Waiters’ ”Get Me My Whiskey,” cartwheeling versions of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” trap tracks like “Narcos,” gospel songs like “I Love the Lord,” Houston rap classics like “Swang” by Trae.

“You like New Radicals?”

Simmons is adding more to Southern’s catalog. He’s sitting in his office, sandwiched between his desktop computer and a piano, pecking away and reeling through songs he has arranged but not finished. He hits a button and a MIDI version of the 1998 one-hit wonder “You Get What You Give” starts piping through the speakers. Simmons leans into the eclectic: pop, rock, the odd wrestling theme like “Real American,” Hulk Hogan’s WWE theme.

“You heard us do Backstreet Boys?”

He pulls up a clip of the Human Jukebox ripping through “I Want It That Way,” the trumpet line wailing in the background. I ask him about why he thinks Southern’s band is so important to the school. Simmons sits back in his chair, waves a hand to accent a rising “tell me whyyyyy” horn call, and starts:

“What people must understand: This band is the one constant.”

Three hundred and fifty applicants try out for 250 spots. From that selection playing in rehearsal, 192 will be chosen for the season’s marching lineup on the field. The kids go through all this knowing that come fall, strangers from Lorman, Mississippi and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas show up for the band first, and then stay for the football game happening around it.

“We are the one thing Southern has never lost. We evolve, but we never change.”

He pauses.

“This! This is the best part right here!”

He’s right. It is, suddenly and with intense connection, the best part of a 20-year-old Backstreet Boys song I’d never felt in my bones until it came out of a marching band.

A new addition to the 2019 catalog: Lizzo’s “Juice.” The band has been playing through it for about 45 minutes. Todd has them moving from lettered section to lettered section of the score. Pick up at C. Back to D. Okay just the trombones at C now, just them.

The band starts moving faster. Usually something interrupts this with a marching band. I’ve been in marching bands before, in high school and at the University of Florida, and a hundred little mistakes can slow practice down. Someone false starts, and the whole band has to start over again, burning practice time and breaking concentration. It happens with almost any marching band, and the bigger they are, the worse it can be. The Human Jukebox doesn’t do that. They just go, without stutter-starts or drops, and with a startling intensity they can switch on and off at command.

Todd runs them through the song three or four times. There are tweaks. He shoots a scowl at the drumline when they drop a beat on the intro. The mellophones get their part — the little staggered triplet accents on top of the chorus — ironed out in a snap.

They’re moving fast because they can, and because they have so much left to do. There are 20 more songs on the whiteboard behind Todd. Some are older standards the band already knows. Some they’ve never seen before. All of them have to be locktight by the end of camp. All that’s left after that is two more hours of drill under the lights of the parking lot, starting whenever the temperature falls below ninety and the sun dims enough to bring out Louisiana’s weird purple-black night sky.

That part might go longer if it needs to, or it might not, depending on how clean they get it. The band is in their seats and tuning up at 9 a.m., playing scales in matching practice shorts and shirts while still wiping sleep from their eyes. They take breaks for lunch and dinner. Some of them are still settling into their dorms in between rehearsals, while others meet their parents at the bookstore to buy Southern gear for the family before seeing them off. For all of them, it will be a minimum of 14 hours from the time the Human Jukebox’s call time in the morning, to the time they march off the asphalt for the night.

“When you’re doing it, you don’t even think about it,” Todd says after the afternoon practice, sitting in the empty rehearsal hall. “They’re with us 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and five to six hours a day during the fall. It’s a lot. It’s not for everyone. We tell them that right up front.”

During one afternoon session, the band is tiptoeing through “Juice” when Todd has to stop full-halt for the first and only time that practice.

“If you can’t sit still through rehearsal, this might not be what you need to do.”

It’s the trombones who get the worst of it. The song runs through them. Todd played trombone in the Human Jukebox, and he’s going to notice if anyone’s off. He shakes his head.

“Second trombones are lazy right now. LAZY. Tooooooo many of y’all back there for that part not to be felt.”

That word seems to trip something: Felt.

The trombones stand up. No one asked them to, not Todd, not their section leader. They all just pop up in unison, without prompting. The tubas rack their instruments on their shoulders. The drumline loosens up.

Todd counts it off. “Okay, let’s go.”

The drums drop in, and then the room explodes.

The tubas bob up and down and blast. The trumpets sound like they’ve plugged into a hidden amplifier in the rafters. The baritones rock up and down in their seats. The trombones lean back on their heels like they’re playing into a stiff wind.

The bass drummer manning the big 28-inch drum is a tall, long-armed bear of a guy with a baby afro and a placid expression. He hits it on the two and the four with enough force to rattle the ceiling tiles.

The song builds. The band feeds off each back-and-forth. The trombones look like they’re seconds from fighting someone, the baritones level everything in front of them. The whole trumpet section is moving together, hitting the same breaths and accents with blunt force noise. The sax player who couldn’t sit still in his chair during practice is flat-out dancing in his seat.

Something has taken hold of everyone in the room at once, unprompted and unscheduled. It wasn’t written on the music as a direction, or given as an instruction from the podium. It was the next-to-last run-through of a song some of the kids didn’t even know before they walked in the room. This arrangement didn’t even exist until an hour and a half earlier.

It drags, it stutters. Then, at no visibly appointed time, the entire Human Jukebox takes the hell off and hits the roof. It is just there, fine and finely played, and then it is everywhere all at once, so loud it felt like it was coming from inside my skull, radiant with an energy past joy and hitting some resonant frequency with the chairs, the floor, the room, the huge photo of a Southern drum major hanging on the wall, bending his whole body to touch the crown of his hat to the turf like a tuning fork pressed to the earth.

My right ear rings for two days afterwards.

The last night practice for Southern’s 2019 camp starts around 9 p.m. The band files out of Greggs Hall, crossing the street in formation, carrying their instruments. The drumline taps out a simple cadence and the band sings along with it: one two three WAYYYY-oh, two three WAYYYY-oh two three WAYYYY-oh.

I walk behind the band as they continue their march to the parking lot, wind down a dark side road through campus, past a dorm, by and around the stadium. The moon is up, but just barely visible. It’s an oppressive night, and in the humid and stagnant air, the clouds loiter in a fat layer covering the moon. It can only glower behind a smudge of grimy cloud cover, and isn’t much brighter than the flickering amber security lights.

The guy who kept the band pushing forward for four decades, Dr. Greggs, said that people “hear with their eyes, and see with their ears.” In the dark, beneath a glowering, sinister moon, the sight of a formation moving in the night sounds exactly like what it is: a carrying forward of something by many hands in the light, or maybe especially in the dark.

The sight of the sound of the Human Jukebox is something else. It is home, something visible even in the dark of a buggy Louisiana night that doesn’t want to let the moon shine.