A Marching Band Legend Steps into Retirement

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A montage of photos show the Southern University band in performance. i

A montage of photos show the Southern University band in performance, with Director Isaac Greggs at the center. hide caption

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A montage of photos show the Southern University band in performance.

A montage of photos show the Southern University band in performance, with Director Isaac Greggs at the center.

Director Isaac Greggs is stepping down after nearly 40 years with the marching band at Southern University. The group's intricate, animated performances have thrilled crowds for decades.


It's halftime of a Southern University football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The players are leaving the field, but you don't dare leave your seat just yet; that hot dog can wait. For many in the stands, this is the best part.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: The Marching Band From Jaguarland, also known as the Human Jukebox, is one of the flashiest and most famous college bands in the country.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: The man responsible for creating their high-steeping, show-stopping routines has called it quits after 36 years. Dr. Isaac Greggs joins us now from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge.

Welcome, sir.

Dr. ISAAC GREGGS (Retiring Southern University Marching Band Director): Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: So where did the name Human Jukebox come from?

Dr. GREGGS: Well, the kids created that. I remember about--I guess it must have been about 20 years ago. And we were playing everything in the top 40, so the kids just--they come and ask for a tune, `Put a quarter in the jukebox. What tune you want? We could play it.'

ELLIOTT: What has changed in the years that you've been a band director? You say you've been doing this for something like 53 years now. I imagine it's a lot different today than it was when you first started.

Dr. GREGGS: When I started, we would play a march and go out on the field and salute one side, and then come on the other side and salute the other side and then would maybe do a dance routine. That was it. But as time went along, I got tired of doing that. The biggest part of it was the dance routine. So what I did was I made that the show and I do drills. Everybody done start doing them now. And as I said before, `Often imitated, but never duplicated.'

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: I understand you're a real stickler, that your band members sure better adhere to your rules.

Dr. GREGGS: Oh, of course. The best band, I think, is a well-disciplined band. This is my core philosophy. So consequently, you have to do those things that I want you to do if you want to be a part of it.

ELLIOTT: If I wanted to come be in your band, what would be the rules you'd make me adhere to?

Dr. GREGGS: First of all, what instrument are you playing?

ELLIOTT: Oh, I don't know. The tuba.

Dr. GREGGS: Ah. I like the tuba, because the tuba is the foundation of the band. First of all, you got to have a good ACT score. Next thing, you got to have a body built to carry the tuba. Another thing, you have to be able to read music, because we are not going to sit beside you and count out the rhythm; you got to know that before you get to Southern University.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: Now I understand that you also want folks to show up on time.

Dr. GREGGS: Be at the right time, at the right place with the right equipment ready to concentrate. You coming in late, you make me nervous. Let's say 3:00. If I got here at 3:00, I'm late. You got to be ahead of time to be on time. That's one of my pet peeves.

ELLIOTT: You also have--I don't know--a dress code or a code of conduct that you expect the band members to respect.

Dr. GREGGS: Yes. Yes. When we go to practice, we wear uniforms. Where there's unity, there's strength, and your band become accustomed to looking good. They got to look good, well-groomed. Pull your pants up, comb your hair. Every individual has his own criteria and I got mine.

ELLIOTT: Now other than trying to get your band to look good and sound good, to work together as a team, what else are you trying to teach the students who come your way?

Dr. GREGGS: The most important thing is not the teaching of the music; it's not the teaching them how to drill, how to make formations. That's secondary to me. What I try to instill in these kids for the past 37 years: Give them something they can use so when they go into mainstream America, they will be able to fit in when they get in.

ELLIOTT: Sir, I must ask you about the accounting scandal last May when you were accused of falsifying travel receipts. Some have speculated that that controversy may have hastened your retirement.

Dr. GREGGS: That didn't hasten it one second. Why? I had planned to retire three years ago. Did that scandal make me want to retire? No, indeed, because weren't none of it true. The whole thing was built to disgrace me if they could, but they couldn't. They could not disgrace me; they tried.

ELLIOTT: Now Southern has performed in six Super Bowls, four Sugar Bowls, three presidential inaugurations. I'm wondering is there anything that you didn't get a chance to do but you wish you had?

Dr. GREGGS: No, I think I did everything I wanted to do, everything. I've got so many trophies, I got so many proclamations. I got--oh, my God. I got enough of everything. Isn't nothing that I would have done now that I didn't do already.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: Dr. Isaac Greggs. He retired yesterday after 36 years of leading the Human Jukebox marching band at Southern University.

Thank you for joining us.

Dr. GREGGS: Oh, you're welcome.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: It's not quite the same as sitting in the stands, but you can watch a video clip of the Human Jukebox online at npr.org.

(Soundbite of marching band performance)

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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