PHS grad working on book about the Big Red Band’s early years

PARKERSBURG – A Parkersburg High School graduate is working on a book about the early years of the Big Red Band.

Roger Blackburn, a 1963 graduate of PHS, is doing research for a book on the first 25 years of the band. He is basing the work on the scrapbooks of George Dietz, the founder and director of the Big Red Band.

“I got these documents by being at the right place, at the right time,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn was given the scrapbooks from the estate of the late Doug Hess, who received them from Dietz’ son George Dietz Jr. The senior Hess was a renowned musician in the area, most notably with the Doug Hess Band.

Doug Hess Jr., Hess’ son, said the family wanted the material preserved and Blackburn was a logical choice. Hess said his father would accept old records, instruments, uniforms and photographs for preservation.

“After he died, we wanted to make sure other people like Roger kept stuff. So we passed it on,” Hess said.

Dietz founded the Big Red Band in 1923 and directed it until 1949. Blackburn encountered Dietz in the 1950s as a grade school student at Tavennerville School.

“Dietz began me on this journey- putting a trumpet in my hand- in the third grade,” Blackburn said. “I give him all the credit to having a very good start with music and my career.”

Blackburn had a long musical career, playing trumpet for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra for 37 years. He retired in 2011.

“I want to honor that by writing this book about this band,” he said. “It has been forgotten and needs to be documented.”

Blackburn said the Big Red Band was a big deal thanks to Dietz. He said the band won a national competition in Rhode Island in 1936.

“They were one of the first bands in the state to reach a national level,” he said.

“All the boys wanted to be in the band that didn’t play sports, and I was among those,” Blackburn said. He recalled being outside in junior high marching around the field with colleagues.

“We were making up our own drills trying to copy the Big Red Band,” he recalled.

Hess Jr. played trombone in the Big Red Band from 1979-81. He was part of a 178-piece band.

Blackburn said Dietz’s scrapbooks are a treasure trove of information, containing newspaper clippings and programs.

Blackburn, who lives in St. Louis, is in town for his 50th class reunion. He’s spending a few days at Parkersburg High copying old Parhischans for photos of the bands and names of the students, who played under Dietz. He’d also like to interview any of Dietz’s remaining band students.

“If there are any, I’d like to have them contact me,” he said.

Dietz is hoping to uncover recordings of the band’s performances.

“I can’t help but feel some people have those records lying around their attics.”

Hess applauds Blackburn’s efforts.

“I think it’s great,” Hess said. “Time is running out for people who would’ve heard the band or played in the band.”

Anyone with information pertinent to Blackburn’s research can contact him by email at dodb@aol.com.