Part 4 — An interview with arranger Larry Kerchner

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

Publisher’s note: The previous three segments of this interview appeared in the December 2006, January and February 2007 editions of Drum Corps World. This part originally appears in the March 2007 issue (Volume 35, Number 18).

Harry Heidelmark: I’ve heard you found some inaccuracies in both volumes of “A History of Drum & Bugle Corps?” Could you shed some light on the information you feel is incorrect?

Larry Kerchner: You mean, other than the four or five different spellings of my last name?

HH: Yes, other than that.

LK: One inaccuracy that bothered me was the information concerning Blue Rock. The person who wrote that piece had me departing years before I actually did and, in doing so, discredited many of the arrangements I wrote for them. Things like Quiet Village/Baby Elephant Walk, Country Style, A Lincoln Portrait, Spinning Wheel, I Ain’t Down Yet, Ghost Riders and Requiem for the Masses, to name a few.

Also, there was hardly any real information about the corps’ early, formative years which, I’m sure, is because it wasn’t part of the writer’s personal experience. I’m just sorry that I wasn’t aware of the project. I could have easily given Steve Vickers more comprehensive and accurate information, and I don’t say that egotistically.

HH: Do you see electronic amplification as a plus for the activity?

LK: Right now, used in an outdoor venue with acoustics being what they are, I see it as artistically cumbersome.

It’s also a breeding ground for tastelessness and amateurism. I said “right now,” because who knows how many of these hurdles will be overcome in the years ahead.

HH: If you could change ONE thing about the activity, what would it be?

LK: The tuning of the drums. If anyone wants to read my diatribe on the subject, they can find it in an issue of Masters of the Marching Arts. Anyone can request that article or, better yet, subscribe, by writing to Masters of the Marching Arts, Box 164, Northbridge, MA 01534, or by calling 617-576-9725.

HH: How did you become involved with that publication?

LK: My longtime friend, Rick Connor (an original Cambridge Caballero), whom I met when I lived in Boston, called me about 10 years ago to tell me he was starting a new drum corps publication. He asked if I would do a column for him called “Ask the Arranger,” wherein I would answer questions from readers. Of course I said “No.” (laughs)

Then, after making him beg, I relented. Hear that, Rick? Your secret is out! At least one of them! (laughs again) He’s going to kill me when he reads this.

HH: Earlier you mentioned your involvement with the recording industry and many stars of the music world. Did you ever have an opportunity to work with Maynard Ferguson, who passed away this past August?

LK: I visited with Maynard many times, but never worked with him. However, knowing that he liked to sing once in a while, I did write a song for him, which he liked. It’s called Old Friends, and the idea was that, during the song, a slide show would be occurring behind him that showed pictures of many of his old friends throughout his career.

The list of musical greats would have been astounding. Unfortunately, he passed away before implementing it. Anyone who wants to hear Old Friends can write or e-mail me.

HH: What can you share with us about IYM Corp. and the development of a line of mouthpieces with your name on them?

LK: The company’s founder, Tony Vacarro, had acquired the rights, along with the dies, to manufacture the Rudy Muck mouthpiece. Tony and his then-partner, the late Frank Veloce, asked me to meet with them to discuss their project. During that meeting, I expressed that I had, for years, wished I could have a mellophone mouthpiece manufactured to my specs.

It had for so long been the “step-child” of the brass choir. We wanted desperately for it to sound like a concert French horn, but it just didn’t, and one of the reasons was that many players were using trumpet mouthpieces. Even with the advent of the Mello 6 mouthpiece, it still missed the mark for me. I wanted warm, I wanted dark, I wanted . . . well, mellow.

Tony said, “Design it and we’ll make it.” Wow! So, right there at the table, I told Frank what I wanted it to look like on the outside and he drew a sketch. Then I told Tony how I wanted a hybrid of a French horn and a flugelhorn cup, with the comfort of a trumpet rim. So, voila! That’s what’s on the market.

If you want to hear the result, just listen to The Cavaliers from 2005 and 2006.

HH: What did it feel like . . . the first time Bridgemen “fainted” at the end of their show at the DCI Championships in 1976?

LK: First of all, you have to understand that this was the first DCI Finals for the “new” Bridgemen [with the yellow coats], so it was pretty exciting in itself to have them finish sixth the first time out of the shoot. As they took the field, there was excitement in the stadium and I was standing on the sideline thinking, “Hoo boy, I hope they pull this off and no one blows it!”

Once the opening strains of William Tell sounded, thoughts of the surprise ending gave way to the excitement that was unfolding on the field. William Tell, St. Thomas, Land of Make Believe, Stars and Stripes, What I Did for Love, visual gags, the guard opening their coats to reveal “1776-1976” [it was the Bicentennial], then later emerging in red leotards to form a kick line for One . . . These were all very hip things in their time. I mostly didn’t breathe through the whole show, then suddenly, here we were — the last chord of the show, knowing what was going to happen in just a few seconds.

The adrenaline shot into my stomach and BAM! They all dropped! It was SO COOL! Like one of those toys with a stick-like horse that’s all held together with string, where you push the bottom and he collapses. The crowd went nuts! Heck, I went nuts! It was one of my rare “Woo hoo, wave-my-arms-in-the-air” moments and one I’ll never forget. Does that answer your question?

HH: How much of a disappointment was Bridgemen’s disqualification at Denver in 1977?

LK: Man, you know how to take me from euphoria to depression just like that (snaps fingers) don’t you? It was devastating. It was heartbreaking. It was gut-wrenching. I’ll never forget the sight of an entire corps sobbing in each other’s arms. It tears me up to this day just thinking about it.

HH: Over the years, you’ve been able to listen to many other corps. Among your peers . . . do you have a favorite? What about a favorite corps?

LK: Wayne Downey has stood the test of time as an arranger in this activity. I admire him for that. He also understands the essence of jazz — something not many others truly do. Wayne once joked to me when I was with the Bridgemen in Whitewater, WI, “I wonder which one of us wrote the most Major 9 chords this year!”

As far as a favorite corps, I would be crazy not to say that the many corps I’ve taught and written for over the years are my favorites. Their members put so much of themselves into their corps and worked so hard. They’re the ones who made me look good.

HH: Who is your favorite arranger/composer not involved with the drum corps activity?

LK: Henry Mancini was not only a favorite, he was a big influence. Stan Kenton, too.

HH: In addition to Bridgemen, where else have you and Dennis DeLucia collaborated?

LK: Our first collaboration was with the Muchachos, but we also worked together at the New York Lancers. There may be others that escape me right now. We also collaborated on several marching band arrangements that were published by Hal Leonard.

HH: Has there ever been a time when the two of you really disagreed and needed a third party, such as Bobby Hoffman, to help resolve the issue?

LK: (Laughs) I’m laughing because it was usually Bobby and I who went off into outer space and, just when we decided that it would be really cool if the horn line climbed onto the shoulders of the drum line and played He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, it was Dennis who would bring us back to Earth! He was the voice of reason and, therefore, no fun. I’m kidding, Dennis! . . . Dennis? (laughs) By the way, I made up that example . . . I think.

HH: Bobby Hoffman passed away 16 years ago. What about your relationship with him can you share with us.

LK: My memories of Bobby Hoffman go back to my childhood, when I was a big fan of the Caballeros. He was their first timbale player, which was quite a novelty. Then, when the Cabs found me up at Berklee and flew me down to work with them, I was teamed up with Bobby, who wrote the drill to a mid-season song I had taught them.

By the way, this was pretty cool for a young kid — writing for the Caballeros AND working with Bobby Hoffman! You might be interested to know that he had short, red, curly hair, no moustache and hadn’t yet undergone the transformation into the persona everyone      remembers today.

When he was brought on board at the Bridgemen prior to the 1976 season, it was a comfortable fit for me. I felt the same way about Dennis. We all got along well, even though we had three distinct personalities. Bobby was the free spirit and, shall we say, into many things that neither Dennis nor I were into. Dennis was the conservative one, but “still waters run deep!” I was somewhere in between — looking somewhat like a hippie (or a “beatnik,” depending on how old you were), but inwardly straight-laced by comparison. We were a good team, though, and had a lot of laughs along with the creativity.

HH: You’ve mentioned Dennis DeLucia several times. Do you enjoy working with him?

LK: Not only is it a pleasure to work with Dennis, it’s an honor. Dennis is the consummate professional and extremely talented. He’s also someone whom I’m proud to call a true friend — and I don’t have many. We can get each other laughing with just a “look.” That’s because we usually know what each other are thinking.

I think Dennis gets a kick out of my sense of humor and views me as irascible. Every once in a while he shakes his head, lets out a sigh and gives me a, “Larry, Larry, Larry . . .”, like I’m Danny Demon. It’s a role I play to the hilt with him. (smiles)

HH: Have you ever had a desire to be a judge in the drum and bugle corps activity?

LK: Actually, I used to do some judging in my younger days, both in the Middle Atlantic states and in New England, when in high school and college, respectively. As time went on and I became involved with more and more corps, it became difficult to find a show where I didn’t have at least one corps competing, often several.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t have been looked upon as being very objective, so my drum corps judging career sort of took a permanent hiatus. I’ve judged a lot of marching bands as well as some jazz bands, though, and it doesn’t seem to bother them that I hear many of my published arrangements played in the course of a show.

HH: Didn’t you teach the Saints from New Jersey at one time, and didn’t they have an all-female mellophone line?

LK: Yes, I taught the Saints at one time, and they did, indeed, have an all-female mellophone line — a good one, too!

A couple of illustrious soprano/trumpet players came from that corps as well: Jim Brady, who was my soloist for the Bridgemen in 1977-78, and Al Chez, who is the trumpet player for the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

It’s interesting that you mention the all-girl mellophone line. I’ve taught a few corps with all-girl mellophone lines and found that their approach to that instrument in particular produced a very pleasing sound.

HH: Speaking of mellophones, I’ve heard that, years ago, some of your colleagues in the activity called you “Mellophone Larry.” Is that true?

LK: It’s true, because I was the first guy in drum corps to totally eliminate French horns and use a complete 3-part choir of mellophones.

HH: Why did you do that?

LK: While most arrangers and instructors held on to French horns or a combination of French horns and mellophones for their mid-range, I felt that the two didn’t blend well. While an orchestral French horn can be a truly beautiful instrument, the French horn bugle can be a nightmare. I know whereof I speak — I played one in Blue Rock.

The legit instrument is a double horn, with a trigger that switches the horn from F to Bb, enabling the player to play the higher notes in a lower part of the harmonic series of Bb, instead of those same notes being played in the upper partials of the F series, where the notes are so close together. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.

That’s what we have to contend with on the bugle version, which is obviously a single horn.

There’s also the fact that the orchestral horn is played with the right hand in the bell, or “stopped.” This darkens the sound and makes it velvety. I got tired of hearing constant cracks and clams, not to mention that “edgy,” unstopped sound on the drum corps instruments, so, as soon as I was able, I eliminated them in favor of a homogenous-sounding line of mellophones on which you could play the same notes in the lower partials, thus avoiding the plethora of consecutive fingers step-wise with which you could accidentally play almost any note.

I know that sounded like a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo, but a lot of people out there will know what I mean. Having a French horn bugle in a choir of mellophones and baritones is, to me, like replacing the viola in the Budapest String Quartet with a banjo. The banjo player may play all of the viola notes perfectly, but, considering the blend, who cares?!

HH: Are there any other “firsts” you can lay claim to?

LK: One that comes to mind may surprise you. I was the guy who came up with the idea to re-enter the field after the corps had crossed the finish line. It was with the Muchachos in 1972.

Dennis DeLucia, Frank Gerris and I were meeting at my house in Paramus, NJ, to discuss the Muchachos’ show, and Frank’s drill design to the closer took the corps off the field via the old end zone line and back sideline, simultaneously, after which they would turn around and play the final part of Espiritu del Toro in sort of a “V” in the far right corner of the field.

Up to this point all corps had to play in a company front behind the right end zone line, with the horns angled toward the stands. After discussing the rules, we had to make sure we had enough time after the first gun to turn around and play to the stands from the corner before the final gun, and that we could exit the way we wanted.

I asked the following question: The rules state when we have to be off the field and how much time we have to accomplish that, but do they say we can’t come back ON the field after the judging has stopped?”

There was a pause, then a frantic search for a rule that covered that. There was none. We had a loophole!

You should have heard the crowd the first time the corps came back onto the field, marching and playing toward the stands. It was audacious to say the least, and the people loved it. Talk about controversy! We took our lumps from the judges and sponsors from time to time that year, and had a contingency to simply expand down and across the finish lines, but there was no turning back.

The “re-entry” became part of the drum corps vernacular and part of every corps’ show for years to come. That led to today’s practice of starting and finishing on the field.

HH: Wow. I didn’t know that.

LK:   Surprise!

HH: I’ve learned so much during the course of this interview. I know you’ve done a lot in drum corps, but you’ve done so much outside of drum corps. I never knew you were that “other person . . .”

LK:   There are a lot of things people don’t know about me. Even more things they THINK they know, but are wrong about. What I’ve talked about in this interview is the tip of the iceberg.

HH: You had mentioned the errors you found in “A History of Drum Corps.” Are other bits of misinformation out there that stick in your craw?

LK: Are you kidding? I’ve heard so much stuff about myself over the years that I’m almost numb from it. I’ve heard things said about me that range from just plain silly to embarrassingly stupid — from absurd to unspeakable. Crazy things. I’ve heard I was in jail. I’ve heard I was Barry Gibb. I’m not making this stuff up. I’ve even heard I was dead!

It’s unbelievable what people say. I don’t know, maybe it’s human nature to gossip or to spread rumors. If so, it’s not a side of human nature anyone should be proud of. The things people say can be very hurtful. No offense, Barry! (smiles)

HH: Can you give me some examples of the things you’ve heard that have been hurtful to you?

LK: Hoo boy! Let me see . . . Okay, here’s one that just irritates the heck out of me. I found out a couple of years ago that I supposedly don’t like female horn players. When I heard that I said, “WHAT?!” and the person who was telling me — a woman, by the way — went on to say, “Oh, yeah. There are a lot of women out there who don’t even bother to try out for your lines because we’ve been told you don’t like females playing in your line.”

HH: That’s not true, is it?

LK: Are you kidding?! It’s ridiculous! I never said any such thing and I certainly don’t feel that way. Listen, the only corps I was ever in, Blue Rock, had a girl soprano player and almost every corps I ever taught had female players. I’ve taught at least two all-girl corps.

My best friend growing up was a girl. Most of my best friends today are women.

I have two daughters I raised to believe that they could do anything as well as any man. I’m probably the least sexist guy you’ll ever meet. Does this ridiculous accusation bother me? You bet it does. I could strangle the person who   started it.

HH: I guess the drum corps “rumor mill” can be a source of irritation to someone like you.

LK: That’s putting it mildly.

HH: Why do you think that is?

LK: I think the more well-known a person is, the more others like to tear him down. It’s like the stuff you see in the tabloids about Hollywood celebrities — the bigger they are, the more outrageous the stories. While I’m not comparing myself in any way to a Hollywood celebrity, I have had a certain amount of notoriety throughout my career and that includes our drum corps fishbowl. Mostly it’s been kind and usually flattering, but there have been very unkind and mean-spirited things said, too.

HH: You’ve enjoyed so much success and have brought so much joy and beauty to others with your music, why would stupid things people say bother you?

LK: I think most of us feel pain when people treat us badly, so that doesn’t make me unique. It’s what you said — that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to touch others through my music — and I’m not saying that in a boastful way — that makes me unique. I’m thankful for the abilities with which I’ve been blessed, but with those creative abilities comes a heightened sensitivity.

Creative people are always subject to the approval of others. Each and every time we create is like the first time. People judge what they’re hearing then and there, regardless of the body of work that precedes it. That’s why those things bother me so much.

HH: I never thought of it that way.

LK: I guess it comes with the territory. Would you like hearing lies spread about you?

HH: No, I wouldn’t. Whenever I’ve had a question concerning a person’s character or integrity, I’ve always gone straight to the person in question and taken the time to get to know him or her.

LK: I wish everyone was like you.

HH: Are there any other myths out there you’d like to dispel?

LK: Man! You love this stuff, don’t you? (laughs) Just teasing you, Harry.

HH: Hey, here’s your opportunity to set the rumormongers straight.

LK: Look, there are some real mental midgets out there who just love tearing people down and I don’t think anything I have to say will change them.

HH: You could try. You might educate those who have only heard your name and bits and pieces of history.

LK: So, you want my profile? Like something someone would put on You Tube or My Space? (laughs)

HH: Sure. Why not.

LK: Okay. I’m a divorced, straight, white, male, with two intelligent, beautiful and talented daughters, whom I love with all my heart. I don’t smoke, drink or take drugs. I’ve never been arrested, I don’t like organized religion, I abhor violence and I try to treat people the way I’d like to be treated.

Music is the guiding force in my life and no one can ever take that away from me. I owe everything to my parents and, if I had one wish, it would be to hug them one more time and thank them for allowing me to pursue my dream, even if it wasn’t their dream.