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The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Collection The Charles N. Huggins Project

Wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band

Benny Strickler, Trumpet, taken at Dawn Club, 1942


Benny Strickler (b. Fayetteville, AR 1/9/46) appeared in San Francisco while most of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band musicians were serving in the military during WWII. Virtually unknown in the Bay Area, he had been playing with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. He played brilliantly with the wartime YBJB at the Dawn Club, but tuberculosis ended his playing career. His playing was remembered fondly by all the musicians who worked with him over the years.

Strickler played with Territory bands in the Southwest, but eventually made his way to Los Angeles during the great Dust Bowl migration. Once established in town, he quickly became an in-demand trumpeter and worked with bands led by Joe Venuti, Ben Pollack, Wingy Manone and others. He also played in the short-lived Seger Ellis Choirs of Brass, and can be heard soloing on their transcription recording of “Copenhagen.” Strickler played 'southwestern' style trumpet—a distinctive sound that originated with Kansas City trumpeter Lammar Wright, who played and recorded with Bennie Moten’s Orchestra. This approach to the horn was used by a number of hornmen from Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas including Yank Lawson, Nate Kazebier, Sleepy Johnson and others.

Benny Strickler with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys

In the summer of 1941, Strickler joined Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, which was taking on more of a jazzy, big band sound.

Strickler became the unofficial straw boss for the horns, suggesting routines and leading riffs. He composed a new theme song for the band, “Let’s Ride With Bob,” based on a melodic line from Kid Ory’s “Savoy Blues.”

Wills’ recording of “Ten Years” features a small Dixieland band-within-a-band on one chorus, wailing away in the best Bob Crosby Bob Cats style with Strickler’s red-hot trumpet leading the way.

His style inspired fellow Playboy hornmen Danny Alguire and Alex Brashear, who would continue to show Strickler’s influence in their own playing (Alguire with the Firehouse Five Plus Two and Brashear with the postwar Texas Playboys).

When World War II broke up the Wills band, Strickler went to San Francisco, arriving in the summer of 1942. He was already acquainted with Lu Watters, Bob Helm and other revival musicians, and was a natural choice to take over the trumpet chair at the Dawn Club while Watters and Bob Scobey were in uniform.

Wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Burt Bales, Bill Coonley, Clancy Hayes, Ellis Horne, Bob Helm, Russ Bennett, Al Zohn and Bill Bardin at the Dawn Club

Young Bill Bardin was on trombone, though Naval aviation mechanic Turk Murphy sometimes sat in with the band. Pre-war Yerba Buenans Bob Helm and Ellis Horne played clarinets to make up the seven-piece band specified in the contract and Russ Bennett, a veteran of the first two YBJB recording sessions, were regulars. Pianist Burt Bales replaced Wally Rose. Clancy Hayes and occasionally Bill Dart (serving in the Merchant Marine) were the drummers.

Fortunately, several sides by this group were transcribed and issued by Good Time Jazz. “Fidgety Feet,” “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” “Kansas City Stomp,” and “Dippermouth Blues” were the original releases, although other recordings have turned up over the years (“Ace In The Hole,” “Friendless Blues,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and “Trombone Rag”). Strickler’s playing with the YBJB sounds just as good as his work with Seger Ellis and Bob Wills, with the addition of some Lu Watters licks for good measure.

Benny Strickler Good Time Jazz Album. Source Anna Newman

Strickler’s playing on these records is the perfect fit for the Yerba Buena Jazz Band.

Turk Murphy remembered that when the legendary Bunk Johnson heard the transcriptions, he was convinced that he was listening to King Oliver.

Benny Strickler, cornet, with Lou Vann, drums; Joe Blackburn, bass; and unidentified musicians in Los Angeles, 1937

However, after a short time, Strickler was overcome with tuberculosis and was unable to continue playing at the Dawn Club. He returned to Arkansas, and went into the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium near Booneville.

While a patient, he corresponded with Turk Murphy, Burt Bales and others, expressing a fervent hope that he would be able to return to San Francisco, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band and the Dawn Club.

Sadly, he did not recover and passed away from the effects of tuberculosis on December 8, 1946.