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Don Gillis, Renaissance Music Man

The musical legacy of the 1935 TCU graduate connects the university and Amon Carter to NBC and Toscanini.

Don Gillis, Amon Carter March

In the 1930s, TCU Band Director Don Gillis ’35 (DM Honorary ’48) put the band on the map by arranging swing-style versions of the hit songs of the day, such as ones made popular by legendary bandleaders Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

Don Gillis, Renaissance Music Man

The musical legacy of the 1935 TCU graduate connects the university and Amon Carter to NBC and Toscanini.

TCU Band Director Don Gillis ’35 put the band on the map by arranging swing-style versions of the hit songs of the day, such as ones made popular by legendary bandleaders Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

In 1937, Gillis gave Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher and TCU band booster extraordinaire Amon G. Carter a huge thank-you: He composed “The Amon Carter March,” a swing-style anthem that became a halftime standard. Carter had spurred the Fort Worth community into supporting construction of a new football stadium in 1929 and personally sold $500,000 worth of bonds. Not surprisingly, the new stadium was named after him.

Carter had made it possible for the TCU Band to travel wherever the football team went by chartering trains with Pullman cars for both the band and the football team. As the band boarded the train, Carter would give each member a $20 bill, saying, “There’s more where that came from. Boys, have a good time!”

Yelling, whooping and stomping, Carter loved to lead the TCU band in “The Amon Carter March” while wearing his purple and white handmade boots with Horned Frogs cut into the heels. And Gillis’ composition had made him even more the star of the show.

Saga of a Prairie School, TCU record

Don Gillis ’35 delighted newspaper magnate Amon G. Carter by composing the “Amon Carter March.”

With a career spanning more than 40 years, the influence of Gillis as a composer and educator was felt at nearly every major institution of higher education in North Texas, including SMU, Dallas Baptist University and the University of North Texas.

Gillis was born in Cameron, Mo., in 1912 and moved with his family to Fort Worth in 1931. He attended TCU on a band scholarship and studied composition with Keith Mixson, a professor of piano. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1935.

After graduation, Gillis became TCU’s band director and served in that position until 1942. At the same time, he played trombone on the staff orchestra at local radio station WBAP, directed a symphony at Fort Worth’s Polytechnic Baptist Church and taught students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the public schools in Fort Worth.

In 1943, Gillis earned his master’s degree in music composition at North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas). He then moved from director of production at WBAP to producer for NBC Radio in Chicago, eventually becoming a producer and scriptwriter for the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York City.

Gillis gained fame for his regionally themed works, such as “Portrait of a Frontier Town,” “Big D,” “The Alamo,” “The Panhandle” and “Tulsa” as well as for compositions, such as “Symphony 5½: A Symphony for Fun,” which debuted live by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and on radio by famed conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1947.

Perhaps it was Gillis’ radio work with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s that will be best remembered. Gillis produced many of Toscanini’s most memorable programs, including “Serenade to America” and “NBC Concert Hour.”

After Toscanini’s retirement in 1954, NBC decided to disband the NBC Symphony Orchestra. As president of the Symphony Foundation of America, Gillis was instrumental in reviving the NBC orchestra as the Symphony of the Air. He then produced “Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend,” which ran on NBC Radio for several years after the Italian conductor’s death.

Toscanini NBC, Toscanini man behind legend, Don Gillis Tossanini

Don Gillis produced “Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend,” which ran on NBC Radio for several years after the Italian conductor’s death.

Gillis later served as vice president of the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, chairman of the music department at SMU, chairman of the arts department at Dallas Baptist College and composer-in-residence and chairman of the Institute of Media Arts at the University of South Carolina.

Gillis also was a prolific composer in many contemporary styles and genres. He used American musical idioms, such as jazz, be-bop and the blues in his compositions to reflect a sense of wit and whimsy. “Symphony No. 7, Saga of a Prairie School” was commissioned by TCU and debuted as part of the commencement exercises at Will Rogers Auditorium on June 6, 1948. At that ceremony, Gillis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree in recognition of the creation of the symphony.

Gillis wrote three books, including a textbook on media instruction and a satire about conducting methodology. About his unpublished humorous autobiography, And Then I Wrote (1948), Gillis commented, “Nothing has been left out of here except a brief mention of the spawning habits of the lamprey eel and a recipe for fried grits.”

Gillis died in Columbia, S.C., in 1978. His collection of scores, papers, tapes and photos is maintained at the University of North Texas as The Don and Barbara Gillis Collection, 1932-77.

 

 

Editor’s Note: For more than four years, Marcia Melton wrote TCU Magazine’s “Mem’ries Sweet.” In 2015, she won first place in column writing from the Greater Fort Worth chapter of PRSA for a column on the 1930 debate between TCU and Wiley College. She completed this final column shortly before her death in early May.