In the 1980s, the Mighty Marching Cardinal Band was a booty-shaking force to be reckoned with, 177 students strong. When the pride of East Cleveland's Shaw High School took the field, first you got chills, then you got soul.
Led by their "ladies of distinction" -- dancing girls in white go-go boots -- they marched in cursive while other bands were still learning their ABCs. And if that wasn't cool enough, their uniforms had capes. Classy.
But gradually, the inspired directors left, and with them the funding for the music department. New leaders chose a white-bread military style over the spirited, funky-as-hell African American collegiate one.
Morale was so low, it practically had to be scraped off the concrete. The school hit bottom academically, too, its proficiency test scores among the area's lowest.
Donshon Wilson, a quiet, driven Shaw band alumnus, stopped by his alma mater a few years ago and was heartbroken by what he saw. "I came and asked how the band was doing, and I saw there were only drummers and dancing girls." On the field, the dozen or so brave souls looked like struggling ants, trying to hold it together after their queen had been smooshed.
So Wilson, a drummer who'd just accepted a job as an elementary school teacher, took it upon himself to help shape up the percussion section in his spare time. He also assumed another big task: beefing up the shambled ranks.
In some cases, he recruited students off the street, plying them with an enthusiastic "Hey kid -- you wanna be in the band?"
Who could resist such earnestness? "I'd ask them what instrument they'd like to play, and if they weren't sure, I'd take a look at them and tell them what they'd be able to play." A tiny kid might get a trumpet; a big kid, a tuba.
Two years later, Wilson was appointed full-time music director by Sandra Brown, a new principal hired to turn things around. Since many students couldn't afford instruments, the school applied for grants to purchase them.
It was the beginning of a comeback. Now, the Mighty Cardinals strive to blow people away, but they also find providence in the small things. Like having enough musicians to perform "Hang on Sloopy."
"We used to play it every day in practice, but we never had enough people to pull it off," says trombonist Kareema Wilson. "Now we have a triumphant sound. It's big."
Thanks to Mr. Wilson's cheerleading, the band's numbers rose to 32 last year, then jumped to 76. Training began in June, with a mile-and-a-half run through Forest Hill Park. They had practice every evening. He taught them to read music, as well as play along with CDs by ear.
To keep his charges from straying, Wilson finds them weekend gigs all year long. "He's like a father," says Sheconna Daniels, a diminutive senior who plays the cymbals. "He gives you a ride home when you need one. He always apologizes when he's wrong."
Not only have the students learned to play; they've learned to sway, shimmy, and boogaloo as they belt it out. On the field, they sometimes set down their instruments to do the shag or the frug or a little in-sync game of leapfrog. Hence, the first weeks of summer practice involve lots of push-ups and jumping jacks.
Graceful and fine-featured, junior Venice Steward is the kind of girl who's a shoo-in for the cheerleading squad. She used to think band was for nerds until a friend showed her some of the stylin' dances the go-go-booted Hi-Liter dancers perform, looking more like Tina Turner and the Ikettes than the Rockettes. Now Steward's the head Hi-Liter, holding court in her own bleacher row during games.
Last year, 75 girls tried out for 12 Hi-Liter slots. The tryouts lasted two weeks. "We look for gracefulness, and we look for the hardest-working girls," says Darrell Stovall, a Shaw grad and former professional dancer whom Wilson recruited to direct the white-gloved line. "A lot of the kids can't handle it. They're not used to the discipline."
The assistant director at Camp Forbes by day, Stovall gladly volunteered to help the band. "I remember when I was in their shoes, the people who helped me."
A learning-disabled student, he'd always been pushed to the back of the class. "My teachers would tell me, 'You need to go to vocational classes; you won't be able to go to college.'"
But his band director saw potential. He selected Stovall as the drum major and encouraged him to apply for a college music scholarship. "It just worked out," Stovall says. "There are so many scholarships for people playing music."
Last week, to much excitement, the band's new uniforms arrived. Their previous "uniforms" were red T-shirts that simply read "Shaw."
The plain threads caused them much grief. "Other bands would say, 'They be ghetto, they don't wear uniforms,'" says trombonist Anita Allen. "They think, just 'cause we're from East Cleveland, that means we're ghetto. They always try to push us down."
No one calls them ghetto now, as they march through the streets from Shaw to the stadium in their new uniforms -- black slacks with red stripes, fitted white jackets, and those to-die-for black capes with red satin lining.
Families on their front lawns cheer as they pass. The band even has groupies: two grade-school boys who stride alongside them. When they get to high school, they're gonna be in the band, too, says one, a sweet, solemn-faced boy named Arthur.
Before the night's over, several teens will approach Wilson and ask if they can join the band. Next year, he promises. For now, they can start taking lessons.
Their eagerness is easily understood. On the field, Wilson climbs a gleaming aluminum ladder. His doting pupils stand at attention, straighter than they ever have before.
"Show your love for the 2001/2002 Shaw High School Band," proclaims the announcer, to wild cheers from the packed stadium. It's a proud moment for the Mighty Cardinals, and they haven't even played a note yet.
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