As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.
If we were playing today, we'd probably give ourselves an outrageous name like most contemporary bands, something like the Durance Vile Guyz (durance vile is an archaic name for jail). But back in 1950, we were simply the Jailhouse Seven, a group that at one point included three St. Petersburg police officers, an officer's wife, two newspaper reporters and the city dog catcher.
Some smart aleck of the day described the band as a curiosity similar to the dancing chicken at Webb's City. The band came into being more or less like those old Mickey Rooney movies where the kids gather in a barn and somebody says, "Let's put on a show." And like the movies, the Jailhouse Seven proved to be spontaneous, talented and popular.
Trombonist Denis Quilligan, a patrol officer soon to become a detective, was the leader. His wife, Gloria, played piano. Motorcycle officer Charlie Scroggs played trumpet. Bass fiddle was played by patrol officer Ed Mogielnicki and later by officer Walter Tipton. Talmage Powell, a reporter for the Evening Independent, played clarinet and saxophone. He was succeeded by Len Forsyth, whose wife was secretary to police Chief J.R. Reichert. Dog catcher Jimmy Pacecca played electric guitar and I, police reporter for the Times, was the drummer.
If the group was motley, it played well enough. Pacecca was good at single string solos as well as solid chords. Scroggs and Quilligan were equally adept at riffs and melodic lines. I was no Buddy Rich or Phil Collins (celebrated singing drummers) but I did occasionally sing deathless tunes such as Orange Colored Sky, a hit for Nat King Cole, or the blues.
Personnel changes are inevitable in all bands, and we eventually lost Powell. He was too busy supplementing his reporter's salary by grinding out pulp fiction under assumed names for 3 cents per word. He wrote an awful lot of romance tales under fake female names. Forsyth was an able replacement whose favorite tune was It's A Wonderful World, a song Louis Armstrong popularized.
For several years, we played at local venues that ranged from the Coliseum to the Million Dollar Pier, Bay Pines Veterans Center, Selama Grotto Hall and the N.W. Gable Armory. The Fraternal Order of Police was our principal sponsor, though we played several times for dances sponsored by Gold Star Mothers at Bay Pines.
We usually appeared in outfits that resembled St. Petersburg uniforms of that era — dark gray shirts, black pants and black ties. But for one gig, Quilligan donned striped prison garb, Scroggs put on a skirt, Pacecca wore heavily patched jeans and the rest of us wore funny straw hats or head scarves.
Ballroom dancing, World War II style, was still popular then, so we also played what seemed like an endless cycle of weekends at veterans clubs and fraternal halls. As I recall, the grittiest was the old Amvets club on the north waterfront, a concrete block structure where cement dust from the dance floor permeated the room.
The place to play in St. Petersburg in those days was the Coliseum, with its revolving glitter ball and polished dance floor. Musicians played in a band shell set atop the stage.
Alas, the Jailhouse Seven finally broke up. They sold me the drum set I had been using for a couple of years and I put it to use in other bands. Some band members moved away.
Two alumni stayed on and made nonmusical marks. Tipton rose in the ranks to become captain of detectives and retired in 1969. Quilligan was an unsuccessful candidate for Pinellas County sheriff in 1964. In the 1970s, he was the lead investigator for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office during a political corruption probe that sent three Pinellas County commissioners and the Clearwater city attorney to jail. Quilligan retired from the state in 1981, then spent 15 years as a private investigator for corporations and lawyers before retiring for good. He's now 87 and still enjoying good health.
The Jailhouse Seven was a great experience — one we all enjoyed while it lasted. Hopefully the audiences did, too.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at [email protected]