ST. PETERSBURG — The band director took the microphone to tell the crowd this next song was a popular one, and if people wanted to sing the words they could.
Then Earl Williams put his mouth to his flugelhorn. Williams, 61, normally doesn't play along with his band, but a malfunctioning bus had nearly canceled the Marching Wolverine Community Band's appearance at Sunday's Martin Luther King National Drum Major for Justice Battle of the Bands.
He had planned to lead a band of 52 through a rousing performance. Instead, he had just 17, which is the number of band members that fit into the five cars Williams mobilized after the bus died outside Lakeland.
The crowd at Tropicana Field struggled to recognize the song. The beat seemed familiar. People murmured to each other. "Wait ... Is that ... No ... It couldn't be." It was. Marvin Gaye. Let's Get It On.
And then the six Marching Wolverine dancers put an exclamation point on the performance. Clad in periwinkle-and-gold sequin dresses, the teenage girls turned their backs to the crowd, crouched to the ground, and then lifted their rear ends.
The crowd laughed.
Several bands played louder and better Sunday, but none generated as much applause with as few members as the Marching Wolverines from Winter Haven.
Sevell Brown stood on the turf at Tropicana Field in a silver suit, a silver vest, a silver tie and silver wing tip shoes. Brown, 61, was retelling the story of why, 27 years ago, he decided he needed to start the marching band event and Drum Major For Justice National Parade in St. Petersburg.
It was the mid 1980s, and Brown was at an event at Pinellas Central Elementary.
"Who knows who Martin Luther King Jr. was?" a teacher asked a class. Two hands went up, Brown said, in a class of 36 with many black students. Both hands were white.
"I knew at that point that someone had dropped the baton in passing on the stories of Martin King," Brown said.
This year will probably not be remembered as the best for the band showcase and parade.
In years past, several well-known college marching bands performed at both. Fundraising has dropped off, however, and Sunday's band list included mostly high school and community bands from the southeastern United States, headlined by Bethune-Cookman University.
There have been worse years, though. The Rev. Robert Ward has been to all, and he remembers the sparse attendance in the early years and the bad weather when the showcase was held outdoors. The important part, he said, is that the event still happens.
"It commemorates the efforts and the successes of the civil rights movement," said Ward, 54, pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. "It keeps it alive. It keeps it fresh."
Williams had brought his band to Brown's events for 17 years before, and there was no way a bad bus was going to stop its 18th straight appearance.
"It's not about coming over here to do some juking and jiving," Williams said. "It's about coming to commemorate a man who made the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life so ours could be better."