TAMPA — For more than 40 years, Jack Golly's name and the A-list parties went hand in hand. Golly, a band leader and one-stop musical shop for private events from Orlando to Fort Myers, entertained for George Steinbrenner, August Busch and Hugh Culverhouse.
He played several kinds of horns and the clarinet, and hired musicians who could do the same. Together, they created the "Golly sound" — a much bigger sound than the number of musicians suggested — which fans compared to the likes of Count Basie and Les Brown.
Golly didn't just play, he worked the stage. He literally threw unpredictable elements into his routines: a rubber chicken tossed into the audience; a Fidel Castro beard pulled from an ever-present "funny box" of props.
Behind the jokes lay a careful businessman who often booked multiple engagements on the same night, and filled them with musicians he had hired. Golly always played in his own bands, even if he had to leave one engagement to go to another.
"If people had a private party or something, Jack was usually the first guy to be called," said Punky Crowder, a former entertainment chairman of the Tampa Yacht Club.
Mr. Golly died Tuesday, at his Tampa home. He was 86.
He was born John Gollobith in rural Illinois, the son of a country doctor and a voice teacher. He carried the weight of his parents' expectations — that he would go into medicine; that he would play the cello.
At the University of Illinois, he shortened his name to "Golly" and dumped the cello for the clarinet. Though he flunked out, Mr. Golly eventually landed on his feet in the Army, arranging music for an 18-piece band.
After the Army, Mr. Golly and his wife, Laura, an airline stewardess from Chile, lived in Chicago. His performance won the favor of Spike Jones, a big band leader with a unique satirical style.
He toured the country with Spike Jones and His City Slickers, and also worked with the group on a weekly radio show. He moved to Tampa in 1956, started a music store and played with three Army buddies for several years.
While the store lasted only a couple of years, the effort to establish himself as a permanent presence succeeded. In 1958, he boarded the Jose Gaspar as a musician for Gasparilla. He would return every year for the next 40 years.
In the 1960s, he started the Jack Golly Orchestra, normally a five- or a 10-piece band. He practiced the offbeat humor he had learned from the Spike Jones group, from the rubber chicken to making people jump rope.
"If you just play the music, people don't notice you too much, no matter how good it is," he said in 1967. "But if you talk to them over the mike a little, maybe call a couple by name, look happy and present the music in a fun way, people have a good time."
They had a good time, and they always asked him back. Musicians also saw Mr. Golly as a prime contact. "If a new musician came into town, the word was, 'You really ought to see Jack Golly, and get on his list of preferred musicians,' " said Ward Cook, 63, who played bass and keyboards with Mr. Golly for 25 years.
Big-name musicians like Robert Goulet, Tony Bennett and Al Hirt also called on Mr. Golly to help out when they came into town. They would usually bring in a few lead musicians for the orchestra, but hired Mr. Golly to supply the rest. He remembered names and collected jokes. "He carried cartoons and funny stories in his jacket pocket," said Shirley Locey, 59, a family friend. "If you saw a funny joke or something, he wanted you to give it to him. He would pull it out of his pocket and share it with people."
He specialized in the same off-beat jokes he used to loosen up audiences over the years. After workmen updated Tampa street signs, he somehow walked away with one of the old ones. That sign now marks the way up a hill to his rustic North Carolina retreat, nailed to a tree along a gravel road 600 miles from Tampa. It reads: "Westshore Boulevard."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.