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John C. Turner, who turned Plant marching band into a powerhouse, dies

Under his leadership, the band became a must-see show on Friday nights and headlined halftime shows for the Buccaneers.

The band would enter the field with a hearty “Go, Plant High!” and the fanfare from 20th Century Fox. The drum majors would twist and twirl and slide into splits. And then they’d all dance circles around the Bucco Bruce helmet at midfield, blasting funk, rock and disco across Tampa Stadium.

John C. Turner would watch from on high in the press box. He knew exactly how the show was going to go. He had arranged the music, charted the drills and stood out on the practice field for hours, making sure each member had every note and step down — and keeping them out there until darkness if they didn’t.

And then, on game days, he’d record each performance on a primitive black and white video camera. He wanted the students to see it, too. Because he wanted their next show to be even better.

As director of the Plant High School marching band from 1970 to 1983, Mr. Turner was the guiding hand that turned hundreds of high schoolers into a high-stepping force on Friday nights — and more than a few NFL Sundays, too.

Mr. Turner died Feb. 9 after a struggle with dementia. He was 76. And while he hadn’t taught in Tampa since the ’80s, his years at Plant left a huge impression not only on hundreds of former students, but on countless football fans, too.

“The reputation was: You’re not going to believe this band,” said Amy Franco, who played flute under Turner before graduating in 1980. “It was continual movement from the beginning to the end. We never stopped. We never stood. We never had music; we memorized everything. And we had a new show every home game.”

John C. Turner, standing at right, was director of the Plant High School Marching Panthers band from 1970 to 1983. This photo is from 1981. [ Times files ]

Turner, a lanky Fort Lauderdale native who also taught briefly at Just Elementary and Blake High, modeled Plant’s Marching Panthers after the famed Marching 100 at Florida A&M University, where he played alto sax and oboe. That Florida A&M’s student body was largely African American, and Plant’s largely white and affluent, didn’t matter in his eyes.

Out were old-school, rah-rah fight songs and traditional drill formations. In were popular hits like Brick House, Play That Funky Music and Boogie Wonderland; or themes from Shaft, Star Wars or Rocky. He would work nights and weekends arranging the music, often straight from the radio, and tailoring fast-paced drills and dancing to match.

“The thing we do that is different from everybody else is that we’re constantly moving,” Turner told the Tampa Times in 1974. “As soon as you stop, you lose the audience’s attention. We’re always dancing around. The whole band is moving, dancing, singing, just keeping everything fast-paced. The band dances and plays at the same time and that isn’t easy.”

There wasn’t another high school band out there quite like Plant. Turner recorded their halftime shows — a rarity for bands in that era — and had them study the tape the next week, like a football coach. He wasn’t a fan of traditional competitions, but the Marching Panthers still earned top ratings in the contests they entered. They got invited to perform during halftime of numerous Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and college bowl games. As the Tampa Times once put it, Plant “set the tone for bands hereabouts for nearly a decade.”

“People didn’t leave the stands to go get Cokes,” said former drummer Michael Cusumano, class of ’81. “They wanted to stay and watch the halftime show.”

Cusumano was one of those fans. He was in eighth grade when a typically raucous Plant halftime show inspired him to pick up the drums, specifically in hopes of someday joining their band. Once he got in, he saw how respected Turner was around the school.

“It was like, Oh, you’re in the band? Cool," Cusumano said. "We made it cool to be in a high school marching band. Or, he did.”

Turner was a tough taskmaster, requiring the band to practice for days, two and three hours at a time, in the pouring rain and August heat, until each move matched his vision. And he could be just as demanding in the classroom. Drummer Rick Mayer, class of ’81, recalled him passing out intricate music by Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson to the students he thought could handle it. If they couldn’t play it by the time class started, they knew they’d be in trouble.

“We were playing stuff that college bands were playing, and he knew how to get that out of players,” said Mayer. “But he also taught us how to be entertainers. A lot of times, the focus nowadays is on developing the musicianship, the chops, the embouchure, the rudimentary stuff. And that was important. But John taught us how to entertain, and that helped us have fun.”

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Not everyone admired Turner’s approach. He resigned in 1983 after some parents complained about students’ wild dancing and his own ambivalence toward competitions. Plant replaced him with a director who favored a more traditional style. Band membership plummeted.

For a while, Turner worked and taught at Don Banks Music in Tampa. But it wasn’t long before he returned to public education, teaching middle school band in Port St. Lucie until 2006.

Turner was strict outside the classroom, too.

“He could really love someone but not necessarily say so all the time,” said his daughter, Chenoa Reed.

But he could also joke around and be playful. He was, in fact, an accomplished water skier who showed students the ropes on band trips, and later taught lessons and won regional championships in barefoot and slalom.

John C. Turner, the respected marching band director at Plant High School from 1970 to 1983, was also an accomplished water skiier, as shown in this undated photo. [ Courtesy of Chenoa Reed ]

While teaching at Plant, he met and started dating a fellow teacher named Jane Hart. They were together for decades before marrying in 2016. She died in December, two months to the day before Turner. By that point, his health had deteriorated to the point where he’d moved into an assisted living facility in Riverview, near a younger sister.

John C. Turner, in red, had one daughter, Chenoa Reed, and two grandsons, Evan, at left, and Josh. They're pictured here in 2017. [ Courtesy of Chenoa Reed ]

But even long after he left Plant, Turner loomed large in the memories of his former students. When he retired in 2006, hundreds of former Marching Panthers invited him back to Tampa for a reunion and retirement party. This weekend, they’ll reunite again to celebrate his life and legacy at Rick’s on the River.

“Who does that for a guy that you haven’t seen in 25 years?” Mayer said. “He had to have really made an impact on hundreds of students that never forgot him. It’s a reminder of what this guy instilled in so many different people."

John C. Turner

Born: Oct. 24, 1943

Died: Feb. 9, 2020

Survivors: Daughter Chenoa Reed; brothers Charlie Davis Jr., Ricky Lee Davis and Robin Scott Davis; sisters Mattie Turner Ligon, Patricia Keepler, Tonya Davis and Diana Davis; and two grandsons.

Services: Former band members will host a celebration of his life at 6 p.m. Saturday at Rick’s on the River, 2305 N Willow Ave., Tampa.