FAMU band director talks historic performances and St. Petersburg MLK Day parade

The Marching 100 band will headline St. Petersburg’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade on Monday. The band, which is 70 years old, has about 250 members.
The Marching 100 band will headline St. Petersburg’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade on Monday. The band, which is 70 years old, has about 250 members.
Published Jan. 12, 2017

The last time Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band was in St. Petersburg for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade was 2007. That was also the year the band backed Prince during one of the greatest Super Bowl halftime shows of all time.

Shelby Chipman was there. He's less than a year into his tenure as the director of marching and pep bands, but the 52-year-old has a long history with FAMU's storied band, starting as a student trumpet player in the '80s and becoming an educator and conductor.

He has witnessed many of its highlights, but he has also seen the Tallahassee band through its darkest period, when a 2011 hazing death put the band in crisis and fans worried it wouldn't survive a two-year suspension.

The highlight of Chipman's student days was flying with the Marching 100 to Paris in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, he said by phone before the band headlines Monday's re-imagined MLK Dream Big Parade in St. Pete. The crowds went wild for them in Paris. The band played a medley of James Brown and Michael Jackson tunes, even choreographing all 250 members to moonwalk.

"To let that be the last performance I had as a student was a highlight of my career," Chipman said. "To execute the Michael Jackson moonwalk on the Champs-Elysées, and the French loved it."

The band performing with 15 others from around the world at Bastille Day is just one of many highlights in the band's 70-year history. They played with Kanye West at the Grammys. They played in the freezing cold at the inaugurations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and in the pouring rain as Prince delivered an electric rendition of Purple Rain for the Super Bowl.

So excitement is high in St. Petersburg to have the FAMU Rattlers back after a decade. They will be joined by another lauded marching band, the Tuskegee University Marching Crimson Piper Band.

Chipman has a connection to that band, too. Its band director, John Lennard, is his former student.

"It's great to see these things come full circle, to have students who are now on the collegiate level," Chipman said.

Chipman almost didn't take the academic route. He was a computer science major at FAMU when he was steered instead toward his first love of music by FAMU's legendary band director William Foster and his drill designer at the time, Julian E. White.

"My roommate in college was also a computer science student. I was trumpet and he was trombone, and he went on to be very rich," Chipman said with a chuckle.

Instead, Chipman moved on to other universities to get his PhD and worked in the Miami-Dade County public school system for 10 years. He's turned the band program at Miami Central into one of the finest in the country, performing in New Orleans and the Macy's parade in New York. Chipman was named Educator of the Year in 1993.

He returned to his alma mater in 1998 and has worked as a music professor and director of symphonic bands.

Then the university was rocked by the November 2011 hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. FAMU president James Ammons resigned, 15 band members faced criminal charges and Chipman's mentor White, then band director, retired under fire.

The band was put on a two-year suspension from performing. After a year of no recruiting and negative publicity, participation plunged from a high of more than 400 members to 149 when it returned to performing in 2013.

Alumnus Sylvester Young came out of retirement from Ohio University to lead the band through the tumultuous period for three years before stepping down.

After a nationwide search, Chipman was given the job, one held by just four band directors in 70 years, all of whom mentored Chipman in some way. The announcement was made in May during a reunion of FAMU alumni in Orlando, and Chipman described the outpouring as overwhelming.

"They realized the storm we had gone through and how we had continued to work through adversity," Chipman said, noting that band membership has risen each of the last three years and now stands at about 250. "We have super hard-working students. And my band staff that decided to stay on, there is no way we could have done this if they hadn't stayed on."

The example set by FAMU and Tuskegee University is what Rosita Hubbard, one of the St. Petersburg parade organizers, was hoping for in the city's reorganization of the MLK Day parade.

In November, the city parted ways with longtime organizer Sevell Brown III after his financial interests in the parade came under scrutiny. Over 30 years, Brown had built the parade into one of the largest MLK parades in the Southeast.

The city instead awarded the parade to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Pinellas and Advantage Village Academy.

Having two of the most notable historically black colleges in the parade lineup dovetails with this year's parade theme of "collegiate futures," Hubbard said.

"We are having an education drive so a lot of people come out for the bands but then we can focus on what you need to do to get to that next level, to get your education," she said.

Every parade has a different vibe, Chipman said, "but the MLK Day parade is special, it has great meaning to us."

When the band pauses during the parade route, Chipman said, expect to hear a song that is especially meaningful to them: We Shall Overcome.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.