Three years ago I sat down my childhood friend Ray Ransom, who spent his entire life in the study of music and teaching as well as playing French horn with several local bands. He told me about one band director that had made a difference in his life.
I recognize that if you were in a Junior High School band, the first person to teach you how to play and enjoy instrumental music is someone for which you will have fond memories. These guys are who Ray thought that we should talk about.
For 50 years Mr. Coats was one of the most well-known band teachers in the Mid-South area. Born January 3, 1898 in McCombie Illinois to Adair and Roscoe Roy Coats, his entire family were musicians. His sister sang and Roy played the clarinet, saxophone, piano and organ. In 1924 he came to Memphis and started teaching music at the Melody Music store on Madison Ave. In 1925 he organized a 23 man saxophone band for the Al Chymia Shrine Temple. Mr Coats also organized an All-Girl Saxophone band, and taught music and band at Treadwell High, which at that point was a county school.
In 1928 he became the University of Mississippi’s first Band Director where he would serve for 8 years. He simultaneously taught music and worked on his undergraduate degree. While living on campus he also taught the Oxford High School band during the same time period. The 30 piece Old Miss band, wearing red and blue caps and capes, played at all football games. While he was there we wrote The Rebel March, which I’m told by former alumni ran a chill of thrill up their spine when they heard it played. In 1934 he moved on to Brownsville High and Ripley High and in 1943 arrived at Humes where he taught for 25 years.
In 1947 Mr Coats founded the Memphis Youth Concert band. While working alongside the Park Commission he taught summer band clinics at Overton Park so band students would not get rusty over the summer break. It was very common to watch the band march down the bus lane and then over to Tutwiler as far west as Avalon.
During his career he would write several other songs such as “The Commercial Appeal March”. He also composed gospel music, and it’s been said that “you name it, he wrote it”
In a Commercial Appeal article written by Whitney Smith, he quotes Reed Coats as saying that when Humes High held a talent show, his dad would not let Elvis sing because he said, “Elvis had no talent”. During his tenure as a teacher he helped many students get scholarships and if a student was I trouble, he would go down to Juvenile Court and speak on behalf of the student.
His bands played all over the US and Canada, They marched in the many parades Memphis had over the years. He held a Sunday afternoon band concert in the bandstand at Overton Park giving his students as much exposure to crowds as possible. It must have been a great time to be a band student.
I went with my friend Ray over to Roy’s home on Mimosa one afternoon and the house was filled with young people all our age. It was a very fond experience because I went to school with many of these friends. What a great legacy this man left.
Ray told me that Roy Coats was everything that a good band teacher was supposed to be and that he regarded him highly.
Sources: The Shrine in a Temple by Marshal Wingfield
Commercial Appeal March 31, 1991 Whitney Smith
Personal word of mouth accounts from several local Band Directors and Roy Coats’ former students at Humes High.
Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.