They're Playing Our Song - Part 8
Circuses appeared in Kansas as early as the 1850s. Music is important to any circus, and circuses in Kansas often boasted a band. Band members usually performed in splendid uniforms. Most circus bands in 1900 had about 20 members.
Playing in a circus band is different from other kinds of concert work. In a typical two-hour twenty-minute show the band may play parts of 200 different tunes. Typically the band plays before as well as during each show, often averaging more than seven hours a day. The music must match the action on the stage, down to the beat matching the cadence of the animals.
Three nationally-known circus band conductors have called Kansas home.
P.G. Lowery, 1871-1942
Born in Kentucky, P.G. Lowery came to Kansas about 1880. He became the first African-American to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music. Lowery played cornet and directed a number of bands after graduation.
Lowery is pictured third from the right in this photograph (top, left).
Lowery's reputation as a musician and director was firmly established by the end of World War I. When fellow Kansan Merle Evans became director of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band, he recruited Lowery to direct the sideshow band. Lowery led this band until 1931.
Evans tried several times to transfer Lowery to the big-top band, but circus management was unwilling to challenge the dictates of segregation. Lowery toured with several other circuses before his death in Cleveland, Ohio.
J.J. "Johnny" Richards, 1878-1956
Richards' family emigrated from Wales, Great Britain, to Pittsburg, Kansas, when he was four years old. A talented cornet player, Richards played in and directed several circuses. In 1911 he became director of the Ringling Brothers Circus Band and held this position until fellow Kansan Merle Evans was named conductor eight years later.
After leaving the circus, Richards conducted municipal bands until 1954. During his lifetime he composed over 75 marches. Dedicated to the newspaper of the same name, The Wichita Beacon march (bottom, right) was one of Richards' many compositions with a Kansas theme.
Merle Evans, 1891-1987
Described as the "Toscanini of the Big Top" and the greatest circus band conductor of all time, Merle Evans was born in Columbus, Kansas. He never had formal lessons but became proficient by practicing six and seven hours per day.
In 1919 Evans joined the newly combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as band director, a post he held until 1956. After directing several other circus bands, he rejoined Ringling Brothers in 1963 and stayed for six more years until he retired.
In all his years with the circus, Evans never missed a performance--an estimated 22,000 to 30,000 shows.
This 78 rpm record album (bottom, left) features circus music played by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band conducted by Evans.
They're Playing Our Song: Community Bands in Kansas is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History.
- Military Bands
- Town Bands
- Music in the Schools
- Fraternal Bands
- Railroad Bands
- Cowboy Bands
- Ethnic Folk Bands
- Circus Bands
- Bandwagons and Bandstands
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org