The Excelsior Band is a familiar participant in parades during the Mardi Gras season. The band features professional musicians who have a passion for music and performing. Theodore Arthur has played with the band since 1966. He recently shared about the 131year old Excelsior band, how he started and his amazing career of playing with music legends of the day.
“I love Jazz. Jazz is my heart but, the Blues is where my roots are. The first thing that I learned was how to play the Blues and that enabled me to learn these other types of music. I love the Blues too, because the Blues ain’t nothing but the high cost of living,” says Arthur with a laugh.
Theodore Arthur has made a living playing the Blues and Jazz for more than 50 years. Influenced by a friend he started playing the drums in the fifth grade. A renowned local band director introduced Arthur to woodwind instruments in the seventh grade.
“He didn’t need any more drummers. He needed clarinet players so that’s how I started playing the woodwind instrument. I played clarinet until I was in tenth grade and I taught myself how to play the saxophone. The late great Mr. Ed (Edward) Pratt was such a phenomenal saxophone player; I was just amazed. The first time I heard him that was it for me I wanted to play saxophone like him. He’s one of the best that I’ve ever heard in my life and that started my saxophone career,” remembered Arthur.
Arthur’s career started while still in high school at Mattie T. Blount in Prichard.
“I played with the Impalas for awhile and there was this great band in Mobile called the Castinets. They could just mesmerize a crowd; They were professional, very highly professional, young musicians. It was amazing to hear and watch them perform. I learned a lot from them, they’re the ones that actually started teaching me the music business and how to play on stage,” shared Arthur.
He learned even more about music in college.
“Florida A & M University is where I really learned the nuts and bolts of what playing music was all about. I had some great teachers. I thought we had the best music department in the country. Some of these musicians were so awesome. They just came to school to get a degree because they could already play. Just so phenomenal, it just inspired you to want to be the best that you could be,” says Arthur.
Arthur returned to Mobile and a friend helped him get his “first big break.”
“The late Marshall York got me a job with Lil’ Junior Parker. The saxophone player got sick, he said hey man we need a tenor player. So we begged my Mother to let me go, I was 19 at the time. My Mother, although a piano player herself, thought it was “not” a honorable profession and you can’t make money playing music. She wanted me to get my degree, but she finally allowed me to go which turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Junior Parker had a great little seven piece band. We went all over the country playing, and most of the time to packed houses. We just had a great time,” stated Arthur.
He had a great time playing with several “Greats” of the 1960s.
“Solomon Burke, in 1964, I played with Ike and Tina Turner; ‘65 Jerry Butler and Bobby Bland in 1966. I played with him 66 to 69 and then bobby’s band broke up in 69. I played with Johnny Taylor for awhile and during that time I played with Aretha Franklin back in 1968. It was overwhelming at first because to be honest with you the music was difficult. And, they were demanding people; they wanted that stuff right, so it was a challenge. It was a real challenge,” shares Arthur.
Arthur played at the legendary Apollo Theatre with Bobby Bland.
“Oh, it was wonderful man you felt like you were in heaven. It was the most difficult audience to play for in the country, so being a blues band we had a real challenge to come in and please those folk. We had a great time each time we went there, we had large crowds to play to and they enjoyed the blues,” remembers Arthur.
While performing with future Hall of Famers, Arthur also started playing with a famed local band.
“I started playing in the Excelsior band in 1966. You had to be a union musician in order to play in the band, so that was how I originally got in there. The late Mr. Sweeney was the secretary and he kind of recommended me to Mr. James Seales. I would go on the road and when I was back home they’d let me come back and play again. It was a learning experience, the music was difficult and it was music that I didn’t know, I didn’t know any of those tunes when I first went into the band. I had to learn them all and they didn’t really teach you the music, you had to pretty much find your own way,” said Arthur.
He’s still playing with the 131-year-old Alabama Hall of Fame member institution.
“It’s magic. It’s fun, and it’s rewarding, and that keeps me happy. The Excelsior Band affords me the opportunity to meet a lot of important people. Being in this band has done a lot of things. It’s about education; it’s about building relationships. We have some great talents here in Mobile that could be developed. I’m working with some children now that are going to be great if they continue on the path that they’re on. It’s an opportunity to help some people and pass along what God has given me,” stated Arthur.
During his nearly lifelong music career Arthur has started a record label, a publishing company, and formed a 12- piece band in Texas whose records went worldwide.
“Music has afforded me a lifestyle that I wouldn’t have had, had I not been a musician. God has been extremely kind to me. I feel good about the fact that I’m able to still perform at 71 years old. Music has been good. Mobile has been great, and I love being a musician in the world today,” shared Arthur.
In 1975, Theodore Arthur toured with B.B. King and Bobby Bland. And just a few years ago in 2008 and 2009, he joined Fred Wesley for a 39 city tour in Europe and the U.S. Arthur’s music is still a hit in Europe today among fans of “Classic R&B.” Theodore Arthur continues to leave his imprint on music in Mobile. Je just formed a new band, the “Gulf Coast Blues Band.”