In 1928, LSU's band sat so low on the university's list of priorities that its director pulled double duty as the superintendent of grounds. The 53 military cadets who were in the band wore old uniforms, and they played a limited range of instruments.
That wasn't good enough for Huey P. Long.
The flamboyant new governor of Louisiana wanted a big band that would travel and perform a repertoire of energetic tunes. In Long's mind, it was a surefire way to elevate Louisiana's national profile — and his own.
"He loved music and ... he wanted to expand the credibility of LSU," said Frank Wickes, LSU's band director from 1980 to 2010, who spoke about Long's influence on the band at the Baton Rouge Genealogical and Historical Society's meeting at the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library on Saturday.
"He wanted LSU to be a great university, and he felt that by having the band be really great, that it was the right kind of representation to show to the public all over the country," Wickes told the group.
Long got his way, leaving a lasting mark on the band, which was founded in 1893. But transforming the program from what Long saw as a ho-hum wing of the university's ROTC to one with all the pomp and fanfare he relished didn't come without controversy.
The man who would come to be known as the Kingfish inserted himself into decisions university administrators would normally make on their own, Wickes said, and alienated faculty from other disciplines who didn't receive the kind of money he pumped into the band.
Wickes, who wrote the foreword to author Tom Continé's "The Golden Band from Tigerland: A History of LSU's Marching Band," said Long made a key change in 1930. Frank Guilbeau, the band leader since 1918, was aging, and Long wanted to put someone younger in charge.
The governor found his man in late 1930 — Alfred Wickboldt, an accomplished New Orleans trombonist — and promised him unlimited funding to revamp the band during an unusual late-night meeting.
Wickes read from an account that Wickboldt's family provided while Continé was doing research for his book: "The governor was walking around in his green silk pajamas, gesturing and dictating [to Wickboldt] what he wanted the band to become a large marching band that would accompany the football team for its home and away games, and perform public concerts in Louisiana and other states."
Long personally visited LSU administrators to make sure Wickboldt got the job, which he would hold for four years. During Wickboldt's tenure, band membership grew to more than 100.
"Huey was making himself well known to the band," Wickes said. Long saw to it that additional instruments were purchased and made part of the band, including bassoons and oboes, which Wickes said Long erroneously called "baboons" and "hobos."
In 1934, Wickboldt was fired and replaced with Castro Carazo, the orchestra leader at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans who Long had befriended. Carazo co-wrote songs with Long, by now a U.S. senator, including "Touchdown for LSU," which is still played today during pre-football game festivities.
Carazo also let Long conduct band rehearsals from time to time and march on its front line at performances.
"Huey wanted to be part of the action when the band went down the street," Wickes said.
Long was preparing to run for president in 1935, the year he was assassinated, yet was still obsessed with making LSU's band bigger and better. The senator hoped to see it grow to 250 members.
But by 1940, Wickes said, LSU administrators were ready to move into a new era free of Long's heavy hand. Carazo, a reminder of those times, was let go.
Membership in the band, still a part of the ROTC at the time, soon plummeted as about 11,000 LSU students left to fight in World War II, Wickes said. Women were allowed to join beginning in 1943 to help fill the reduced ranks.
Today, 325 LSU students play in the band. Wickes, who oversaw the program for two of the LSU football team's national championship games, briefly reflected on Saturday about being part of its colorful history.
"I had the opportunity to work with some unbelievable students, and you go through some times which were very special," he said.