This may be hard to believe in an era of Nipplegate, Lady Gaga plummeting into a thousand memes and, of course, left shark, but there was a time when the Super Bowl halftime show was not a cultural spectacle or a career pinnacle to which every musician aspired.
Ask Fred Irby III. He was a freshman trumpet player at Grambling State University who played in the first Super Bowl halftime show. It was his first time in California, and he had gotten there with his first plane ride, but he wasn’t nervous about the Jan. 15, 1967, appearance, he told The Washington Post. That not-so-super game between the champions of the National Football League and the American Football League in Los Angeles wasn’t the biggest event he and his band mates would perform in that semester.
It is no coincidence that when Rolling Stone ranked Super Bowl halftime shows, at the bottom of the list was every halftime show from 1967 to 1989, including that first one.
Still, Grambling has played in more Super Bowl halftime shows than any other band.
Its role paralleled the show’s ascendance into an internationally watched spectacle. And it shaped the reputation and reach of “the World Famed Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band,” which has since inspired a Nick Cannon film, played for both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations and been the thirsty subject of a Coke commercial.
In the decade before that first Super Bowl, Grambling State and other marching bands at historically black colleges had elevated the halftime experience, in part because they had the countercultural wiggle room to experiment.
The integration of colleges — and college sports — happened in fits and starts. So for decades, Grambling State was an all-black band playing for all-black audiences watching the games of all-black competitors. That made it easier for them to reject the John Philip Sousa music and stylings that had been every marching band’s bread and butter for more than half a century.
People who don’t recognize Sousa by name probably recognize his music. He was the director of the U.S. Marine Band who composed military and patriotic marches dating as far as the late nineteenth century. Want a refresher? Go to any Veterans Day parade.
Sousa also represented the mold Grambling’s band was trying to break.
“What we did, our shows were more entertaining than other bands — especially large state white schools,” said Irby, who is now a music professor at Howard University in Washington. “We played a lot of popular music. The Temptations. The Jackson Five.”
The mastermind was Conrad Hutchinson Jr., who became band’s director in 1952 and stayed on the podium for 37 years.
Under Hutchinson’s direction, the band “brought soul to the mix,” said Freddie Colston, who played percussion for Grambling in that first Super Bowl halftime show. “Everybody danced. Everybody moved. Nobody stood still. Even the guy who played the big bass drum had to dance. The only time we stood still was when we played the national anthem.”
And in 1967, the Super Bowl needed all the excitement Grambling could muster.
“It was so unexciting,” said Peter M. Hopsicker, a professor at Pennsylvania State at Altoona who researches the philosophy and history of sports. “The NFL teams were so much more superior to the AFL teams. There was going to be no theatrical competition on the field. . . . It was so bad, the Super Bowl prices between Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II actually went down.”
Lukewarm interest wasn’t the only problem. Los Angeles, the host city, was still reeling from the 1965 Watts riots, which left dozens dead and caused millions of dollars in damage. The country was increasingly at odds over the Vietnam War. And African Americans were still treated as second-class citizens in much of the country, especially the Jim Crow South.
“It was 1967 in America,” Colston remembered. “You’ve got colored restaurants. White restaurants. Colored drinking fountains. White drinking fountains. You were called n—– so much it was like another name.”
But Grambling’s showstopping talent made the band members equals with anyone holding an instrument.
“By us traveling all over the United States . . . we set the bar in civil rights. We stayed at first class-hotels, five-star hotels, because we brought something that America had not seen before — had not heard before,” Colston said.
Grambling State and the University of Arizona bands did a pre-kickoff performance. The combined bands formed an image of a giant riverboat and, later, a trumpet. Today, it would be considered a well-orchestrated show — for a high school band.
The main event was the nationally televised halftime show. Grambling played a cover of the R&B hit “Knock on Wood,” complete with dance moves. The song had peaked at No. 1 on the Soul Singles chart the year before.
As the Super Bowl grew in popularity, organizers realized halftime had untapped potential, if they could find some way to keep viewers’ eyes glued to the screen.
“Very quickly, savvy marketers began to understand the opportunities,” Hopsicker told The Post. “It started to evolve. And I want to say in the mid-1970s was when people started to take the halftime show to a new level.”
This was the age of Andy Williams, Up With People and the Mouseketeers. One of the headliners during that decade of change was, of course, Grambling State, which the announcer called “one of the truly outstanding band attractions” during a show in 1975.
That show was on something more like their home turf, in New Orleans, about 300 miles from Grambling’s campus. The entire halftime show was a tribute to Duke Ellington and featured intricate steps and floats, and, of course a guy dancing while playing a big bass drum.
“Grambling adapted to whatever the situation was,” said Glenn Lewis, a university photographer who witnessed many of those Super Bowls. “They were very innovative. And whatever you needed them to do, they did, because they were very tied to mainstream culture.”
In 1992, the halftime show featured Gloria Estefan and some assorted Olympic figures. The public response was muted, and rival network Fox managed to draw 22 million viewers away from the Super Bowl telecast by airing the sketch comedy show “In Living Color.” For Super Bowl organizers, drastic measures were called for.
So they brought in Michael Jackson the next year, and he headlined the most-watched NFL halftime show in history. The era of the star-studded halftime show was born.
“Megastars of all genres suddenly began to covet a Super Bowl gig,” Hopsicker wrote in a piece for the Associated Press.
Grambling State evolved for that era, too. In 1998, they starred in an appearance beside Boys II Men, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Temptations. The theme: “A Tribute to Motown.”
It was produced by Radio City, sponsored by a cruise line and had everything we now expect from a Super Bowl halftime show: Grammy-winning megastars, a football field full of dancers, fireworks recorded from a blimp.
And, just before the grand finale, familiar words from a Super Bowl announcer:
“Welcome back . . . the Grambling State University Marching Band.”