Bandleader still gigging on eve of 100th birthday

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2001

ST. ALBANS, Vt. -- Turn off Main onto Stebbins Street and listen for the sound of an old swing tune or march emanating from a front parlor. That would be Sterling Weed on alto sax and perhaps a favorite student playing the cornet.

The parlor is about 12 feet square, and strung with clotheslines bearing hundreds of birthday cards honoring Weed at his 90th and 95th birthdays.

Along with a lifetime of stories and fond memories, it's jammed with a spinet piano, worn cases containing most of the band instruments you can name, an exercise bike, two small tables and shelves, two chairs and two music stands. One stand is equipped with a special magnifying glass that helps a pair of eyes that turn 100 on Friday read sheet music, some of it a bit yellow with age.

Born into a family of musicians, Weed started on piano with oldest brother Lorenzo's wife. Sometime around 1912, he was drafted to play piccolo in the city band. He learned fast, and ended up the first in his family to fashion a full-time career out of music.

And what a career. Weed figures more than a million people have heard him play. He's taught more than 4,000 students. His dance band was playing the night in 1943 when a couple from Essex Junction had their first date on the Lake Champlain cruise ship Ticonderoga. Weed played again at their 50th wedding anniversary in 1994.

Dr. Edward Keenan and his wife, Ione, danced to their favorite number ''Moonlight Serenade'' both times, Mrs. Keenan said. ''He is the greatest gentleman. I just admire him so much,'' she said of Weed. At their 50th anniversary, she said, ''We asked him to play at our 60th anniversary. He said he'd put it right on his calendar.''

By his early 20s, Weed was making a living as a flutist with the orchestra at the Empire Theater, one of two theaters in St. Albans that used professional musicians to provide the sound for silent movies. He also played in a dance band, Sault's Orchestra, which prompted a crash course in saxophone similar to the one a decade earlier on piccolo.

The bandleader ''decided the saxophone was the newest thing and he ordered one,'' Weed said. ''It was delivered on a Wednesday. I had to play it that Friday night; we had a job at City Hall. We only had one saxophone part, so for the rest (of the tunes) I had to play trombone parts. It was OK. I knew how to read bass clef from playing piano.''

His career as a theater musician ended ''when those sound pictures came out,'' he says. He received his degree in music at Polk College in LaPorte, Ind., in 1926, and returned home to Franklin County and began setting up the first music programs several of the schools in northwestern Vermont's dairy country had ever had. He got himself appointed school band director one day a week in each of five towns.

Meredith Gillilan, 73, started music lessons with Weed in 1939. After a lifetime of playing farmers' dances, park concerts and governors' inaugurals together, she was found playing duets in her old teacher's parlor one recent afternoon, alternating between her cornet and something that resembles a miniature trombone but which she calls a slide trumpet.

To get Weed to play a solo on his sax, you might have to ask two or three times. ''Play your favorite,'' Gillilan says. ''What's my favorite?'' Weed replies. They quickly settle on ''Let Me Call You Sweetheart.''

But ''What's my favorite?'' is not an unreasonable question for a man with the scores and parts for more than 4,500 tunes in his basement vault. They're organized alphabetically into waltzes, swing tunes and other categories. Soon they'll be removed to shelving being prepared for them in the Sterling D. Weed Memorial Music Room at the St. Albans Historical Museum. The museum is located in a converted school where Weed attended classes nine decades ago.

On one wall of the museum's music room is a big sign Weed made in 1997, the centennial of St. Albans' conversion from a town to a city. ''Happy 100th Birthday City of Saint Albans From Sterling Weed,'' it says. It's a safe bet that when the people of St. Albans meet in the main square with friends and former students from around the country to observe Weed's centennial, they will return the salutation.

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