It is the day before a big game at Grambling State University, and the 200 members of the Tiger Marching Band are playing their way through campus, heading to a parking lot next to the football stadium. Days of pouring rain have left the field in Grambing, La., too wet for practice, but with only one rehearsal left before one of their biggest shows of the year, the marching Tigers can't be stopped.
In fact, not stopping is what makes this band famous.
"Our field shows are nonstop," said LaBradford Scroggins, the band's head drum major. "That's a Grambling tradition. Once you hit the field, you don't stop moving. You just keep on dancing."
Assistant band director Edwin Thomas, who was himself head drum major when he attended Grambling 35 years ago, said, "Other bands have said, 'It's hard. We've tried it. How do you guys dance and play at the same time?' Well, that's our niche. And that is what we think makes the Grambling band unique from other bands."
Building a Tradition
Grambling's band has been dancing to the beat since 1926, when the university's president decided to start a show band with 26 instruments purchased from Sears, Roebuck and Co. A quarter-century later, then-band director Conrad Hutchinson set out to transform the marching Tigers into "the best band in the land."
"What he ended up doing was getting some of the popular tunes off the radio and putting them out on the field, and then he said, 'Let me add some popular dance steps to them,'" said Larry Pannell, Grambling's current band director.
The result was a hit. Over the next 50 years, the Grambling marching band toured the country and even overseas. They made multiple trips to Japan and have played at Super Bowls, including the half-time show at the first Super Bowl in 1967.
"Everywhere we went, half-time concession stands would suffer," Thomas said. "People would not leave the stands when they knew the Grambling band was performing."
Being in the Band Is a 'Full-Time Job'
More recently, the band performed in President Obama's Inaugural Parade, a special honor for an HBCU band, or Historical Black Colleges and Universities band.
"I just felt so blessed and so honored to be part of something like that," said Alexis Jason, a sophomore piccolo player. "I can pass it on to my kids and their kids, to say that I made history, that I marched for the first black president."
But the fame doesn't come without hard work. And being in the Grambling Marching Band is practically a full-time job. Summer practices -- which begin before school even starts -- last from before dawn to late at night.
"You wake up at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, and then you don't leave until 11 or midnight," Jason said. "It is boot camp."
New band recruits are called "CRABs," short for Currently Recruited Active Bandsmen. Anyone good enough to make the cut gets a spot on the field. Those who don't are relegated to the sidelines.
Scroggins worked his way up from CRAB to head drum major, the highest student position and a key part of helping the band maintain its fabled precision.
"Sometimes you have five seconds at most to think about something," Scroggins said. "When the director or staff tells you something they want to do, you have to be able to tell 200 other people what to do -- and in a way they can understand it -- really quickly."
Being part of the Tiger Marching Band is physically demanding and high-pressured. But it is also the very reason many members came to Grambling State. Drum major Jerald Hooper dreamed of a spot in the Tiger band for years before he got a chance to try out.
"I was upstairs auditioning and I could hear them," Hooper said. "And my heart was beating fast, because I knew the band was down there in the band room ... and I was like, 'Wow, I really need to get down there, because they sound nothing like my high school.'
"I came to Grambling just for the band," Jason said. "I've always heard about Grambling's band, and I just fell in love with the band when I heard [them play] 'Mr. Magic' ... As soon as I heard the first note, I just got chills down my body because it was just so pretty."
Band Members Feel Tremendous Pride in Musical History
Members also learn that they are now part of the story of the Grambling Marching Band, a history they remember at almost every performance.
"When I put on that uniform, I feel powerful," Hooper said. "I almost feel like superman at times, because it is like I'm standing on somebody's shoulders. [Somebody] who made this band what it is, so I can't afford to let it fall."
Jason added, "Putting on the old uniform, it makes me feel I have to live up to what they did. I have to live up to the greatness of what [the band] started."