On a vacation to London in the early 1980s, Mobile musician Tom Cherry and his wife, Anne, dropped by Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. One of the most notable jazz clubs in the world, Ronnie Scott's was the site where The Who premiered Pete Townshend's rock opera "Tommy." Jimi Hendrix gave his last live performance at Ronnie Scott's, and internationally famous saxophonists and jazz musicians regularly dropped in for jam sessions.
The couple hadn't reached their seats yet when someone called out from the band stage, "Hey, there's Tom Cherry coming in the front door!"
Practicing with Greatness
"Our students sat in the practice room with greatness," said Dr. Roger Breland, executive dean of the College of Christian Leadership and vice president for project development at the University of Mobile.
A phenomenal musician, Tom played saxophone and guitar with country music and jazz saxophone greats Boots Randolph for nearly 25 years. He toured the country, appearing on Nashville-based television shows, leading and arranging music for Boots' band, and arranging pieces for prominent musicians and bands of all sizes.
His last gig before his death in 2008 following knee surgery was at the University of Mobile, where he taught improvisational and commercial guitar.
It was the highlight of a career filled with highlights, according to younger brother Joe Cherry.
"He enjoyed every minute of teaching those students," said Joe. A self-taught musician, Tom "never thought he had the credentials to teach at the college level. I remember when he told me he was going out to interview at the University of Mobile. He was just thrilled to death to be accepted.
"I think he was more proud of that than any of his other musical accomplishments," Joe said.
A First-Call Musician
On his desk at International Wire Rope Corp. in Mobile, where Joe has been president and owner for more than 30 years, lay photos of Tom playing saxophone with Boots Randolph, performing with Joe and outstanding local musicians in the regional rhythm and blues band The Nite Riders, and surrounded by family at special events.
"People locally knew he was good, but they didn't know to what degree. He had a talent that few had," recalled Joe. "Most of his recognition was with other professional musicians."
Randy Davis, assistant professor of music, who played trumpet a few times with The Nite Riders, said Tom was "as close to a prodigy as I've ever known.
"He was a first-call studio jazz musician in Nashville," David said, explaining that meant Tom was among the top-ranked musicians other artists would call first when recording an album or performing.
Saxophone, guitar, upright bass, drums, banjo, flute – almost any instrument – Tom could play them all with enviable proficiency.
Joe told about one time when a fellow Nite Rider band member visited Las Vegas and stopped in to hear renowned jazz trombonist Carl Fontana perform. Fontana has been hailed as one of the all-time great trombonists and developed a unique "doodle-tonguing" technique that allowed him to smoothly execute runs on a slide trombone that people didn't think possible.
The trombonist, who performed with Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Wayne Newton and the Benny Goodman Orchestra, obviously had great respect for Tom Cherry.
Joe said their Nite Rider friend went backstage and told Fontana he played with Tom Cherry. Joe said Fontant replied, "I'm glad of one thing. I'm glad that he never decided to play trombone."
'Be as Good as You Can Be'
Tommy, as he was called by family and friends, grew up surrounded by music,
with a variety of musical instruments always around the house. The middle son, he and brothers Hugh and Joe played guitar by ear. The Cherry boys lived way out in the country – on 20 acres that is now west Mobile suburbs – and learned music by playing with family members or listening to the radio.
Family gatherings always included music.
"Daddy would say, 'Get the instruments out, boys, and play for everybody,'" Joe remembered.
Excellence was expected.
"Mama and Daddy always told us that whatever it is, you be as good as you can be. We became pretty good," Joe said.
At one point, their parents tried to get Tommy and Joe some formal training.
They went to a music store for their first lesson with Mr. Luke Morris.
"When Mama and Daddy came to get us, Mr. Morris said, 'I can't do these boys any good. They play better than me," Joe said.
The boys learned their music lessons from their elders.
"Playing music can sometimes take you places that you ought not to go," Joe said, laughing. Some of those places were nightclubs and restaurants around Mobile, playing music with adults who had years of experience that they gladly shared with the youngsters.
"Mama and Daddy didn't particularly like that. The understanding was you could play there, but you better be at home in time to go to church in the morning and sing in the choir," he remembered.
When Tommy graduated from Murphy High School in 1953, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to South Korea as an infantryman. Hostilities had just ended, but there were still tensions and an American presence.
Tom has been in South Korea a short while and was out one day with his rifle guarding the military compound when his career took a dramatic turn.
As he told brother Joe, an officer asked, "Are you Private Cherry?"
"Yes, I am," he responded.
"Come with me," he was told.
A band was being put together to entertain the troops and back up entertainers from the United States.They needed a guitar player. For nearly two years, Tom played guitar and immersed himself in learning music – how to read it, arrange it, play it on a variety of instruments.
Everywhere there was a library, he studied music. He learned from fellow band members. He listened to recordings, soaked up knowledge from the notable entertainers flown in for the troops. The band needed a saxophone player, so Tom picked up the horn and learned to play the instrument for which he would become best-known.
"The amazing thing about his and his musical knowledge and ability was that everything he knew, he taught himself," Joe said.
Once back at Fort Benning, GA, Tom would travel home to Mobile on weekends to play with the new rhythm and blues band that Joe had joined, The Nite Riders. They traveled throughout the southeast, playing fraternity parties and college events.
"Music, to me, was always a side job," Joe explained. After Tom left the Army, both he and Joe held day jobs and played music at night. They both married and started raising children.
But Tom wanted to do more with his music.
"Music was so important to him. He wanted to see if he had what it takes to make it," Joe said.
Tom left his family in Mobile and went to Las Vegas, making contacts, playing in lounges, seeing if he could make a living with his music. His family joined him in a few months, and they stayed in Las Vegas for about three years, with Tom making a name for himself among serious musicians. But it wasn't a good environment to raise a family in, so they returned to Mobile.
'Most Wondrous of All'
Cherry's father has passed away, and his mother had cancer. After his mother died, Tom and Ann sold their house and most of their belongings and moved to Nashville.
By that time, Tom was playing saxophone more than guitar. He went to a club where musicians congregated, jammed with the band on his alto sax, then sat at a table to hear other musicians.
He felt somebody tap him on the shoulder. It was Boots Randolph, already a big name. "Boots said 'I enjoyed hearing you play, and I hear you play guitar, too. I'm forming a new band...'" Joe recalled.
Boots' multi-million dollar hit, Yakety Sax, was a TV theme song for British comedian Benny Hill, and Boots played with greats such as Elvis Presley and was a major player in helping create "the Nashville sound."
Boots was putting together a new big band, and Tom Cherry was his first pick. For nearly 25 years, Cherry led the band, arranged most of the music, traveled across the country, and made a name for himself as a musician's musician.
A 1993 review in Sumter, SC newspaper, The Item, said time had not diminished Boots' musical abilities, and gave a special mention of Tom.
"Randolph was backed by four accomplished band members, each allowed to solo from time to time. Gary Weaver was at the piano, Ike Harris at bass, Ray Von Rotz at drums and, most wondrous of all, Tom Cherry at guitar and also saxophone.
"As an ensemble, the five guys would occasionally wander miles from the melody and then, predictably and ingeniously, get back on track. A highlight was the teaming of Randolph and Cherry on double sax versions of 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' and "Georgia on My Mind.'"
One story has it that, when Boots was tired or not at his top game, Tom would sit behind him and play the lead while Boots essentially "lip-synced" on his sax.
Annel Robayna '07
took two years of guitar with Tom Cherry at the UMobile Center for Performing Arts/School of Music.
"He was one of the best musicians I've ever known. He has an amazing talent," said Annel, now a church planter and minister of missions at First Baptist Church of Foley and the Baldwin County Baptist Association. He also teaches guitar lessons on the side.
But Tom was more than that, Annel said. Knowing Tom Cherry was "one of the greatest blessings I've ever had."
"I learned a lot about arranging on the spot, being creative and exploring the harmonic possibilities of the instrument," Annel said. "Every time I would ask him how he created a spectacular arrangement, he would point his finger to the sky and say God just gave it to him."
Annel said he learned not only from the class, but from Tom as a person.
"One of the things I see as a constant is the greatest musicians I ever met are the most humble, and Tommy was the most humble," Annel said.
He said Tom became family to him. When William Thomas "Tom" Cherry died at age 72 on Aug. 5, 2008, his family asked Annel and student Trey Hill
to play a jazz standard Tom had arranged for his students, "Pick Yourself Up."
Annel played on Tom's guitar, an Epiphone semi-hollow body. A gift from Tom's family, today it is one of Annel's most prized possessions and "one of the greatest honors I've ever experienced."
Tom was honored during the 2008 Christmas Spectacular, when Hill and Dave Denton
played a guitar duet titled "The Christmas Song." Mrs. Cherry was presented with a plaque in honor of her husband's impact on students at the University of Mobile.
Chris Lockwood '05
, now a member of contemporary Christian band 33Miles, said he looked forward each week to lessons with Tom.
Chris, who has studied jazz on his own for a number of years, said, "Literally, our lessons were more like jam sessions than anything. We just had a good time. He was such a sweet spirit and genuinely a nice guy. Typically, the 'great' musicians are always the most humble, solid people you will ever meet. Tom Cherry was that king of guy – quietly confident. He was fabulous."
Like Tom, Chris went to Nashville to pursue his dreams. He has just finished recording a worship album, "Let it be Glory," with 33Miles, their fourth studio album, set to release in Summer 2013. He has just recorded/released his debut solo EP, "Coming Alive" (available at www.ChrisLockwoodMusic.com), and has plans to record a jazz project in a few months, "just for fun," with fellow UMobile graduates Ryan King '02
and Nathan Woodward '09
"Playing jazz is not necessarily about trying to break into the jazz scene for me – it's about good times with great players and having the freedom to express yourself through music. Jazz is such a great medium to do that through. Being able to play with someone like Tom Cherry is an honor and an inspiration to keep jazz alive and in my musical repertoire. Having the opportunity to work with musicians like Mr. Cherry are the experiences I'll forever treasure," said Chris.
'Some Kind of Thrilled'
Roger Breland recalls that, even when Tom's increasing health problems confined him to a wheelchair, he would come to Martin Hall to teach or just be around students.
"Everybody loved Tom Cherry," Roger said.
When Tommy died, he was survived by a family who loved him tremendously: Anne, his wife of 48 years; five children, eight grandchildren, a step-granddaughter and a great-grandson. His older brother, Hugh, had died several years before.
Joe and Tom were always close, and Joe cherishes the last few years when
the brothers played together at restaurants around town.
"When he died, it's a shame all that musical knowledge goes to the grave," Joe said. His brother didn't leave much in the way of solo recordings for people to continue to enjoy. Because he had not sought out fame and glory, the extent of his talent wasn't truly known, Joe said.
He wanted to do something to help keep the memory of his brother alive. He met with Roger and Brian Boyle '94
, vice president for institutional advancement, to talk about ways to honor his brother.
"I always felt there should be somewhere for people to see, just his name somewhere, so it doesn't just fade away," Joe said. "Tommy was an extraordinary human being."
The Tom Cherry Jazz Band Room was established on the second floor of Martin Hall. It is a dedicated space for the UMobile Jazz Band, made possible through a donation from Joe Cherry.
In addition, Joe donated Tom's Selmer baritone saxophone – one of the best instruments made – along with the case Tom carried. The case, held together with duct tape, has Boots Randolph's name and phone number scratched on the top in case it was ever lost on the road.
The band room will be marked with a plaque bearing Tom's likeness and a brief biography. Students will pass it every day as they enter the band room.
"There ought to be something somewhere where a person gets mentioned every now and then, that he was a good guy and he loved people, that he did what he did – something that's not just in the past," Joe said.
The new Tom Cherry Jazz Band Room is where young musicians are learning to play jazz, keeping the art form alive through generations to come. Joe said it is a good way to honor a brother, best friend and great musician whose music and humble personality touched so many.
"Tommy would be some kind of thrilled," Joe said.