Bobby O: The Pied Piper

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

During his nearly half-century as a Catholic high school music teacher, disciplinarian and elementary school principal, Bobby Ohler stressed teamwork and rowing in the same direction, a harmonic convergence that characterized his vocation as an educator and his after-hours avocation as a cornet player, in, as Frank Sinatra would plaintively sing, “the wee, small hours of the morning.”

Ohler, 67, retired last July after 25 years as principal of St. Margaret Mary School in Slidell, and that newfound freedom has given him more time to devote to his wife Sue and their grandchildren, as well as his passion for performing and writing songs.

For the last 2 1/2 years, the man who has played in the horn section for luminaries such as Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight, Doc Severinsen, The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Spinners has partnered with the New Orleans Central City Lions Club to offer one-man performances for seniors.

Oldies … and goodies

During a 90-minute show on Feb. 7 at Metairie Manor, an archdiocesan senior residence operated by Christopher Homes, Ohler showcased his dexterity on the cornet, guitar and piano.

When he wasn’t tooting his own horn, he was cracking jokes and crooning classics from Louis Armstrong, Neil Diamond, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett and, of course, Sinatra. (Ohler recently discovered they both were born on Dec. 12.)

Between songs, Ohler stopped briefly to introduce and thank his “band.”

“On vocals, Bobby Ohler; on trumpet, Bobby Ohler; on guitar, Bobby Ohler; the rest of the band is Steve Jobs and the Apple Corporation,” Ohler said. “Please give them a hand.”

Lion-hearted

Ohler said he feels especially blessed to volunteer his time with the Lions Club for the regular performances because he can see the delight in the faces of his older audience – “I’m getting so old, I recognize a lot more people” – who sing along and tap their feet and hands to the beat of his music. Sometimes, an audience member will come up and join Ohler at the mic.

“The folks at the Lions Club say it all the time – we feel like we get more out of it than the people we’re performing for,” Ohler said. “It brings us a lot of joy to see people with smiles on their faces, being in the moment and having fun. Some of these folks don’t get a whole lot of visitors. There can be a certain amount of loneliness and boredom, so we’re happy to bring a little joy into their lives.”

Have request, will croon

Ohler goes into every show with a list of songs he’ll play. His iPad has full instrumentals – kind of like karaoke on steroids – that provides the parts the other members of the “band” would play. He’ll occasionally get requests.

“You never know what someone will ask for,” Ohler said, smiling. “One night I had white-haired woman ask me for some Blood, Sweat and Tears. Or maybe it’s some bee-bop, jazz artist or Myles Davis. You never know who’s in your audience. A lot of these people are from different parts of the country.”

Catskills’ shtick

Maybe because he’s used to talking to large groups of students, Ohler enjoys bantering with his audience.

“If any of you are in the witness protection program, you might not want to have your photograph taken.”

“Does anybody remember The Les Elgart band from the Big Band era? … (pause) …  No, I guess you’re too young for that.”

“Over the years, I’ve done a lot of shows when the celebrities would come to town and they would hire people like me when they needed a horn section. I was just a side man – put the tuxedo on, get the check at the end of the night, get in my car and go home.”

“I was a disciplinarian at Rummel. So I probably suspended some of your kids at some point.”

“I played as a backup for KC and the Sunshine Band at the 1984 World’s Fair. At 7 o’clock the next morning, I go to my disciplinarian’s office and there’s this sophomore who wants to talk to me. ‘I don’t know how to deal with this,’ he tells me. ‘My favorite band is KC and the Sunshine Band, and I paid my $15 dollars and I’m sitting in the audience and my disciplinarian runs out on the stage. I don’t know how to handle that!’ So, I did one of these: ‘You see, son, you never know where I’m going to show up.’”

Got Jumbo’s autograph

Ohler’s favorite instrument is his 1959 cornet, which he said was what Al Hirt used to play. As a child, he met Hirt at the Schwegmann’s on Gentilly Boulevard when the music great was signing copies of his album.

“I think it was ‘Cotton Candy,’” Ohler said. “As a kid, I used to play football for NORD. One night my dad was at Digby Park off Downman Road when I scored three touchdowns. But NORD also had a little traveling theater, sort of like the Roman Candy man’s wagon, where the side came down and it became a stage. We heard the traveling theater was coming to Digby, so I brought my horn and went up on stage. I think I played ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,’ and the people clapped. That was the night I quit football. I think I made the right choice.”

Close to Dempsey’s boot

The St. Aloysius graduate got a full, four-year music scholarship to Loyola University New Orleans and

learned under the direction of longtime music professor Joe Hebert, who established the first New Orleans Saints’ band and ran it for decades.

Ohler was part of the band at the old Sugar Bowl during his years at Loyola.

“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I got to see Tom Dempsey kick the field goal and all that stuff.”

Start music at a young age

Ohler believes music education is vital, especially in elementary school, because it opens up a lifelong love of the arts and teaches students discipline and teamwork.

“It gives students the chance to participate in the creative process,” he said. “It’s wonderful when children are exposed to the arts.”

By the time he left St. Margaret MarySchool last June, about 80 students participated in some aspect of music training.

In rubbing elbows with famous artists – Bennett impressed him the most as a performer – Ohler has developed a theory about what makes them great.

“I think it’s their uniqueness, and that covers a whole lot of things – their personality, the timbre of their voice and a lot of good fortune, as well,” Ohler said. “Plus, a high level of competence.”

When Ohler is doing his Lions Club performances, he also can see the ability of good music to lift a senior’s mind and spirit.

“My wife was a music therapist in our early years of marriage, and there’s a science connected to it,” Ohler said. “When we go to a nursing home, I know music can have an affect on people. They will come alive at the sound of music, especially when they can connect with some of the songs you perform. It has an effect on the affect of people. It’s amazing.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org

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