Merle Evans, who spent a half-century and 22,000 performances as a band leader with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has died in Sarasota, Fla. He was 96.
Evans, the original leader when the five Ringling brothers joined with Barnum & Bailey in 1919, had spent most of his life on the road or in Sarasota, the circus' winter home, but always called Columbus, Kan., his "real home." The town has signs on the highway claiming him as a celebrated native son.
Known as the "Toscanini of the Big Top," Evans died Thursday.
His father was a foreman at a coal mine, and the young Evans shined shoes, peeled potatoes, carried luggage at a hotel and hired out as a farmhand to earn money.
Interest in Music
By age 6, he was sneaking into the Columbus firehouse to hear the town band practice. And by 10, he had his first instrument, a cornet which he taught himself to play.
At age 16 or 17 he left home to play for a carnival band. For a few years, he played in odd places--on a steamboat and with Wild West shows. He was playing with a minstrel band when he first joined the circus.
"Young man, I like the way you handle that horn. When you were in the grand entry, you damn near blew me out of my box," John Ringling told Evans after his first performance in New York's Madison Square Garden in 1919.
For each circus performance, he played parts of about 200 compositions. He made many recordings, and kept conducting even after his retirement in 1969.
He also had a career outside the Big Top, recording and directing bands in the United States and Europe. There his concerts included Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in addition to the standard Sousa marches.