Like a lot of people, Charles LaRue started college with the intention of getting his degree and pursuing a career. But circumstances caught up with the music major and, as happens in this topsy-turvy world, LaRue, who entered college in 1939, left after a short time to join the military and later pursue a career (a couple of careers, actually).
Now, some 57 years later, LaRue finally has his music degree. He’s being honored this weekend as the oldest member of Cal State Fullerton’s graduating class of 1996. Yet the 73-year-old Anaheim resident has led a life not so different from many.
In the years after 1939, LaRue was married three times, raised a family, served in the Army Air Corps and was a manager of two Orange County JCPenney stores.
But, for a while, LaRue held a musician’s dream job. He played trombone for one of the most famous trombonists and bandleaders of all time, Tommy Dorsey.
Talk to him and you get a sense that LaRue marvels at his own story.
His father spent $5 during the Depression for his son’s first trombone. His mother drove him from the small town of Nevada (pronounced ne-VAY-da), Texas, population 250, some 80 miles back and forth to lessons in Dallas.
After high school, he spent a year and a half at North Texas State University, where his classmates included clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and guitarist Herb Ellis.
Duty called, and LaRue quit college in 1941 to join the Army Air Corps, playing trombone in the Air Corps Band and the 2001st Radio Production Unit, the group that replaced the Glenn Miller band on radio when the bandleader went overseas.
After the war, LaRue moved to Southern California, where, in 1946, he learned that Dorsey was looking for two trombone players.
“That audition was the biggest moment of my life,” LaRue recalled in a phone conversation. “I’d always idolized Dorsey, beginning when I was back in Nevada, so you can imagine what my adrenaline was doing at the time.
“The band always rehearsed after the job, so my friend Buddy Youngman and I went down at 1 a.m. and sat in. [Trumpeter] Ziggy Elman was rehearsing the band. I was doing all right until they called ‘Hawaiian War Chant.’ That scared the heck out of me. But luckily I didn’t step in any holes.”
Dorsey’s band played the Casino Gardens in the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica six nights a week when it wasn’t touring or recording. LaRue traveled around the country with the band, made a number of recordings and appeared in the film “The Fabulous Dorseys.”
“We played lots of trombone quartet stuff with Tommy when we appeared,” LaRue said.
“He had a reputation of being hard-nosed and tough to get along with. He didn’t put up with any smart alecks. But he never treated me in any way other than a gentleman. He could tell I stood in awe and idolized him.”
Dorsey may have been a tough taskmaster, but according to LaRue, he stuck by his employees.
"[Trumpeter] Charlie Shavers was a featured soloist when we were on tour in the fall of 1946. When Charlie, who was black, saw Charlotte, N.C., on the schedule he said, ‘You know what that N.C. means? No Charlie.’
“Well, we got to Charlotte, and they weren’t going to let Charlie go on the stage. And Tommy said, ‘Well, if Charlie can’t play, the band won’t play.’ So they negotiated some arrangement that Charlie wouldn’t sit onstage with the section but would come out from backstage and stand in front of the band to take solos.”
LaRue had married one of the violinists who traveled with the band and began to feel pressure to settle down with his family. He left the Dorsey band in 1947, put the trombone aside and became a manager at Penney stores in Garden Grove and Santa Ana, from which he retired in 1981. At that time, his son, a trombone player, urged him to pick up the instrument again.
LaRue began playing with a number of local ensembles, including the Bones West trombone choir directed by Ralph E. Bigelow, who also happened to be dean of admissions emeritus at Cal State Fullerton. Bigelow encouraged LaRue to complete the education he started more than half a century ago.
This weekend’s graduation ceremonies mark the end of that 57-year odyssey.
LaRue found being a student again “utterly fascinating. The kids, and I use the term ‘kids’ with respect, accepted me as a peer. Some called me ‘old man,’ but with fondness. I’ve had a lot of good interchange with them.”