Nov. 21, 2001
ATLANTA – In 19 years as director of bands at Georgia Tech, Bucky Johnson has become as much a part of the spirit and pageantry of Jacket athletics as Buzz, himself. That’s not to say the guy ever pulled off anything as daring as a somersault at mid-field or push-ups in the end zone. But he sure did stand tall in a special kind of way.
That explains why in a dog-gone strange twist of fate, we will take time-out on the very night that the Georgia Bulldogs come to town to honor a UGA graduate who’s really one of our own. Say hello to Bucky Johnson, UGA class of 1973, and Georgia Tech, in a class by himself.
Johnson will direct the Yellow Jacket Marching Band on this storied field for the last time Saturday (kickoff, 7:45 p.m.). He will step down in January and take early retirement from his Tech duties at the age of 50. As one Yellow Jacket band member put it, “We’ll be playing sad songs for a while.”
If you have not met Bucky Johnson, you are missing more than just a musical beat or two. He is a good man. He tells funny stories and enjoys life. John Philip Sousa himself probably never had so much fun.
Throughout his Tech career, Johnson has had a wonderful relationship with his students. “They only mention my University of Georgia ties when they want to take a dig at me,” Johnson says. “We generally don’t speak of that very much. I still pull for Georgia, but not when the Georgia teams are playing Tech.”
Johnson says his Georgia Tech Marching Band, 280 pieces strong, is special, indeed and not just because it performs so well. “We do not have a music major at Georgia Tech,” he says, “so every one in our band is doing this just for fun. They just want to be here.”
In a recent interview in his campus office, Johnson took a look back at his Georgia Tech career and beyond, covering his 28 years in the business. Prior to taking the Tech job in 1983, he was band director for eight years at Druid Hills High in Atlanta and two years at Shamrock High.
“This is a bittersweet time,” he said. “The Georgia Tech bands have been my life up to this point. But I do look forward to the opportunity of doing some other things. I told a friend, ‘I was lucky that I happened to be at the right place at the right time to get this job.’ The friend said, ‘Yes, but don’t forget you had to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.'”
Johnson obviously has taught that lesson to the thousands of Georgia Tech students who have taken his band classes. The students have taught him some lessons, too, especially those related to Rambling Wreck tradition.
It has become “the thing” for band members to somehow gain access to Johnson’s locked office once a year and pull off some sort of prank. “One year, they moved out all the furniture and the room was empty when I walked in,” he said. “Another year, they hung newspapers and balloons from the walls. The most memorable prank, however, came the year the students placed a commode beside my desk. They even brought along a photographer to take a picture of me sitting on it.”
Most of the tradition lessons, however, take a different form. More so than any other campus group, men and women in the band observe the old Rat Hat tradition. “They have a ‘Tradition Night’ for new band members,” Johnson says, “and they teach the freshmen such tricks as writing football scores on the Rat Hats up-side down when Tech loses and upright when Tech wins.”
The band members also perpetuate the old George P. Burdell tradition which originated in 1927 when a mythical student with the Burdell name appeared on class rosters. “The band members see that the George P. Burdell name is announced on PA systems at games and in airports,” Johnson said. “They’ve even had the name placed on theatre marquees.”
One trick almost got the band members in trouble. “The band saw a Penn State logo painted at midfield at an away game,” Johnson says. “So our students went to a Home Depot and bought some Astroturf, then painted a big GT on it. The Astroturf piece somehow wound up in a closet for a couple of years. Then it appeared at a Georgia game in Sanford Stadium.
“Georgia did not have a big G in the middle of the field at that time. But the school did have a special logo placed there in celebration of Georgia’s 100 years in football. Our bandmen covered that logo with the GT Astroturf piece. The Georgia cheerleaders removed it, but our cheerleaders promptly put it back.
“You’ve never heard such boos. Our halftime band performance lasted eight minutes and the Georgia fans booed for about seven minutes and 45 seconds. Georgia sent a letter of complaint to the Tech president about the incident.”
Johnson is extremely proud of the fact that he was chosen to serve from 1992 through 1996 as director of the Atlanta Olympic Band. Many Tech students also were involved as members of that group. The band played at the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games and also performed at Atlanta Symphony Hall and at City Hall.
An Atlanta native, Johnson has been playing the drums (and quite well, too) since he was in the ninth grade at Southwest DeKalb High School. Interestingly, his favorite music is jazz, and he had his own jazz quartet for a good number of years. “After I took time off to lead the Olympic band, I could not get back to the level where I felt good with our jazz group,” he said. “Now, I guess I’m too old to start again.”
As chair of the music department, Johnson oversees the entire department. He has directed the Tech Marching Band for 19 years and was leader of the Pep Band for 16. He is ably assisted by associate director Andrea Strauss, head of the Symphonic Band and assistant in numerous other musical projects, and Chris Moore, who is the band arranger and director of the Pep Band.
Johnson and his wife, Janet, attended the University of Georgia together after he had studied music for two years at Jacksonville State in Alabama. Both received degrees in Music Education. Janet was involved in choral music for many years and now has become an English teacher at Marietta High School. They have two sons, Manny, 21, who attends UGA, and Wes, 17, who has followed in his dad’s path as a drummer in high school.
“Our band philosophy is simple,” Johnson said. “We feel that what we do in the stands before the game and during the game is just as important as the halftime show. The halftime performance actually is just one-third of what we bring to the table. You have the best of both worlds when your music is both entertaining to the fans and interesting for the students who are performing.”
The Tech director says the events of Sept. 11 have added a patriotic element to band performances. “But is it is my feeling that music in general helps us get through times like these,” he says.
Johnson says two games against the University of Virginia rank among his favorites in his time at Tech. “When Bobby Cremins came to Tech and was just establishing a program, his team beat Virginia here in three overtimes,” he said. “That game got me hooked on ACC basketball. The other was our football win over Virginia in 1990 when Scott Sisson made the winning field goal at the end. That game was pivotal in the team’s drive to a share of the National Championship.”
Johnson says he is taking early retirement for three reasons. “For one thing, the Georgia Tech retirement plan is so good,” he said. “I also want to spend more time with my family after working so many nights and weekends. And I always wanted to retire while I was still enjoying my work.”
He still plans to be involved in music and will conduct an annual Music Festival at Six Flags for middle school and high school students. But that’s for another day.
In the meantime, strike up the band! Georgia Tech’s Music Man is ready for action. Here come those 76 trombones and 110 cornets – all over again!