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Arts & Culture

Take a musical 'Sentimental Journey' to Akron's Summit Beach Park

Akron Summit County Public Library Collection
Music from the Summit Beach Park ballroom will come alive again on Friday -- in its original arrangements -- at the main branch of Akron Summit County Public Library.

What were the sounds of summer in Akron eight decades ago? You can find out Friday night with a tribute to popular Ohio bandleader Clyde McCoy and his shows at Summit Beach amusement park.

“It's one thing to listen to a 78 [rpm record], and it's another to have a band on stage playing this. It's a whole different energy,” said American popular music expert Joseph Rubin. His orchestra will be at the Akron main library performing a tribute to Clyde McCoy Friday night.

“[McCoy] played Akron 13 times from the 1930s to the 1950s,” explained Rubin. “He was extremely famous back in the day, up there with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. People don't remember McCoy quite as much, but his big million-selling hit was ‘Sugar Blues.’”

“Sugar Blues” was McCoy’s theme song, complete with the “crying” sound he achieved with a trumpet mute. It became so identified with him, that when the first wah-wah pedals for guitars came out in the 1960s, they had Clyde McCoy’s picture (and later, signature) on them.

Wah Wah Pedal.jpg
Jim Dunlop/Vox
When Vox introduced its wah-wah guitar pedal in the 1960s, it put Clyde McCoy's picture (and later signature) on the bottom, since he was so identified with the "crybaby" sound of his trumpet on songs like "Sugar Blues."

Clyde McCoy and his orchestra toured everywhere from riverboats to hotels and even hospitals. He passed away in 1990, but his arrangements — some not heard live since the 1950s — were saved by his wife and eventually rediscovered by Rubin. His orchestra will perform Friday in Akron and Saturday in Portsmouth on period instruments with the same lineup that people would have heard 80 years ago in Akron.

“It’s a 16-piece big band,” Rubin said. “[We have] five saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, rhythm [section], and trumpet soloist. We have a Slingerland Radio King drum set from 1945 with the original calf heads on it — the exact same brand of drum set that Clyde McCoy’s drummer used. Drum sets today have changed significantly in sound and sonics and size, and it really helps to have that and the symbols and everything from that era.”

Rubin said his orchestra will perform in uniforms designed just like those seen on 1930s and 40s bands – and they’ll swing and sway behind music stands from that era, just as they do when paying tribute to other bands, such as Ted Lewis’.

“It's one thing to put the music on the stand, restored and just play it,” he said. “But to put all the effort into making it sound and look like what it looked like back then, it really transports the audience.” And he added they’ll be transported within, “the most beautiful library auditorium in the entire state of Ohio. There's absolutely no question, we love performing there.”

Akron-Summit County Public Library
Music from the Summit Beach Park ballroom will come alive again on Friday -- in its original arrangements -- at the main branch of Akron Summit County Public Library.

Rubin and his orchestra played the Akron-Summit County Library in 2018 with a program of World War I music. The Clyde McCoy tribute is a tie-in with Summit Beach Park, known as Akron’s “Million Dollar Playground” from 1917 until its closure in 1958. McCoy played the Wisteria Ballroom there several times.

“That was where everyone went on dates or met their spouse for the first time,” he said. “There's a lot of memories about the ballroom. That was a huge attraction at all these amusement parks that were around in Canton and Youngstown and all over the place.”

At Summit Beach Park, the ballroom held 5,000 people. Sitting on the shores of Summit Lake, it was one of the highest-grossing parks in Ohio during the 1920s and ‘30s.

“It was just a wonderful era for American Music that, unfortunately, sort of died off once you got to the 1950s,” lamented Rubin. “It became too expensive to cart around musicians and everything became smaller and styles changed significantly. But there's still interest in the Big Band era."

A history of Summit Beach amusement park and a walking tour of what it looks like today is below:

In addition to Friday’s show in Akron, Rubin and his orchestra will perform in Clyde McCoy’s hometown of Portsmouth Saturday night at the Vern Riffe Center For the Arts.