Drumline Live at the
Overture Center for the Arts
The Heart Beat of HBCUs
By Jonathan Gramling

When I first set foot on Alcorn State University’s campus
back in August 1975, it opened up a whole new world to
me. Alcorn State, a historically Black college and
university (HBCU), was nestled in the backwoods of
Mississippi with the nearest city of any size 40 miles
away. In the fall, like any university in the South, football
was king at Alcorn. And the highlight of the season was
the football game versus Grambling State University —
yes I was torn — that was held in the Super Dome in New

Now I can’t tell you who won or lost the football game,
but I can tell you that the Alcorn State band was
spectacular. The Golden Girls dancers shone in their
“Dallas Austin, who is a Grammy award winning producer for Boyz II Men and Madonna, has written for everyone,” Roberts said. “He won a
Grammy as well and he was pretty big in Atlanta at the time. So I got a call from someone representing Dallas Austin. They said that he wanted
to come out to my band rehearsal. By that time, I was like, ‘Dallas Austin? Really? Why?’ You don’t think much about it because you get calls all
the time. So this guy showed up with an entourage because he was a hip-hop guy. They all drove luxury cars. The kids were going crazy when
they saw them. He just watched. He watched and he watched. Then after rehearsal, he said, ‘Can I speak with you for a minute.’ He said, ‘I
love the work that you do and I’ve been watching your band for a couple of years. I’ve been going to the Georgia Dome to watch the Battle of
the Bands.’ Of course he was in a suite and so I didn’t see him. He said, ‘I’m a big fan of your band and I would like you to be my consultant for
this movie that I’m working on.’ The movie was Drumline. He said, ‘The only thing about it is we probably won’t do it for another 1-2 years.’ I
was saying, ‘Okay, yeah right I’m sure I will get that call.’ Low and behold, I got the call. All of the things that you see in the movie Drumline,
the drills and the music and the training of the actors was my responsibility. Once we got to the movie and it was such a good feeling, it was
like, ‘Wow, how cool would it be to put something like this on stage and show that whole historic Black college experience.’”

It took about three years to put something together and they began to perform on the small stage. While HBCU bands are incredibly entertaining,
they aren’t exactly household names. And then opportunity came knocking once again.

“In 2007, Columbia Arts Management Inc., which is the largest theatrical company in America, called,” Roberts said. “They said that they had
seen our stuff on YouTube and asked if we would like to work with them in terms of putting our production on stage. From there, Drumline Live
has been travelling since 2007.”
bespectacled outfits that glimmered under the dome’s lights. And the band’s dancing rhythm and
powerful, driving songs and crisp dance movements left me in awe. I can still visualize that
moment. That was my introduction to HBCU marching bands and the drumline.

On March 1st, tomorrow night, Madisonians will be able to experience that moment as Drumline
Live performs at the Overture Center. It is a show that shouldn’t be missed.

Don Roberts, Drumline Live’s producer, rose through the ranks of the HBCU drumline. Roberts
grew up in the projects and loved football, but didn’t have the size to compete, so he joined the
band instead.

“I joined band because my friends were in the band and I love football, but I was as big as a
flea,” Roberts said with a laugh. “Needless to say, football didn’t work out. Once I got into band, I
wasn’t very good at it. And I still wasn’t good at it through middle school. By the time I got to high
school, I found a band director and he found me and pulled the talent out of me. And I fell in love
with band and music at that time. I ended up getting a music scholarship to go to college. And I
became a high school band director. I got hooked up to the movie Drumline after I became a high
school band director. And the rest is history.”

Roberts graduated from Florida A&M University and went on to become a high school band
director. Roberts was minding his own business, leading his high school band to be the best it
could be and competing in the Battle of the Bands each year — marching bands are all so
competitive —  when opportunity came a knocking.