Ending on a High Note

For Bob Briggs of the Cal Band, It's Been a Long and Melodious Symphony

by Julia Sommer

The only low point in Bob Briggs' 24-year career as director of the Cal Band is coming up: his retirement June 30.

Strictly speaking, he retired last year under VERIP III but returned this year on recall. "VERIP was a real battle for me," he recalls. "Logic said I should take it, but my heart didn't agree. I guess logic won out. The hardest thing for me was telling the band."

Briggs had threatened not to retire until he had conducted the band at the Rose Bowl, "but I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon," he says with a wry smile.

About 400 well-wishers are expected at Briggs' retirement party May 6 in Pauley Ballroom, including the 160-member band, band alumni and the chancellor. Speaking of Rose Bowls, Briggs is the only Cal bandsman to have marched in four: as a student cornet player in '49, '50, and '51 and again as an invited alum in '59. He is only the third band director here since 1932. This is not a position people leave lightly.

What has kept Briggs so devoted? "The students," he says simply. "Their eagerness, devotion, friendliness, spirit--the family atmosphere of the band." At 67, Briggs says he is not especially looking forward to retirement, but his 96-year-old father has advised him that "it's good to go out while you're ahead."

"I've led a rather programmed life," says Briggs, wondering what he'll do after June.

Descended from a family of California pioneers, Briggs was born and raised in Modesto. His great-grandfather led a wagon train cross-country in 1864, helping to found the town.

Briggs graduated from Berkeley in 1951 with a degree in music. He went on to get a secondary teaching credential here, then performed with U.S. Army bands 1952-55. From 1955-67 he was band director at Armijo High School in Fairfield and first (French) horn with the Vallejo Symphony. He became assistant director of the Cal Band in 1967 and director in 1971.

Presently an 11-member committee, chaired by Robert Cole, Cal Performances director, is looking for the next Cal Band director, who should come on board this summer. Thinking about the high points of his career at Berkeley brings a wreath of smiles to Briggs' tanned, youthful face.

He describes "The Play" at the infamous 1982 Big Game as a "terribly exciting moment" and illustrates it by jumping on the sofa in his Golden Bear Center office to point to three of the hundreds of photos decorating his walls and desk.

Of all the half-time shows Briggs and the band have put together, one big hit stands out in his memory: a rendition of Michael Jackson's song "Thriller." "There was a deafening roar from the student section," he recalls with obvious relish.

Briggs has toured with the band several times, starting in 1958 to the Brussels World's Fair. Berkeley's was one of two American college bands so honored. "We were extreme-ly well received," he remembers. Another special trip was the band's six-week, cross-country bicentennial tour in 1976.

Standing on a tall ladder at the 50-yard line, Briggs has conducted everything from memory at football games. That can be a real challenge, like the very first time he led the band and the finale of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" was added to the program at the last minute.

Amusing moments abound in Briggs' long career with the band. One that can be printed is the '91 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., where he was announced as "Robert Orlando Briggs." No one believed Orlando was actually his middle name, but it is. His mother, a school teacher, chose it from a Shakespeare play.

Perhaps the musical high point of Briggs' life was singing the Berlioz Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony under Pierre Monteux as a student in 1950.

Other musical high points include a critique from the legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler and playing for England's Queen Elizabeth II on her 1984 visit to San Francisco.

Even though Briggs doesn't look forward to retirement, it will give him more time for his classic car collection. He has won several trophies for his restored '40 and '41 Oldsmobiles and in June will drive his '41 Cadillac cross-country with the Classic Car Club. Just to get around in he's got a Porsche, Nissan Maxima and Dodge truck.

And he might form a community concert band in Fairfield, where he lives, or a Cal alumni band.

Will Briggs continue coming to Cal football games? You bet. He wouldn't miss a one. "Football and the band are my favorite sports--I love everything about them," he says. "But I haven't been a spectator since 1964. It'll be hard to just watch and not be involved."


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