Note: This is part one of a two-part series regarding Sacramento resident Lou Coppola.
Many Sacramento area seniors, especially those from the Land Park and Riverside-Pocket areas, are very familiar with the name, Lou Coppola.
And in addition to being familiar with Coppola, who is a longtime Land Park resident, many of these seniors are very appreciative of him.
This is so, because they understand his role in preserving the music of their era – big band music of the 1920s through the 1950s.
After all, it was Coppola, 84, who founded the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society, which hosts nine or 10 dances per year at Elk Lodge No. 6 at 6446 Riverside Blvd. in Sacramento.
The year was 2001 when Coppola and four big band leaders founded the society as a way of preserving a genre of music that was dear to their hearts.
The original bands of the society, which played a mix of tempos from swing to cha chas, were Bill Rase, Orval “Buddy” Harpham, Len Casey and George Bruno.
Today, Buddy Harpham, 90, continues to lead his band at the society’s dances.
The dances’ other main leaders for many years have been 86-year-old Fred Morgan and 77-year-old Warner Seargeant, who was the SwingMasters orchestra’s leader as of this month. Beginning in March, the SwingMasters new leader will be Bob Fry, a retired, 23-year band leader with the U.S. Navy and a graduate of the Navy School of Music.
Also performing at the dances are youth bands consisting of students from Rio Americano, El Camino and Pleasant Grove high schools and a group of Davis area students led by music instructor Celia Cottle.
Although Coppola’s society does not have a committee, he said that the organization receives assistance from sponsors, including the Avalon Hearing Aid Centers, which are owned by Michael Kemp and his wife Betty Voosters Kemp, and other help such as those who provide desserts and prizes.
Commenting about this assistance, Coppola said, “Volunteers and the many dance hosts provide both musical help and great food.”
He added that the society is always in search of additional volunteers and sponsors.
Singing with nuns
Coppola said that his involvement in music basically began when he was 12 years old.
“Music began with me thanks to two nuns at a Catholic church in Concord, Calif.,” Coppola said. “The two nuns said, as they listened to me, ‘You’re 12 years old and you should be singing and you should be singing the Latin Mass. And I said, “But I don’t know Latin.’ They said, ‘We’ll teach you and we’ll practice.’ And that’s what we did after school and I sang the Mass for about two years.”
Coppola, who was a tenor at the time and has been a baritone since he was 14, also sang in the church’s adult choir during the same era.
His early experience with music also included singing in grammar school under the direction of his teacher, Mrs. Davis, who taught her class English, Spanish and Italian songs.
While attending Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, Coppola, who eventually became the high school’s student body president, sang in the school’s choir and attended many dances.
Coppola’s instructor at Mt. Diablo High was Howard Brubeck, the brother of the legendary jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck.
In reminiscing about his early memories of big band music, Coppola said, “It was the music of the 1930s that really was our TV or digital camera of today. The records, if we could afford them, we would go and get and we had turntables – some of us had turntables – and later on we had 45s. And the 45s were even a smaller (media). The 45s became like the later CDs.”
Saturday night dances
Because of his love of the covers of music of the era that was being played by bands at his high school, Coppola was inspired to attend dances at the Masonic Temple in Concord. The big orchestra that played at the venue was Hank Gallagher, a band that Coppola later emceed and recorded every Saturday night at Concord’s Diablo Country Club in 1949.
Coppola said that the Masonic Temple dances furthered his love for big band music.
“(The high school dances) turned me on to go down to the dances put on at the Masonic Temple for 50 cents every Saturday night,” Coppola said. “I went there when I was 16, 17 and 18 years old. Concord had a very active group and it was very well done. It was supervised and there was no liquor, people never got into fights and everybody danced with everybody. The gals didn’t turn you down and you had kind of a gradual friendship gathering.”
Through Coppola’s singing ability, he was recruited in 1944 to be the first person to operate a PA system for Mt. Diablo High’s football games.
After high school, from 1945 through 1947, Coppola was a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine, at which time he sailed mostly in the South Pacific.
Toward the end of 1947, Coppola enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he followed the lead of his former social studies teacher, who encouraged him to become involved in radio.
Coppola said that one of his finest memories of attending San Francisco State is his involvement in helping to establish the school’s first radio station.
Although he had planned on graduating from San Francisco State, Coppola said that he was lured away to Pittsburg, Calif., where a new radio station was about to be opened.
“I was hired by the station KECC (representing East Contra Costa) 990 AM to mainly handle sales and sports and live remotes,” Coppola said.
In 1950, Coppola was drafted to serve in the Korean War.
Within six months of joining the Army, however, Coppola was transferred by Eighth United States Army request to be a part of the new Armed Forces radio network, AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service) in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The five-station network’s purpose was to bring music, news and sports to roughly 400,000 troops.
His initial 12-month assignment was operating the eight-man vagabond radio station in Seoul.
Following his service overseas and after entering civilian life, Coppola began his major work in radio in Sacramento in 1952 with KGMS 1380 AM.
A year later, he was selected by the owner of radio station KYA 1260 AM in San Francisco to assist in the operation of a small, 1,000-watt station in Oroville. The station, KOMR 1340 AM, covered Butte County.
One of the highlights of Coppola’s time with KOMR from 1953 to 1955 was broadcasting information regarding the critical flood of December 1955.
Coppola recalled how the floodwaters of the Feather River reached within four feet of the top of the levee and less than 50 feet from the station’s building and transmitter.
In January 1956, Coppola returned to Sacramento to work for KCRA AM 1320, which was owned and operated by the Kelly Broadcasting Co. and the Hansen family of the Crystal Cream and Butter Co.
It was also in 1956 that Coppola married one of his co-workers, Betty Groth, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. The couple had their only child, Charles “Chuck”, 13 months later.
In 1977, 1320 AM was purchased by Chicago Tribune Properties and became known as KGNR.
KGNR was also affiliated with KSFM 96.1 FM – today’s KYMX, “Mix 96.”
A highlight of Coppola’s time with KGNR was his travel talk show, which aired from 1982 to 1996.
Through his show, “Travel Talk,” Coppola would escort groups to different parts of the world.
On one occasion, he headed a Korean Revisit event, which presented an opportunity for ex-servicemen, who served in Korea from 1950 to 1955, to revisit Korea.
Coppola also traveled to Hong Kong on a food trip with Lena Fat of the local Fat family restaurants and about 30 people in 1992.
Coppola retired from KGNR in 1996, when the station was sold to Henry Broadcasting, which was sold about two years later to Intercom, owner of four other Sacramento stations.
Despite his retirement, Coppola continued working for 1320 AM, voicing commercials and emceeing the station’s big band dances until the formation of the society.
Coppola said that as a “radio man” he was a sort of “a jack of all trades,” since he was versatile in all areas of the radio field.
“I covered sports in Sacramento and Korea (such as the 1952 Olympic Boxing Trials),” Coppola said. “I interviewed various Hollywood, music, sports and political celebrities, including Ginger Rogers, Duke Ellington, Arthur Fiedler, Betty Hutton and Raymond Burr, and I was involved in promotions, commercials and grand openings for local businesses. For me, my life has been filled with good socialization, including sports, information and music of the great era of America’s songbook.”