The story begins with Frontis Brooksthe first band principal at the time of segregation Emmett Scott High School in Rock Hill.
Brooks started a jazz band. A sixth-grade student Brooks taught would go on to create his own bands, entertaining and educating countless music fans across the region for more than half a century.
The sixth was Bobby Plair.
He first learned to play.
“I started on the clarinet,” said Plair, now 95.
Plair also plays the saxophone, something he learned as a Marine while guarding prisoners in Japan towards the end of World War II.
But what followed was a career in music few could match. The one who brought music to schools that didn’t have it and successful artists known around the world.
Plair still lives in his native Rock Hill.
His Sunday morning jazz saxophone and clarinet performances are unmissable in the region. Plair lives close to her children. Where former students of Fort Mill or Chester sometimes stop to wish him good luck.
“I thank God for the things that happened,” Plair said. “I thank God for everything I did when I arrived.”
Lionel Richie, Patti LaBelle, The Drifters
As a high school band director in York and Chester counties — for much of his more than 30-year career in segregated all-black schools — Plair’s bands never traveled much.
It started in the second year of high school, when a man forming a group to raise money for a school on Saluda Street in Rock Hill approached Plair.
“I played clarinet all over New York,” Plair said.
The band, first BS Plair Combo and later known simply as Plair, dates back over six decades and is still performing.
Bobby Plair Jr. started the trumpet with his father at age 10. Brother Victor, on the trombone, started at 9 years old.
The group has performed throughout the region, opening for artists like The Commodores with Lionel Richie, The Ellington Orchestra and Kool and the Gang.
Plair performed with fellow Rock Hill native Jimmy Ellis, famed “Disco Inferno” singer. Plair played in the house band at the Hi Fi Supper Club, a Charlotte hotspot for musicians from the 1950s through the 1970s.
“Major artists didn’t tour with a band back then,” Plair Jr. said. “They had a musical director and they picked a band in town. So people like Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles came along. He was the group. The Drifters. Pretty much anyone who had a record on the charts would get away with it.
Plair never strayed too far from the schools.
Long after their retirement, Plair’s group was on an approved artist list that provided grants to help bring artists to schools in South Carolina for performances.
Public school music teacher
Rudy Sanders graduated from George school of fish — another apartheid-era school — in 1963, but when he got there, he had a problem.
“I had no musical knowledge,” Sanders said. “Actually, I didn’t even have a rhythm. A black kid who had no rhythm, I couldn’t even keep the beat.
Plair sat Sanders down where their feet touched and tapped out the beat so Sanders could feel it. Plair installed a metronome. Like countless other students, Plair did what he needed to do to make music a reality. Often, as at George Fish in Fort Mill, as the only music instructor.
“It’s hard for you to move to each of these instruments during class time,” Plair said. “So I should spend some time after school, one-on-one, with the students.”
To date, Sanders picks up his clarinet again in March to perform for Plair on the former teacher’s birthday. Initially, Sanders was unaware of what an acclaimed musician his teacher was. Sanders caddyed at a golf club where Plair’s band played.
Sanders learned that Fort Mill School Superintendent AO Jones would be booking Plair for social events across town. Even to places where black people were often not allowed or discouraged from going without an invitation. Other times, Sanders overheard his parents talking about the show they had just seen after a trip to Charlotte.
“He was admired by all the teachers there,” Sanders said. “But Mr. Plair never honked his horn when it came to his stage performance. When he was in this class, he was an instructor.
Plair taught high school orchestra in Great Falls, Fort Mill and Chester. He also spent time at Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill. Plair would start the students on a flutophone, similar to a recorder. About a month later they would move on to other instruments.
“The principle is the same with the other instruments,” Plair said. “It’s something that’s easy to play, so you start them with that. If they can learn that, they can learn other instruments.
Plair almost couldn’t bring his talents home to South Carolina. He completed his college education at North Carolina A&T and was certified in that state. He had to go back three summers to get certified for South Carolina and was only paid under probationary status until he was done.
“It’s the truth,” Plair said. “But you see, I couldn’t see how to get myself back to school for so many years to get certified. This meant I didn’t get my good pay until I got certified in South Carolina.
Plair’s career ended long after school integration. The hours were long, but Plair was committed to it.
“I knew I wasn’t being paid the way I should have been, doing the things I was doing,” Plair said. “I had to work after school. I couldn’t do what I was doing and do a good job, just at school. I had to stay after school.
George Fish alum Elizabeth Patterson White, a 1959 graduate who was both valedictorian and statewide performer, learned from that commitment. White continued her long career in education, serving as a teacher and administrator in two states.
“I learned a lot about playing the clarinet with Mr. Plair,” White said. “Everything he tried to tell me to do, I did. He was a great teacher.”
Plair started the band at George Fish, as he had done at Great Falls. The novelty of the program, White said, was inspiring in its own way.
“We hadn’t heard of a band there,” she said. “Being in this group may have helped me aspire to things that I hadn’t done.”
Music is Plair’s common thread, but it is not his only contribution. Liberty Gateway the city center honors him for his pioneering military service.
Plair graduated from Friendship High School, Rock Hill, in 1945. Four years earlier, an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt led to the recruiting and enlistment of black servicemen. Plair was drafted and sent to Montford Point, an isolated part of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1946, two years before full military desegregation.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed legislation to reward Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal. Plair received his medal in 2013. Plair trained as an anti-aircraft gunner and was posted to Saipan, Japan towards the end of World War II. In his spare time, Plair borrowed a saxophone from Marine and learned to play it.
After military service, Plair went to North Carolina A&T, where he earned extra spending money through BS Plair Combo. This group earned its founder another medal. When Winthrop University began its Medal of Honor Program for the arts in 2003, Plair was one of the first recipients.
Music is a family affair
If music and education are pillars for Plair, one need only look to his own family to find his success. Plair Jr. on trumpet and his brother Victor Plair on percussion, guitar or trombone still perform. Sister Sarah Chisolm sat down at the piano.
Earlier this month, Plair Jr. produced the Blues and Jazz Festival which spanned Rock Hill, Fort Mill and Clover. More than a dozen acts from as many venues performed at the 18th annual event, including Plair at The Gathering Space on East Main Street in Rock Hill. The group has been a regular at the festival, organizing and realization of a virtual event two years ago during COVID-19.
Retired York County Arts Council director Debra Heintz said Plair Jr. had helped book entertainment at Rock Hill since Heintz arrived in 1992.
“Once the restaurants came to town, we wanted to do something inside the restaurants to bring business downtown,” Heintz said. “Bobby and I worked together to start the blues and jazz festival, me raising the funds and reserving the entertainment for him. He was perfect for the job as he has been in the music industry since he was five years old. about – both with his family and later in the Plair band.
Lori Robishaw now leads the arts council.
“As a newcomer to Rock Hill last year, I discovered a number of local cultural treasures,” Robishaw said.
Plair Jr., as an artist and producer, qualifies.
“I also learned a bit about his father and his brilliant career as a teacher, musician and bandleader,” Robishaw said. “Clearly, the contributions of this father-son duo to York County’s cultural scene are considerable.
This story was originally published October 26, 2022 9:06 a.m.