On the field, in the stands, or on the street, the Sousaphone is one of the most recognizable instruments in the world. Now a staple of show bands and parades, the instrument had its start in the late 1800s as a piece in John Philip Sousa’s Peerless Concert Band. As the name suggests, Sousa himself conceived the instrument, but the identity of the original manufacturer of the Sousaphone was disputed between C.G. Conn and J.W. Pepper.
That is, until now. A wealth of newly gathered evidence has proven that the first Sousaphone was manufactured by none other than J.W. Pepper. Much of this information was gathered through the efforts of Dave Detwiler. Mr. Detwiler is the pastor at LCBC Church in Harleysville, PA, as well as a lifelong music history enthusiast and a tuba player in the Montgomery County Community Band. His love of the tuba family of instruments is what led him to investigate the history of the Sousaphone.
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Two key pieces of evidence are firsthand accounts: one from Sousa and one from Herman Conrad, the first Sousaphone player in history. The earliest, a quote from Conrad, was found by Don Johnson, the foremost collector of J.W. Pepper memorabilia. The letter, dated October 14, 1895, three years before Conn’s first Sousaphone was produced, makes this mention of the instrument:
“The Sousaphone has become the talk of the town and gains in reputation daily. The Sousaphone is a splendid instrument. It is well in tune and has a wonderful carrying power. The photographs of the Sousaphone are in the windows of one of the principal music stores in Olive Street (St. Louis), which is the street of this city, and are a great attraction.”
While this quote on its own does not prove that Pepper made the instrument, it is supportive of the timeline our company has stood by. There is more direct evidence, however, and it comes in the form of a quote directly from the composer himself, John Philip Sousa. Featured in the August 30, 1922 edition of the Christian Science Monitor is an article where Sousa discusses the creation of the instrument, saying,
“The Sousaphone received its name through a suggestion made by me to J. W. Pepper, the instrument manufacturer of Philadelphia, fully 30 odd years ago…I spoke to Mr. Pepper relative to constructing a bass instrument in which the bell would turn upwards and be adjustable for concert purposes. He built one and, grateful to me for the suggestion, called it the Sousaphone.”
The controversy settled, the only mystery left to solve was the whereabouts of the original horn. That part of the story skips over 70 years from when the original Sousaphone mysteriously disappeared, to its miraculous discovery in 1973 by a man named John Bailey.
In 1973, Bailey had recently graduated from West Chester State College and was traveling with his mother and sister to a local flea market in Adamstown, PA. At the market, he noticed an old three-valve “rain catcher” Sousaphone. Recognizing the possible historical significance of the instrument, he purchased it for $50 with the intention of refurbishing it. The Sousaphone would then sit in storage for 18 years before Bailey found time to polish it. When he did, what he found was a shock.
On the horn of the instrument, a series of engravings told the story of a pioneering instrument made especially for Sousa. In fact, John Philip Sousa’s face appears engraved on the bell in recognition of his design. He then contacted J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc., who quickly jumped at the chance to purchase the instrument, finally bringing it home after almost a hundred years missing.
This brings the story back to Dave Detwiler. Mr. Detwiler approached Pepper with the idea of playing the original Sousaphone in concert for what would likely be the first time in over a century and J.W. Pepper wholeheartedly agreed. To prepare the instrument to be played, they brought it to Steve Dillon and Matt Walters of Dillon Music, both experts in the field of instrument repair and the care of antique instruments. Through their hard work the original Sousaphone was returned to perfect playing order.
And play it did. In Mr. Detwiler’s able hands, the original Sousaphone joined the Montgomery County Community Band in concert on May 3, 2015. You can watch clips of the concert, parts of the repair process, and the full interview with Dave Detwiler at the top of this blog post or on J.W. Pepper’s YouTube channel.