Charles Woods’ Rhythm Vets

NC A&T's Best Dance Band, 1947 - 1973

Rhythm Vets. 1948 Ayantee. Internet Archive:

Charles Woods’ Rhythm Vets
Soundtrack orchestra

The Rhythm Vets formed in Greensboro after World War II and quickly became a popular dance band. They were all veterans of U.S. Navy bands and most had resumed studies at North Carolina A&T College. Bassist Charles Woods got his name in the credits because he booked the job with John Warner. “It so happened if someone would call my home,” Woods said, “it was called Charles Woods and the Rhythm Vets. If they should call Walt Carlson, it was Walt Carlson and the Rhythm Vets.”

Carlson, the dean of the Vets (they called him “Prof”), graduated from A&T prior to enlistment with his brother, John, in the Navy in 1942 as bandsmen in U.S. Navy B-1, and he was named A&T’s band director in 1946 soon after Bernard Mason was hired away by Howard University. The Vets had forged friendships first at A&T and then at various duty stations during the war. They had played in formal concert, ceremonial and marching bands as well as in dance bands that competed against some of the best professional jazzmen in the world while stationed in Hawaii.

Back in Greensboro, Carlson orchestrated a complex mix of musical organizations to use their talents to the maximum. First, as members of the A&T band, they played in the Carlson-directed concert, marching, and dance bands. “The Rhythm Vets was just sort of the core of the Navy group,” he said, and their experiences both as musicians and as integration pioneers made them exceptional role models for their younger classmates. In Greensboro, “We saw that there was a nice market in playing for proms, fraternity dances, and things like that, and we needed the change, you know, so the group got together already experienced in that field, you see. We started going around locally playing for dances”–in central North Carolina and then, as their reputation grew, into Virginia and South Carolina. Several Rhythm Vets said that John Warner first heard then play at a frat party in Greenville.

Carlson, positive and smiling, seemed always to be having a good day whenever we visited, and when we talked about those days, he repeated “It was nice” several times, and he was obviously more interested in talking about his fellow Vets than their movie-making experience. He relished going through the roster of those who played on “Pitch” man-by-man:

When you think of Buck Gavin, you think of an astute, robust young fellow, a stand up sax playing some of the sweetest tones you ever want to hear–that’s Buck, that’s Buck, good clear tone. He was always professional.

Raymond Pettiford was the experimenter, Raymond was deadly serious. He had a sort of laid back attitude that would make you think he wasn’t paying attention but when it came time for him to rehearse and for him to play accurately and precisely, Raymond was the one who led the sax section, but with a laid back attitude.

Jehovah Guy was about the smoothest drummer we evert had. He never got excited, but he was always on time, always in the right rhythm. He was the kind of drummer that never took over unless he had a solo, always in the background, a perfect rhythm man, as part of an ensemble, and I admired him all through his career.

Otto Harris was always the fun man, smart, very witty, and at a time when you were dead serious about something, Otto would come up with something would make the entire group laugh, breaking all that seriousness, and you come right back with the feeling of something relaxed, ore released from you. He really kept the group going like that. He wasn’t exactly clowning–he was a wit. He read a lot; Otto was an English major, he majored in English lit, he was our Shakespeare fellow.

Charles Woods, we called him Stump ’cause he was so short. At the time, the bass he was playing was often times larger than he was. A foundation fellow, very stalwart, you could always depend on him. He was a businessman, too; he had a business head on him. His attitude was all profit or no deal, something like that. You pay him enough, he’d be right there.

Richard Jones, the professor, the tall one, quiet all the time, very polished, very precise, and he was the same way in the Navy. You didn’t play around with Richard, because not only would you get your feelings hurt, but you might have to duke him too. That’s just the way Jones was, a very polished fellow.

Carl Foster was a professional, very patient. In a situation, he would let you say or do your piece, and he would come along and make the corrections–this is how it ought to go, listen to this. He had a style of his own, but he also imitated the styles of several other great pianists. He had a repertoire that was almost, had no bottom to it. He could play and fit in almost any situation, and he could read, that was important, because we did play a lot of stocks, so we could fit him into any situation.

Lou Donaldson went along with that gig because it paid. Donaldson was a little better quality, well, much better quality musician than most of the guys in the group simply because he was more experienced. He was a very dedicated person to music. You didn’t fool around or play around, you could either play or you couldn’t play, and if you couldn’t play very well, Donaldson wouldn’t bother around with you, ’cause you were no challenge to him. In the symphonic band he played clarinet and could play any woodwind instrument if he was needed at the time. If it paid enough, that’s where he went–if you were serious enough about it, he would go with the group. He was always head and shoulders above the other music students at the time. You could assign him any part, he played mostly first and solo for everything. Because of him, you could really play literature of a higher quality and technical ability, because if he were leading, he could also teach it. So it’s not surprising that he went on to greater heights, greater glory, because he came here [A&T] with a lot.

• • •

Foster and Donaldson were a year behind most of the others in school, too young to enlist in B-1 when it organized in May 1942, but they joined the Navy soon after, and along with Jehovah Guy were trained at Camp Robert Smalls in Chicago in what has collectively become known as “the Great Lakes Experience.” The three of them spent the war playing music at Navy stations in Chicago, New Orleans, Guantanamo Bay, and Beaumont, Texas, while most of the Rhythm Vets trained at Norfolk and served Navy stations in Chapel Hill and Pearl Harbor. After their collective return to Greensboro, they’d all finish college at A&T and most would become band instructors in Black school districts in the Carolinas; invariably, they began band programs for elementary age students and built their respective high school bands into show pieces, modeled after what they learned from Carlson, who modestly said that he learned marching techniques at Michigan State University, where he received his Master’s degree. But A&T’s bands, both concert and marching, had already built impressive national reputations in the South and on the eastern seaboard, where they traveled for performances, frequently with their choir.

Prior to World War II, A&T’s music program was headed by the renowned Walter Lawson, its band by Bernard Lee Mason. The two had been a popular duet in concerts throughout the South and mid-Atlantic. Mason would have become B-1’s bandleader in the Navy had he been able to pass the physical–several fellows recalled that he had flat-feet. Instead of Mason, James B. Parsons, director of music for Greensboro’s Negro schools (and director of the 100+ marching band at Dudley High School), became B-1’s leader; Lawson was hired away by Howard University in April 1942 and he eventually hired Mason; together, they built Howard’s music school into national prominence.

Meanwhile, A&T’s band had been decimated by the war, so Carlson’s job in re-building it was challenging. “I sort of used that group [the Rhythm Vets] as the nucleus to keep the A&T band together for a while,” he explained. “A while” took the Vets from 1946 into the early 1970s and through an unknown number of players, all associated with A&T and its excellent band program, which was led by Carlson until his retirement in 1993.

Thomas Gavin acknowledged Carlson’s “double role” with his fellows and how curious it had been for them to have all been classmates at A&T, then Navy bandsmen for almost four years, and then students of Carlson’s as they resumed studies and he began his long career as bandmaster at A&T. “Walter was an interesting guy, Gavin said, “he played a good trumpet, and we got along just like–well, shipmates–as we always had been, even though he was an instructor at the college and we were still his students. He acted just like one of the guys–he didn’t try to act like a professor on the job, we exchanged ideas, and we worked well together. We used his facility, the band room, to rehearse.”

Foster said Carlson could play “just like Harry James” and added, “He was an excellent musician then and he still is.”

They were primarily a dance band, Carlson said, performing at events for set fees. Richard Jones said they started out playing fraternity and sorority dances for A&T and Bennett College: “We also played for high school proms; very seldom did we play for affairs where admission was charged. Most of ours were private affairs. For “Pitch,” they each made $75: “That was big money in those days,” Carlson said. “We’d been used to getting $10, $20 at the most for a dance job, which included travel time. So $75 a piece was worth it.”

For their regular gigs, Carlson said, “We had the stocks, the Count Basie arrangements, the Jimmy Lunceford arrangements that were out at the time. And we did the usual gig type things–the hit arrangements of pieces like “The Nearness of You,” “Body and Soul,” and things like. And we found a rather pleasing audience in that respect.”

 “Stan Kenton was popular then,” added Jones. “Our theme song was “Eager Beaver.” They played arrangements for big bands, but, Jones explained: “We’d just use arrangements for the 1st and second trumpet parts, and the first trombone part, and the first alto, second tenor and third alto plus the rhythm section, and most of the time it worked out.”

Pettiford added: “At the time, we were playing more or less swing. We had a big band sound even though we were a small combo. We were playing songs like most of the big bands, Basie, Miller, any of the big bands, we could handle their combinations–even Duke Ellington. In other words, [the Vets] was not a combo, it was more or less a big band.” He also recalled later engagements backing up the Five Royals and the Drifters, “any small group like that that was passing through and needed a band for background.”

“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” was an interesting gig, Carlson said, “because we hadn’t seen that kind of recording equipment.”

The band was asked “to run a soundtrack,” he said, “a music soundtrack, for a film that had already been made,” which “required listening to and looking at that film, I guess about six times before we could establish the tempos. We had to rehearse on our own to get the tempos that we took off the film by watching the performers dance, or watching their feet, watching their mouths, you see. So we could synchronize it.”

Thomas Gavin explained: “It was sort of like a dance in reverse. I mean by that, that the music usually determines what the dance is going to be like, but the dance had already been done in this case, and the music was coming to try to fit it to the dance that was being done. So it was almost like playing music by the dance instead of dancing to the music.”

Some believed an original soundtrack was spoiled; others, that Warner hired them as his soundtrack orchestra planning all along to have them play for all the songs and dances in “Pitch.” A couple, that they saw no film; two others who think it was another band on a couple of the tracks, those behind some of the Brown Skin Models acts.  

Gavin recalled Warner visiting a band rehearsal in Greensboro: “He brought a tape recorder, it might have been a wire recorder, anyway, it was the first recorder I had ever seen, and he had us play, and he recorded what we played, and then played it back for us. Then he told us he was interested in having us do background music for a picture he was making, and we talked it over and it sounded very interesting, we’d have to go to Greenville and spend some time down there trying to synchronize with the movie. And it came to be a fact: we went down to Greenville and played for the movie.”

Raymond Pettiford believed the band’s music reading skills landed them the job: “Mr. Warner had an orchestration for his arrangements, and by being able to read music, and we had the right combination for that orchestration for that movie. Mr. Warner seemed pleased when we rehearsed because we were able to read his music. I think he had tried some other groups but he needed someone to read the orchestration.”

In addition to recording for already filmed acts, some of the recording was done live, most likely for songs by local singers’ Joe Little and Esther Mae Porteur and for Sylvester Mike, the band’s vocalist.

Thomas Gavin recalled Warner as a hard worker and that they took very few breaks: “He insisted we just keep playing and doing things over and over. He worked toward perfection. And it got to be tiring at times but we pushed on through with it. We worked all day and all night.”

Carl Foster said Warner was “quite disorganized in a way, but he knew what he wanted and once he conveyed that to us, then we could understand exactly what he wanted and we could go ahead and do it. He was very easy to work with, to work for, but he sometimes had a little trouble explaining exactly what he wanted. Sometimes he would try to demonstrate, and from his demonstrations, we would catch on.”

Foster didn’t think much of the piano or the music. It was “easy reading to me” and “not very good music, and you could tell that an amateur had written the songs, poor chord changes and things like that, poor melodic lines. I didn’t particularly like it, really, but that one of those days and we just went ahead and played it. It was, I suppose, crude movie-making, because the piano was terrible, you know, many of the notes wouldn’t play, but we sculffled through it somehow, made it sound like it was a good piano.”

Jehovah Guy said, “The thing I remember most was sitting and watching that film. The first time we tried it, it went off pretty nice, but it wasn’t like everybody wanted it, but we scuffled hard. I think we worked 7 or 8 hours, and mostly of all I remember Mr.  Woods’, his wife was in labor, and we had the use of Mr. Warner’s old Packard I believe it was and he was running backwards and forth [to Warner’s house] checking on his wife.”

The haze of memory and time has combined to blur some of what happened in Greenville that July, but because of the Woods family’s first-born, it was easy to determine the date of the Vets’ gig: Woods recalled that he checked his wife into a hospital before “we left Greensboro Sunday night in order to meet Mr. Warner Monday morning in Greenville. And I do remember the date, because our son was born on July the 29th. I found out I was a new father on the phone at John Warner’s house, and then I went back to the job. “

• • •

Beatrice Atkinson easily remembered the Rhythm Vets and said that Huey Lawrence, long-time band director at South Ayden High School, had played with them some. Lawrence had a wealth of knowledge about the Vets, U.S. Navy B-1, A&T, and those long-ago Jim Crow days. He had contact information for almost all of them–most had served in B-1, which had been holding reunions regularly–and they were especially interested in correcting a glaring historical inaccuracy: the B-1 bandsmen had been the first African Americans to serve in the modern Navy at a general rating, but that distinction had been publicly granted to another group of Black bandsmen, those who had trained at Camp Robert Smalls, in the Great Lakes Experience. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in the grand scheme of things, B-1’s was a much bigger story, and uncovering it would occupy the next decade of my life.

I was fortunate to meet all of the Rhythm Vets who played on “Pitch” except for Otto Harris, who was in a nursing home when I first spoke with Walter Carlson, and he died soon after, in Johnson City, Tennessee.. He was the band’s jokester: “We called him Giggle-O ’cause he used to giggle a lot,” said Jones. “He was a lively fellow.” Gavin said Harris “was a literary person–he read anything that was in front of him. He would pick up old newspapers off the ground and read them. Anything that had writing on it he would read it. He read well and understood what he read.” The Vets were divided as to whether he in fact would sometimes keep a book on his music stand to read when the music he was reading got too dull. An English major at A&T, he was at work on a doctorate when he died.

Foster said Harris “was a genius” and “an excellent trumpet player” who was also talented as a bassist and tuba player. “He was brilliant, utterly brilliant. He could play swing, concert trumpet, tuba in the concert band, string bass in a combo, just great. He kept everybody laughing, you now. You could be so sleepy coming. back from a gig and Otto would start telling jokes, you’d wake right up and stay awake until you got back home. “

When I first met Gavin, a career public schools teacher and band instructor, at his home in Fayetteville, I asked him why he had on his car a bumpersticker that said simply EARTH; he smiled at me like I was crazy and explained, “That’s where I’m from, man, that’s where I’m from.” I retold that anecdote hundreds of times to students, hoping to better demonstrate to them the kind of shared humanity and good grace Gavin and his fellows always seemed to radiate.

Vets Reunion Jam

None of the Vets had seen “Pitch” until after its restoration by the American Film Institute in 1986. After the “re-premier” of the film at East Carolina University–its first public showing in 40 years, its first-ever screening before an integrated audience–the Vets performed a 30-minute concert.

Gavin said, “Getting back together to play again with all of these fellows was almost like a dream come true. It was a dream that I would never have believed could have happened. I never would have thought that I would have a chance to play with Foster or Donaldson again, but it was just remarkable, how the guys enjoyed being together for that weekend and actually playing together, doing something that we had no idea could happen again.”

Opinions of the film and its music varied. “When I finally got to see the movie,” Jones said, “it was very interesting because I always felt that we didn’t sound like much, since I’ve gotten a little more experience in music, but it didn’t sound quite as bad as I thought it was going to sound.”

Carl Foster didn’t care much for the music: “It sounds just as corny today as it did back in ’47. Very, very corny. The thing that amazes me is, when I listen to the songs that our band supplied for the show, there was a difference of night and day, because Donaldson was playing bop, I was playing bop on the piano. I’d take a piano song and add sounds to it like Bud Powell, that old bebop that he used to play. Buck Gavin, he’s playing bop, too, so you know, then they would switch back to that old minstrel band, it was that style, you know. Musically, it wasn’t what I would like at that time.”


Carlson, Water. Personal interview. Greensboro, NC:

Foster, Carl. Personal interview. Greensboro, NC: DATE

Gavin, Thomas. Personal interview. Fayetteville, NC:

Foster, Carl. Personal interview. Greensboro, NC:

Guy, Jehova. Personal interview. Greensboro, NC.

Jones, Richard H.L. Personal interview. Fayetteville, NC:

Lawrence, Huey. Personal interview. Ayden, NC:

Pettiford, Raymond. Personal interview. Greensboro, NC:

–February 26, 2024

Rhythm Vets, WGBH radio studio, Greensboro, 1949. Ayantee.