“Surrey’s official band” once marched around the world as musical ambassadors of the city.
Whalley Legion Junior Band also played local events like Port Kells Fair and festivals in Newton and Whalley, where rehearsals were held in the now-demolished Legion 229 hall, Sundays in daylight and Mondays after dinner.
“That was the routine for years,” said Lyn Verra-Lay, whose father, Will Verra, was the band’s volunteer director for 31 years, starting in 1971, after immigrating here from Holland.
Years earlier, in 1958, the band of mostly teenage musicians played its first tune as Surrey Fireman’s Band, and went on to win armloads of trophies at competitions around the globe, including England, Germany and Scotland.
“As soon as my dad joined,” Verra-Lay recalled, “it was an immersion thing because the whole family was involved. So even before I officially joined the band, in uniform, I was with the band, you know – every Monday night and then they went on trips. I was in the band for a relatively short time, actually. I did one trip to Europe as a band member in 1977 and they went in ‘74 so I did too, because my parents went and they couldn’t leave us home alone.”
When band members joined they were given a tiny, red-jacketed brochure that included a bit of history and some rules and regulations.
“The band is really three bands in one,” notes the booklet, which outlines the marching, concert and dance music. “The band members are between 12 and 20 and are dressed in Scarlet Red Uniforms with white piping, white shoes and white Sam Brown Belt.”
The band sure kept young musicians busy and entertained.
“It was so much fun, and the camaraderie was amazing,” Verra-Lay said. “Nobody talked about it, really, but I know there were some kids who couldn’t afford to go on trips like that, but it was paid for, which meant the transportation and meals and the accommodations, which usually meant a gym or legion hall. That’s where we slept.”
Darrell Ross was a member of the band through the 1980s, first on bass clarinet and later on percussion.
“With the marching band I was a bit freaked out,” he recalled, “because all the music had to be memorized, and maybe that’s why I volunteered for the percussion because I could keep rhythm and it was pretty basic. We had about a dozen marches memorized and that was enough, because if you think about it, you can play the same song down the parade route because that crowd hadn’t heard it yet.”
Verra-Lay was 14 on a big day for the band in 1976, when an album of music was recorded at Surrey Arts Centre. On stage, close to 50 band members set up with eight microphones on stands spaced among them.
“It was like a gym at the time, a glorified basketball court,” she recalled.
The vinyl record served as something of a business card for the band.
“We were the official band of Surrey and we wanted to put a record out because we’d gotten so many awards and wanted some more exposure,” added Verra-Lay, who played flute and piccolo. “My dad chose the songs because he thought they were a good mix of classical music and dances, marches.”
Similar memories are shared on a Facebook group that connects former members of Whalley Legion Junior Band.
Verra-Lay recalled walking the PNE parade route with the band in its heyday. “We wore those wool uniforms, which were pretty hot,” she said. “It was horrible. You’d take your hat off and you were just dripping.”
Another time, the band paraded in a “field show” on the grounds where they filmed the future Harry Potter movie, at Alnwick Castle in northeastern England, for a scene where the kids learned to fly.
For Ross, summer travel was a major attraction.
“Once June kind of hit, we were off doing something pretty much every weekend,” he remembered. “And being part of big group like that, 50 kids, that was great. It was Lyn’s dad who I really admired, even though he scared the crap out of me,” he added with a laugh. “He was from the military, right, and if you weren’t paying attention or goofing off, he’d let you know. And I’ve always been drawn to that type of environment, and I personally thrive in that. It was just being pushed to do your best, and that’s why I loved Will and the band.”
By 2004, the band had opened its doors to musicians of young-adult age. “We are currently really suffering for membership and we sure could use a (membership) boost,” band spokesperson Graham Street told the Now newspaper that year.
The band dissolved not long after, due to lack of interest among younger musicians.
On saxophone, Ross still plays with Central City Jazz, an adult offshoot of the Legion band. He and some others keep their chops up through the year to perform at Whalley’s Remembrance Day ceremony.
“The new Legion building is far from being finished,” Ross noted, “but the hope is to play this November at the Remembrance Day ceremony, and also during the opening ceremony for the new (Legion) building once it’s finished.”
Surrey Now & Then is a weekly look back at Surrey-area landmark sites, events and people. Email story ideas and tips to email@example.com. We thank Surrey Archives for assistance with this series.
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