Professor WT McDaniel

The story of Memphis music is as much grounded in the city’s high school music education and band programs as it is in the fabled streets of Beale Street. One wouldn’t have happened quite the same, in fact, without the other. A key figure in that alliance was Professor William Theodore McDaniel, who taught several generations of players that would define the intersecting sounds of jazz, blues, and soul in the Mid-South.

Those who came under the mentorship of McDaniel, learning the specifics of music at an impressionable age, included some of the top tier jazz performers and session musicians of their day such as pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. and his guitarist brother Calvin Newborn; sax pros Charles Lloyd, Sonny Criss, Andy Goodrich, Fred Ford, and Chris Woods; drumming great Joe Dukes; trumpeter Louis Smith; keyboardist Robert “Honeymoon” Garner; and bassist Jamil Nasser. There was also Motown drummer and Funk Brother Richard “Pistol” Allen, B. B. King band saxophonist Evelyn Young, and Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, as well as pedagogues/bandleaders Calvin Jones, Emerson Able, Jr., George Cowser, Nelson Jackson, and McDaniel’s son, Dr. Ted McDaniel, professor of African American Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Ohio State University.

“I’m in music because I love what my father did,” says Ted McDaniel. “My mother used to say that as a youngster I was always having to crawl over horns that my dad had everywhere. All my babysitters were students of his from the band. If they couldn’t find a girl to babysit, he’d go by Smitty’s [Louis Smith’s] house and pick him up. Smitty told me, ‘I’ve been knowing you before you knew you!’”

Listen as Ted McDaniel Interviews his Father

WT McDaniel and his wife, Dorothy
Photo courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

Born in 1905 in Greenville, Texas, near Dallas, W. T. McDaniel grew up around a father who played violin and mandolin in a serenading string band and had both a coloratura soprano and Boston Conservatory graduate for neighbors. He attended George R. Smith College in Scott Joplin’s onetime home, Sedalia, Missouri, playing trumpet and singing baritone in a vocal quartet until 1925 when, during his sophomore year, the college burned down. Its music professor, George S. Murray, headed to Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and took the singing troupe with him where, as the Rust Quartet, it became a fundraising arm of the historically black institution, touring throughout the Midwest playing Rust-affiliated M. E. (Methodist Episcopal) churches.

At Rust, McDaniel managed the college’s concert company, directed the Sunday school orchestra, was president of the college band and choir, played trumpet and cello in the school orchestra, and played halfback on the football team. His athletic ambitions came to a halt when he broke his nose during a game and had to sing a week later at a Methodist conference. Relates Ted McDaniel, “The president of Rust came up to tell him that he was being paid not to play football but to make music. So that was the end of his football career.” McDaniel graduated from Rust in 1927, part of the same class as gospel music pioneer (and fellow Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee) Lucie E. Campbell.

McDaniels college graduation photo

McDaniel’s Senior Photo 1927Courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

Booker T Washington high school band photo
Photo courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

Fresh out of school, McDaniel took a job directing the band at Tupelo’s Lee County Training School, which guaranteed a monthly hundred-dollar salary and the purchase of instruments for him to get started. He stayed through the 1930s and from his reputation there was offered positions at both W. H. Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis’s Booker T. Washington High School, which he chose.

McDaniel spent the better part of the 1940s dividing his teaching schedule between Booker T. Washington, where friend and former classmate Lucie Campbell also taught, and Manassas High School. That meant he oversaw two of the leading school bands of the day, the Bookerteasers and Manassas’s Rhythm Bombers, enlisting such talent as Booker T. student Phineas Newborn to play in both ensembles. Rhythm Bombers member Emerson Able, Jr., who became a noted Mid-South band leader himself, remembers that McDaniel was hired at a time when Memphians were still reveling in the swing band fame of former Manassas instructor Jimmie Lunceford, which made expectations high for the new band director. Indeed, under McDaniel, the Rhythm Bombers played professional charts and worked high profile gigs including the top spots for big band music at the time in Memphis, the Skyway at the Peabody and the Balinese Room at the Claridge Hotel.

Photos of Bookerteasers and Rhythm Bombers Top: The Manassas Rhythm Bombers, Bottom: The Booker T. Washington Bookerteasers. Photos courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

“He was a beautiful guy. Everybody loved him, and he treated everybody fairly. He got all of us scholarships to different places. I will forever glorify his name.”

- Emerson Able, Jr.
Manassas high school band photo
Photo courtesy McDaniel Family Collection
Collage of WT McDaniel Photos

Though he trained as a marching band director, McDaniel had an open mind and encouraged his students – who affectionately called him “Mr. Mac” – to explore newer forms of the day such as bebop. He also encouraged experimentation, which left a profound mark on the Newborn siblings. “I used to hang out in the band room a lot and I got a chance to play any instrument I wanted to play,” says Calvin Newborn. “I started playing flute and then piccolo and then I switched to the horns – I played baritone horn and trombone. And my brother did the same thing.” Newborn adds that to this day people assume he and Phineas were versatile because their father had a music shop. “It wasn’t because of my dad’s shop that we played all the instruments,” he corrects. “It was because Mr. McDaniel allowed us to. . . . He was an accomplished director. He knew the music and he knew the instruments. He was very tough on us learning to play right. [But] he gave us leeway to do a lot of things.”

Top Left: McDaniel and Phineas Newborn, Top Right: McDaniel and his wife Dorothy, Bottom: McDaniel, son Ted, and a majorette. Photos courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

McDaniel left Manassas in 1948 and remained at Booker T. Washington through 1959. At the height of his educational career, he was chairman of band music for the Colored Tri-State Fair and was known in music education circles as the Dean of the Black Band Directors of the Mid-South. Ultimately his legacy, one of nurturing and guidance, directly contributed to what Ted McDaniel dubs the “Beale Street aesthetic.” “He was a master teacher, that’s what he loved,” says his son. “His infectious love of music and black culture and all that represented gave him the opportunity to try and lead young African American youth on a path that all would be proud of.”

WT McDaniel
Photo courtesy McDaniel Family Collection

What Others are Saying

  1. Long before I became a deejay at WDIA, Memphis,
    I was a student at Booker T. Washington High School. I was a fervent jazz lover even at a very young age, My idol was Sarah Vaughan and I began to seriously imitate her. Some success at this act, Must have been believable for Mr. MaDaniels allowed me to sing at several functions with the Bookerteasers. I continued imitating Sarah while in college. I will always be grateful to Mr. McDaniels for letting me have my first “15 minutes of fame”

    Versia Starr McKinney
  2. Mr. McDaniel was my band director during my high school. He was most influential in my life and career. I will always be grateful for his guidance and direction.

    Rev. Carlton W. Veazey
  3. I want to learn more about Professor McDaniel when he was at the Lee County Training School. I heard he taught Mr. Walter Partlow who was the band director of George Washington Carver High School. I cannot find any history on Professor McDaniel. What a great Musician and the many lives he touched for the better.

  4. Although I didn’t take band from Mr Mcdaniel,I saw the effect on my classmates, They enjoyed it. Two names that were under his mentorship were Maurice White and David Porter.

    Jerry Kimble
  5. Professor W.T. McDaniel was my grand father may he rest in peace l will remember him always. I’m so proud of my dad I love him always. And I may sure my kids and my grand kids know him. I’m blessed to have known someone in my life time. He my hero.

  6. Several years ago I did a Google search on W. T. McDaniel. I found that his son had become a noted educator at Ohio State. But, no mention of Mr Mac. While recently watching a Booker T. Jones concert on television, my curiosity struck again and to my surprise I found that he had been inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. I had vaguely knew of Mr Mac’s history in the Memphis City schools and his influence on some notable Memphis musicians, but never realized how profound he was. Mr Mac was my band director at Munford Elllis Jr High (Tipton County Tennessee) in the early 70,s. Although his tenure there is not mentioned here, he was a major influence on those fortunate to know him. I will always remember him as beautiful human who was full of encouragement and fairness. I performed a duet with him at one of the many concerts the school band held on the basketball court in the gym. I played the baritone and he sang “Asleep in the deep” . After 43 years, still one of my most cherished memories.

    Timothy H Morgan

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