By Gary E. McKee
“God gives you a gift, but you have to learn to use it,” was Vernon Drozd’s words to live by, and live by it he did from a very early age. Growing up on the family farm in Moravia, where he picked cotton across the fence from TPN founder, Julius Tupa, Vernon could not wait to get home from the fields to practice the clarinet that his dad had borrowed from neighbor Donnie Wangler. Later, when there must have been a good cotton crop, Vernon’s father bought him his own clarinet from Herbert Kloesel for $144.50. Herbert operated Herbert’s Swing Inn in downtown Schulenburg, a combination music store and drinking establishment. In Hallettsville High School, Vernon spent two to three hours a day rehearsing and then after the chores were finished he would play scales for up to two hours every night.
The practice paid off with Vernon landing his first paid gig at the age of 15 with the Joe Fajkus Polka Band from Praha. Vernon’s education on the realities of the music business was formed with the Fajkus Band when they played a venue in San Antonio for four hours and then were told that the club didn’t make enough to pay them. Joe Fajkus attempted to get gas money from the promoter but was turned down.
Joe Patek Was a Fave
Sitting in a wheel chair in his room at the Monument Hill Rehabilitation Center surrounded by likenesses of Elvis, Jesus and his son Steve, Vernon reminisced about the thousands of hours on stage and even more thousands going to and returning from gigs. As this veteran musician, whose longish graying hair was swept back, possibly denoting a former D.A. style (1950s), he sadly kept looking at his hands. The fingers that once played Yakety Sax better than Boots Randolph, are now victims of arthritis, which has robbed this 76-year-old man of using his God-given talent of playing saxophone. (He still keeps his favorite sax in his room.) Vernon comments, “My fingers have become like sandpaper.” (They are no longer worn smooth from pressing the keys millions of times.)
Over the decades, since his first gig in 1944, Vernon has shared the stage with many prominent musicians. The list is long, but his two favorites are Joe Patek (three years), and Johnny Bush, which led him to backing up Willie Nelson. Ray Krenek, Henry Brosch and Gil Baca also had Vernon’s sax and clarinet sweetening the sound. During the 1970s, Vernon fronted his own band called The Texas Brass, which had two saxes, two trumpets, bass, drums and guitars playing country and polkas with a passion.
When asked whom he had wished he had performed with, Vernon motioned towards the large Elvis artwork on the wall, and then thought, and lamented that he never got to play with Merle Haggard.
Taylor Crowds Were Great
The SPJST upstairs hall in Taylor was one of Vernon’s favorite places to play, as the acoustics were great and the 600+ crowds kept the dance floor full, and ensured a payday at the end of the night.
His first venture into the recording studio was in 1958, with Ed Copeland producing the Joe Patek Band. Vernon’s respected reputation as a sideman also meant he was featured on dozens of other recordings.
Vernon’s legacy is carried on in the form of his son, Steven. Steven began playing drums at the age of 10 and later graduated to playing honky-tonk piano in various bands in Houston. Steven then made the leap to the big time when he joined the Flaming Lips, a progressive rock band that has won seven Grammy Awards and has an international following. As a guest at an Oklahoma university music class, Steven credited his dad with instilling the love of music at an early age: “Polkas and waltzes are all I remember hearing at an early age…One night, when I was fifteen, the phone rang, and it was Dad, he told me his drummer didn’t show up, and to pack my drums in the car and have my stepmom drive me to some VFW in Houston. That was my first paying gig, and I got $50, which bought a lot of candy and cool clothing.”
'Ahead of Their Time'
Vernon Drozd and the Texas Brass has been digitized and made available over the Internet as a 40th Anniversary Release. The album features Vernon, Gene Lichnovsky, Brian McWhirter, Johnnie Voldan, Jimmy Ryza and Otis Pitts as primary musicians; with Sonny Hall, Norman Barnes, Tom Martin, Eddie and Jimmy Copeland, sitting in on various tracks. The album notes proclaim: “Recognized as ‘ahead of their time’ in the world of polka, Vernon Drozd and the Texas Brass energized polka music by mixing a bit of big band swing, a touch of south Texas country and western, a little rockabilly, and a whole lot of Czech polka.” This band tears through songs such as: The Clarinet Polka, Moravia Waltz, Take Me Back to Bohemia and Three Yanks to name a few.”
Vernon Drozd, the man who amazed crowd by playing three saxophones at once, is living proof that practice and dedication rewards those who recognize God’s gifts and shares them with the world.