The anthem that almost wasn't
A professor gave his student the gift of inspiring an Ohio State tradition that has endured for 50 years.
In the summer of 1965, John Tatgenhorst was earning a few extra bucks drumming for a studio band that was broadcasting live from the Ohio State Fair. He wandered out to the midway during a break and heard a new pop song crackle across the loudspeakers.
He paused. In his head, he could hear the The Ohio State University Marching Band playing “Hang on Sloopy.” He was relatively new at arranging music for the marching band, but he knew “Sloopy,” with its drone bass and easy sway, would lend itself well to the band’s big brass sound.
He called his professor and mentor, Charles Spohn, director of the marching band. While Tatgenhorst had been allowed to arrange a rock ’n’ roll number or two before, Spohn rejected “Sloopy.”
“The Ohio State Marching Band doesn’t play that kind of stuff,” he said.
A new job
Spohn didn’t know who the McCoys were and certainly wasn’t listening to the same radio stations as the students he taught, explains Dorothy Spohn. Her late husband enjoyed the symphony and dance bands such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.
She smiles when she recounts how serious he became about music during their first conversation. They were at a college party, and when she noted that she was majoring in dance, he shared that he was studying percussion.
“Oh, you’re a drum major?” she asked. The color drained from his face. “No,” he replied. “A drum major is the man who walks in front of the band with a stick in his hand. I am a percussionist.”
Yet, drum majors would soon play an important part in both their lives.
The Spohns wed in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1949. Spohn graduated from Butler University with a bachelor’s in music the following year and was hired as a percussion teacher at Ohio State in 1951.
“That first day, Charlie showed up [at the School of Music], and a man walks up and says, ‘Are you Charles Spohn?’ He said yes he was, and the man said — kind of gruffly — ‘I expect you to be at marching band rehearsal at 3:30 this afternoon!’ and walked off,” Dorothy Spohn recalls.
It was confusing for Spohn. He had played in concert bands, orchestras and dance bands popular in post-World War II America. He had never played in a marching band, but he also never dismissed an order.
“He came home that night and told me it was the most amazing band he had ever heard in his life,” Dorothy Spohn says. “They were in the ROTC building at the time, and the noise was so loud and wonderful and thrilling.”
Spohn’s days at the university were long. He helped conduct and direct the marching band, ROTC regimental band and concert band, while also teaching classes and working toward advanced degrees himself.
Spohn ’53 MA, ’59 PhD went on to become an award-winning professor and researcher at Ohio State. In his laboratory in Hughes Hall, Spohn examined music students’ varied approaches to learning and conducted broader research to help students of many disciplines find the best learning techniques. The U.S. Office of Education funded his work two years in a row.
“This type of education is definitely better than the traditional classroom,” he told The Lantern in 1963, “for it meets the individual needs of students who enter each class, whether it is English, music or math.”
Caring about students as individuals was Spohn’s hallmark as an educator.
It was common for Dorothy to open the front door of their modest, ranch-style home in Upper Arlington and find a student standing there. She would walk the student down to a music room in the basement, where her husband would help with any problem — academic or personal.
“He liked helping students. It’s just what he did,” she says. “He was very much a mentor. He enjoyed students as much as the music.”
Thus, he created more prospects for student involvement when he was appointed director of The Ohio State University Marching Band in 1964.
Upperclassmen in the music program took on greater roles in musical auditions during the band’s tryout week, while others, such as John Tatgenhorst, were encouraged to write new arrangements for marching band shows.
In an interview housed at University Archives, it’s clear that Spohn admired the long, eloquent arrangements of the band’s full-time arranger, alumnus Richard “Dick” Heine. But he also wanted to continue a shift within the band — from military-style shows to more entertaining ones for Ohio Stadium crowds.
Giving Tatgenhorst opportunities to contribute arrangements of pop music fit that philosophy. The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” was the first rock song Tatgenhorst adapted for a band, and he spent a few weeks trying to convince the director that “Sloopy” would go over well, too.
Four formative hours
It was a Thursday night, and Tatgenhorst was at his usual moonlighting gig, teaching drum lessons at a local music store, when the phone rang. It was Spohn: “Go ahead and arrange the son of a gun.”
Tatgenhorst did not ask why Spohn changed his mind; he didn’t want the band director to reconsider. Instead, Tatgenhorst asked when he needed it — the next day, Spohn said — and went home to transfer what he heard in his head to paper.
It’s how he has always worked.
The percussion student had grown up in a household that could afford few frills. As a child, he took piano lessons from a neighbor for about three months, until she became annoyed with his daily visits and told him not to come back. So he picked up his diatonic xylophone and began to play by ear the songs he heard on the Victrola.
Later, Tatgenhorst spent time learning other instruments in his high school music room. He pored over music books with detailed notes about transpositions, and he started to compose music for the concert band, jazz band and orchestra. A former classmate and trumpet player encouraged Tatgenhorst to visit Ohio State. One trip and he knew he was destined to be a Buckeye.
Tatgenhorst never auditioned for the marching band. He wanted to write music for it.
“That was tremendous — just tremendous,” Tatgenhorst says of the invitation Spohn gave him to arrange for the band. “I loved Charlie. … He was a good friend. He helped me in many, many ways.”
Tatgenhorst estimates it took roughly four hours to arrange “Sloopy” for the marching band that autumn night in 1965. He crawled into bed around 1 a.m.
Though exhausted, Tatgenhorst could not shake the feeling that something was wrong with the piece. He got up and went back to work, changing the arrangement from the key of F to G-flat. To “give it another kick,” he added a modulation to heighten the drama before the refrain in one section and turned it in, bleary-eyed, the next day.
The band rehearsed “Sloopy” a few days later, and an assistant director called Tatgenhorst to congratulate him. The students in the band loved it.
An unexpected reaction
For Spohn, including “Sloopy” in the band’s lineup for the Ohio State-Illinois game on Oct. 9, 1965, added a bit of whimsy. That same day, the band was honoring alumnus William A. Daugherty for his lasting contribution to Ohio State tradition: his composition “Across the Field,” which was turning 50.
The band’s halftime show that week, “Buckeye Festival of the Arts,” saluted mostly classical music and ballet. The 156-member band played Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” while forming a stick-figure ballerina on the field. “Sloopy” followed as band members made the ballerina shimmy with their Watusi-like step.
There were 83,700 football fans in the stadium, and Dorothy Spohn was among those seated in C Deck. She recalls thousands of people standing up and cheering loudly when the band launched into “Sloopy.”
“The band was so into it that the crowd picked up on that, and they loved what they saw and heard,” she says. “It was a signature that the band was headed in a new direction. They were going to do things that were funny and entertaining.”
And with the kind of perspective that 50 years can lend, she says the song’s debut that rainy Saturday was an important moment in the history of the university and its marching band.
“It made the students feel like the band was theirs,” she says. “It made them current.”
Her husband, who didn’t tune in the pop music of the day, had no idea how good his timing was.
The McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” had just hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart one week before. The record was spinning at parties around campus and in the bars along High Street.
“It was a hit that completely blew our minds,” Spohn said in an interview. “During the second half, the crowd began yelling, ‘We want “Sloopy”!’ It just continued. It’s rather amazing.”
The song would be played as many as 10 times per game — at the behest of the student body and sometimes Coach Woody Hayes (when he wanted to fire up the crowd and, therefore, the team). There are even tales of the song being used to test the structural integrity of Ohio Stadium’s upper decks.
“There were a couple of games when I’m sure we did it too much,” Spohn reflected later. “I don’t remember how many times that the whole stadium would just rock.”
At times, band members grew weary of the tune. And Tatgenhorst’s expectations were limited as well.
“If it made it through the season, that’d be fine,” he recalls thinking. “It’s just luck that it caught on.”
Perhaps that’s part of it. Still, as Buckeyes of the past 50 seasons — and many yet to come — sway to “Sloopy” and raise their arms to spell O-H-I-O, they honor the inspiration of one percussion student and his professor’s gift of opportunity.
Their lives after 'Sloopy'
Charles “Charlie” Spohn left Ohio State in 1970 as an award-winning professor, co-author of three books and director of The Ohio State University Marching Band to serve as dean of the College of Fine Arts at Wichita State University.
On a Sunday before he left, band members marched down Jervis Road in a surprise salute and presented him with the band’s traditional pennant. The Lantern reported that band members shouted, “Charlie, we dig you!” He then directed them in “Carmen Ohio.” There is no mention of whether “Hang on Sloopy” was performed as well.
Spohn retired as a university administrator from Miami University’s School of Fine Arts, and he and his wife, Dorothy, moved to the Cincinnati area in 1986. Parkinson’s disease kept him from returning to direct the Ohio State alumni band in later years, and he died in 1997 at the age of 71. A memorial service was held at Ohio State.
“It’s wonderful to hear it being played now,” Dorothy says of “Sloopy” and its staying power. “John [Tatgenhorst] said the band would love playing it and the crowd would love it. Charlie trusted his opinion.”
John Tatgenhorst started his career before returning to Ohio State and graduating in 1970. As a professional composer, he created music for national television and radio commercials and composed scores for movies and shows, including “Batman: The Animated Series.” John Tatgenhorst Music Inc. counted Coca-Cola, Kraft, United Airlines, Bob Evans, AT&T, Disney World and Warner Bros. among its clients.
Tatgenhorst won regional Emmy and Addy awards and worked with the Boston Pops, Chicago Symphony and London Symphony Orchestra. He wrote music for a television special celebrating the 200th anniversary of the White House.
Even after moving to Chicago, he continued to create arrangements for The Ohio State University Marching Band, including “Neutron Dance” and “Go Bucks.” During the 2014 football season, the band honored Tatgenhorst for the hundreds of arrangements he has produced for its performances.
“‘Sloopy’ was just something I enjoyed doing,” he says. “It makes me feel wonderful to see people have a hoot, to have a lot of fun.”