Local 17 AFM Executive Retires
Bill Fairgraves, a Lifelong Warrior for Musicians
William Fairgraves is stepping down as executive of Local 17, American Federation of Musicians, the Erie Chapter of the AF of M, after 51 years of service. That might be two careers for many people, and came in addition to his career as a working musician during that period.
Fairgraves has held a number of titles during his tenure with the Union, first Secretary, then Secretary/Treasurer and finally President/Secretary/Treasurer. But he says the tasks have been pretty much the same: filling core staff functions of managing membership records and recruitment, setting up an accounting system and managing the Union's finances, participating in negotiations on behalf of Erie orchestra and concert musicians, in earlier days negotiating with venues on behalf of musicians, monitoring contracts between musicians and their employers.
Bill reports to and leads a Union Board of Directors, currently consisting of Doug Dressler (President), Maura Pelinsky (Vice President), Dr. Allen Zurcher (Secretary/Treasurer), Mark Dressler, Stan Bialomizy, John Marszalek, Brad Amidon. The Board has appointed Allen Zurcher to take over Fairgraves' duties as Secretary and Treasurer of the Union..
"There was still a lot of work here for musicians," recalls Fairgraves in his reflections on his early days at the Union. Playing trumpet and flugelhorn, he recalls three 30-piece concert bands that performed weekly throughout the summer, hiring many of the same musicians. "That's three concerts and three rehearsals each week, plus gigs at the Warner and other venues. I was busy,"
The concert bands were led by Oscar Netter, Joseph Sulkowski and Anthony Savelli, and were widely admired in the area. Bill also played in other bands, including Will Sunday (who booked numerous bands under his name) the circus (a grueling gig), and many shows at the Warner, including singer Lana Catrell and a "Broadway Review" he particularly remembers.
Bill grew up in Erie, studied music at Miami University in Florida for two years before enlisting in Army where he was pegged as a musician and played in a number of Army bands. On discharge from the Army, he studied accounting at Erie Commercial School and worked as a musician evenings and weekends. After a layoff at an early accounting job, Bill applied for the Union position.
Some of the gigs mentioned above, plus maintaining the Union through very difficult times -- the wave of anti-union sentiment in the 70's and 80's, shrinking market and pay for live music.
Bill notes proudly in his final "Letter to Members" that the Union's contract on behalf of symphony musicians in 1965, his first year, was for $6 per rehearsal and $10 per concert performance. The contract just negotiated with the Erie Phil is for $98 per "service," (either a rehearsal of a concert). The negotiation was relatively smooth, in contrast to very rough and destructive negotiations in many other cities. Bill credits both the union and orchestra management for this outcome.
Most difficult experiences.
Strike threats and negotiations. "It's about people's livelihood and reputations and it sometimes gets personal.
And those circus gigs...two hours of sight reading.
For now, at least Bill will remain in Erie with his wife of 49 years, Norma Fairgraves.
ANOTHER LONG-TIME BOARD MEMBER RETIRES
Guido Damico, long-time drummer with Gene Leone's bands is also retiring from the Local 17 Board after 65 years in the Local (since 1949) and 21 years on the Board (since 1993).
Guido went on the road when he was young with one of Will Sunday's bands, touring in Virginia, the Carolinas and Birmingham, AL. Warned by a friend that he was bout to be drafted, Guido returned to Erie and fridnc to enlist in any branch of the military in hopes of gaining musician status.
"Nobody would take me," he says, "then finally the Army did, but they reassigned me as a gunner." Stationed in Frankfurt, Germany after basic training, Guido took another friend's tip and ventured across the street to the Officers' Club, where he asked to bandleader if he could use a drummer. He was auditioned on the spot, and reassigned the next day.
Like many musicians in the services during that period, Guido describes his experience in very positive terms: "Lots of bands, lots of great musicians, black and white musicians relatively freely mixed." Great learning experience.
Guido returned to Erie and found lots of work on the Erie music scene. As Gene Leone frequently noted: "Guido always swings."
January 18, 2015