Joe Noojin, well-known local piano player


  The next few weeks will be devoted to stories about the famous and well-known Joe Noojin, a man I’ve heard about all my life.

Several years ago, The Vagabond finally caught up with Joe, who has been a piano player for the Kings of Swing for many years. He is pretty famous across the U.S., and The Vagabond finally got a copy of his biography.

In Joe’s biography, one cannot help but chuckle or downright start laughing! He continuously makes fun about his shortness (5’-6”), and is not shy to tell about the history as well as all the craziness in his life. One learns that Joe is a character and sometimes a real hoot in his own right. The Vagabond will never forget old Joe. Never again will there ever be another Joe Noojin, so The Vagabond must expose the world about him! Now for Joe in his own words:

“This is Joe Noojin, Jr.. I was born in Ensley, Alabama, in 1919. My father was a hardware dealer in Ensley. During the Great Depression, he lost his bu-siness, his house, his cars, everything he had. 

“We moved to Gadsden, where he went to work in a hardware store with Lonnie Noojin. We later moved to Attalla. I went to Attalla Grammar School for four years, Etowah High School four years, and finished high school in 1937.

“After graduating, I did not have the money to go to college, so I worked for McMahon Greenhouses for 10 cents an hour, 10 hours a day and saved $75 to go to Auburn. 

“As an aside, I will tell you a little bit about some of the people I remember in those days. It was Mr. Gilliland that ran a gristmill across from the old Attalla Post Office. He ground corn into cornmeal. He was a short man with heavy eyebrows, and after a day in the gristmill, his eyebrows looked like snow had fallen on it. Then there was a blacksmith named John Coffee that liked to drink. He’d get drunk and then lay down in the horse manure knocked out from drinking.

“Over the hill from our house on 306 Fifth Street in Attalla was an old maid named Miss Ida Hamnar. She was a very tall woman, very spare with a couple of bad warts on her nose. In order to make a little money, I offered to cut some stove wood for her, and she agreed. However, she paid me in candy from her brother’s store, and the candy had worms in it.

“To continue, my mother was a music teacher, a gra-duate of Judson College in music. She taught piano music at the Etowah High School in 1910. She started teaching me piano at six years old, and I continued that until I got to high school. I then started taking piano from Mrs. Mary D. Stuart for four years. At the end of the four years, I gave a piano recital. I was literally scared to death; I had a bad case of stage fright.

“Continuing on, my two best friends in high school were George Hawkins and Henry Rhea.

“ In the fall of 1938, I went to Auburn University with $75 in my pocket. Part of that went to one quarter tuition; $30 for room and board. 

“I roomed at Mrs. Jowers’ boarding house. There, I met some friends from Section: Bo Phillips, Tim Greene, and Billy Parks, all students in the School of Agriculture .

“I had to get a job. I didn’t have any money and my daddy didn’t have any. So I went to find out about Mrs. Cooks’ boarding house. I started waiting on tables for my meals. My room cost me $7.50 a month with two other boys. Three months later, I got a job playing piano with the Auburn Knights band, of which was the opponent band of the Auburn Knights Orchestra at that particular time. I got paid $5 a night playing with the Plainsmen Orchestra, which was good money back in those days.

My aunt and uncle lived in Notasulga, a few miles from Auburn. I’d go over there practically every other Sunday and eat Sunday dinner with them. Uncle Jack was a six-foot-two man, had a cigar stuck in his mouth all the time and he often wondered why I was so short. I told him it was a freak of nature. 

“But anyway, I played at the College Inn in Auburn for my meal at night. Some of my favorite people in the Auburn Plainsmen Band were Alan Ramsey, a very fine big band drummer from Columbus, Ga.; Ed Edney; Ossie Bowden, who was the lab instructor in Entomology at Auburn University; and Charlie Higgins, a very fine trumpet player. 

“I played with them and traveled all over the state of Alabama and part of Georgia playing with the Plainsmen Orchestra. I played with them until 1942.

“They had a bass player named Cap Swift. He was from Selma and was a tall fellow. He believed in showmanship rather than musicianship. He wasn’t much of a bass player, but he liked to spin the bass around. 

“We’d be playing a kind of up tune, and he would say, ‘Get out from under me, gal.’ Then he’d try to get the band to smile and say, ‘Smile, if it hurts you’re a**.’ I told him one day, ‘Cap, it’s hurting my a**.’ But later on, we caught Cap stealing band money and fired him. He went back to Selma and never returned.

“I got a notice from the Attalla Draft Board that I was going to be drafted for World War II. I came home and went to Fort McClellan the next day for a draft physical. I had to go over the draft board’s head to the head of the draft in Montgomery and get a deferment until I graduated from Auburn in 1942. 

“I graduated with a BS in Agriculture on June 8, 1942. June the 10th, I was in the Army Air Corp at beginning of World War II.

“To continue, in 1942 I enlisted in the Army Air Corp of the United States Army. In September, I was shipped to Santa Anna, California, for evaluation as an aviation cadet. I stayed there three weeks, went through several tests and failed to qualify. 

“I asked the official in charge the reason for my dismissal as an aviation cadet. He says, ‘Coordination.’ I said, ‘Well sir, I play a piano, what does that mean?’

“Anyway, I got shipped to Sacramento, California, to an MP squadron, where they made a little man like me, five-foot-six, an MP. They handed me a .45 and a nightstick. They did not have an MO’s. It’s a military number of some sort. They gave me a trombone, and now that’s MOS. I had to march in the marching band and carry a trombone. I’d be sure to lock the slide; otherwise the slide of the trombone would fall down in the dirt.

“After about a year in Sacramento, I got moved to Presque Isle, Maine. My MOS at that time was changed to clerk non-typist. I also started playing in the band there. They found out I was a piano player. 

“The tech sergeant of the band was named Joe Rizzo, kind of a short, Italian fellow. He was an arranger at that time with Stan Kenton, who I grew very fond of listening to. He wrote the most beautiful manuscripts that I’ve ever seen or tried to read. After World War II, Joe Rizzo, went to California and arranged for the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.

“I stayed in Presque Isle for about six months, and I saw a fellow going through north to the Arctic Circle. He said, ‘Joe, we need a piano player at our little base in Canada.’ I said, ‘Well, get me out of this place.’ And so a few days later, the orders came for the transfer to Mingan, Canada. My MOS was clerk non-typist, but I had to pick up band there. I stayed there for the last 18 months of World War II.

Check back next week with the Vagabond as we continue to talk about Joe Noojin.

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