During the school year of 1929-1930 there was no organized swing group on the API* campus. A number of attempts were made to get together, but the aggregations were of marginal quality which resulted in the popularity of campus bands reaching an all-time low. It was in this atmosphere of repugnance toward previous student music groups that the Auburn Knights Orchestra was organized at the beginning of school in September of 1930. It was then that a number of student musicians agreed an acceptable band could be built if the best available people were invited to join and were willing to work hard for at least a semester without recognition. At the first organizational meeting all invited were present and history was made as Jimmie Robbins was elected leader, and J.R. Quinlivan was elected business manager.
The band instantly became a sensation and acquired two booking agencies throughout the 1930's. Music corporation of America (MCA) which booked the most famous bands in the country, booked the Auburn Knights for summer-long engagements during their summer vacations from school. Later Holt-Pumphrey of Richmond, Virginia booked the band for several years during summers. It was during this time that the band played at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina and several of the North Carolina beach resorts.
In the summer of 1940 Pumphrey sent John Phillip Sousa II, the grandson of the famous march king, to Auburn to audition the band. Pumphrey had a summer-long engagement booked at Virginia Beach and wanted a big name in front of the
band. Sousa wanted a well-organized, well-equipped, and well-rehearsed band. He came to Auburn and liked the band, so a contract was made. Sousa fronted the Knights that summer and they played to capacity crowds at Virginia beach all summer long at the big Sea Side Casino.
In 1941 the summer process was repeated with Hilding Holmberg, by then a full-time professional musician, fronting the band, while Pumphrey changed his name to Billy Holmes. It was a great summer and Holmberg did a fine job. The band played all summer long, six nights a week, at the Village Barn in Virginia Beach. There were beach clubs, hotels, casinos, and ballrooms every quarter of a mile for
several miles along Virginia Beach and practically every famous orchestra in the country played in one these places at least two weeks or longer that summer. The Knights were popular not only with the listeners and dancers but also with the professional musicians who came to the club on their night off to listen and sit in with the big band from Alabama. Sometimes these sessions would last after hours on until daylight. The highlight of the 1941 summer trip was when Tommy Dorsey and side men Don Lodice, Ziggy Elman, Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra sat in with the Knights
After the war, the Knights returned to campus and were again rated one of the top college dance bands. The band was larger and better than ever before and furnished its usual brand of music and showmanship for nearly every campus dance during the fall and winter social season. By the end of the 1950's the Auburn Knights were one of the most accomplished and popular dance orchestras in the South. During this period the Knights released an LP containing a cross section of the band's style, which received frequent airplay on radio in Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, and New Orleans. Also during this period the Knights were called upon to accompany such celebrities as June Christy, Joni James, George Jessel, Dave Gardner, and the Four Freshman, and all had glowing remarks of praise for the band. Some Knights of this era went on to musical careers with outstanding orchestras such as Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Tex Beneke, Ralph Marteri, and Lawrence Welk. Others, such as Urbie Green and Toni Tenille found success as professional leaders.
Since 1956 the Auburn Knights Alumni Association has held annual reunions for past and present members to come together and share the fellowship of great music, years of tradition, and the memories set in motion by a group of pioneering college students way back in 1930. Every reunion is a magical weekend where generations of great musicians come
together to perform in bands from their decade (and also to jam until sunrise!). There just aren't enough positive adjectives to describe what the Auburn Knights mean to both young and old musicians who've had the chance to participate in one of these groups.
Today, over seven decades after inception, the Auburn Knights Orchestra
is still going strong as an Auburn tradition, composed entirely of a
select group of student age musicians from the Auburn community. The
future of this organization is great since popularity is returning to
big bands and the Swing era is experiencing a rebirth. With such
hardworking and dedicated students, the Auburn Knights Orchestra will
continue to swing crowds for many years to come.