Howie Robin and ThePercussion Naut Patriots

It was my privilege and honor to attend the reunion last month for the Percussion-Naut Patriots because it had been my privilege and good fortune to play in the drum corps in 1973 and 1974. I was one of the lucky ones because I had only to drive a few miles over to the Mirabeau Park hotel. Many of the 200 attendees flew thousands of miles to share a night of reminiscing with old friends and to honor Howie Robbins, founder and director of the Percussion-Nauts and mentor to hundreds of young musicians.
For me and so many others, the years spent in the corps was the highlight of our youth. During my years we traveled the nation in three buses competing in drum and bugle corps competitions, marching in dozens of parades in various places, including Disneyland. We were featured in the opening celebration of Expo 74 and performed there throughout its course. My youth was blessed with two years of hard work, excitement and fun when I was  able to hitch a ride with a great group because Howie Robbins took 6 of his student drummers in 1960  and began performing at local store openings and built a youth organization that became world famous. Thousands were entertained and marveled at the fact that a group of kids between 12 and 18 could march and play at a level far beyond any college marching band.
“My philosophy is simple,” the 93 year old Howie told me during a recent visit. “I derive my joy and fulfillment to the degree of joy and fulfillment that I can create and or share with others.” Before Howie created and shared so much with so many through the Percussion-Nauts, he had spent 33 years honing and sharing his incredible musical talent.
“When I was 8, our neighbor across the street in San Diego told us that the Salvation Army would give us instruments and free lessons,” he said, adding with a clarity of mind and playfulness, ” His name was Jimmy Sap. That was his given name, not a nickname.” So Howie and his older brother Lee, who were both enthralled with the music of John Phillip Souza and the military bands that played in the local parades, joined the Salvation Army Band.
“I played the E Flat Alto and my brother played the baritone,” he said. ” We used to play down by the jewelry store clock in East San Diego.”  After a while the boys’ mother recognized her sons were talented, dedicated and serious about their music and she made them a generous offer.
“My mother took us down to the Southern California Music Store and told us to pick out whatever instrument we  really wanted to play and she would buy it for us,” he said. ” Well, we really got her. My brother picked out the sousaphone and I chose the drums. But she stuck to her word and put my drums in the trunk and cranked the sousaphone into the back seat and we went home.” Howie was 10 and the year was 1929.
The brothers did not waste the advantage their mother provided that day. Both boys received full musical scholarships to the Hill Military Academy in Oregon and became Oregon state champions on their instruments while attending the school. Upon graduation the Robbins brothers joined the 162nd Infantry band as second lieutenants and played their way through the war. When Howie tried to re-enlist after four years he ran into a problem.
“The medic asked me to a read a line on the chart and I said what line?” Howie said ,explaining that he had suffered from detached retinas since the age of nine. “Well they gave me a medical discharge and that was the end of that.”
But it was far from the end of Howie’s musical career and he was soon playing in a three piece trio at school dances and grange halls in the Portland area.
“All the big bands, like Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman, played at the Oaks Park Pavillion and the black bands like Duke Ellington played at a dance hall downtown,” he said. “I was building up quite a reputation locally and one day I got a call from a touring band from Los Angeles that had lost their drummer. They told me to get to the pavilion in one hour.”
Being an accomplished and talented drummer, Howie fit right in, joined the band and soon moved on to L.A.
For the next several years he played for several bands, including the Stan Kenton Band when they worked for Bob Hope on the Pepsident Radio Show.
“I had kind of clean-cut ,youthful look and movie producers were always looking for musicians that were photogenic,” he said explaining that he was given several small parts in the teen movies of the time. ” I remember  Mickey Rooney and some of the others would catch me loading up my drums in the MGM parking lot and ask me to play for them. They went bezerk and couldn’t get enough.”
During this period Howie joined a six piece Dixieland band that became quite popular in L.A. and was soon asked to go on a 7-month USO tour. “This was right after we won the war and we opened up the show with ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and the troops just went wild,” Howie said, explaining that after the tour he and the band toured the country with their wives and eventually settled in the Spokane area.
“The leader of our band opened a club here called the Circus Room and we were the house band,” he said. Soon customers began asking him to give their children private lessons. “That’s how that all started,” he said, describing how he began his career as a private lesson teacher out of his home in Millwood. Eventually he taught 75 students per week and had a waiting list.
“I became good friends with the band leader at West Valley. He told me he had a problem with his percussion section and asked me to give them private lessons,” he said.  “See how this all works out? Those drummers were the ones I developed a routine for so they could perform at the opening of the Argonne Village in 1960. They all became champions.”
Howie’s young daughter  was studying flute  at the time and so it was a natural progression to add fifes to the drum line to create a drum and fife corps. “On our first tour we went back to Connecticut  to compete in a fife and drum competition and we blew them out of the water,” he said proudly. “They couldn’t believe that a group from way out west could play their music so well.”
And so for the next 34 years Howie embued his discipline and professionalism and showmanship on hundreds of young musicians allowing them the opportunity of a lifetime touring Europe and North America, performing for presidents and world leaders and thousands of appreciative fans. “I always told the kids that they had the discipline and talent and that they deserved the world. I love them all and they are my family,” he said .
Though his wife and daughter have passed and Howie lives alone, he still visits by phone with his older brother Lee and several of his students have remained close and call him regularly. He left recently to winter in San Diego so he can continue to ride his three-wheel bicycle 5 to 10 miles a day even though he is stooped over from a fractured spine and can barely see or hear.  “I’m probably too rambunctious for my age,” he said.
Luckily, for me and hundreds of other kids, Howie has never known when to slow down. He was truly a mover and a shaker that moved kids with his leadership and shook them with his discipline. Unless you were there that night or performed in his corps it would be hard to appreciate what a great job he did.
ome. We were lucky we had a sedan.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    With the help of this man I was able to raise two outstanding young men. He not only taught them to be fine percussionists, but also so many other fine character traits. I owe him a debt of gratitude, as do many others. Thanks to whoever posted this article, and to Howie Robbins.

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