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HBCU Bands

The Benedict College Band of Distinction celebrates 20 years

Band director H. Wade Johnson has constructed a homecoming performance fans won’t forget

For 20 years, the soulful sounds of the Benedict College Marching Tiger Band of Distinction (BCBOD) have managed to work their way into the hearts of alumni, current students, fans and curious followers across the country.

Since its founding in 1998, the band has grown from 61 members in its first year to a robust 165 members dedicated to making the Band of Distinction one of the most prominent sounds in the Southeast. It’s the reason that this week’s homecoming festivities has been a focal point for the band, and Saturday’s homecoming game against Morehouse College at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium will feature a showstopper of a halftime performance.

It has been three long weeks leading up to what Benedict College director of bands H. Wade Johnson calls one of the biggest celebrations for the band. The preparation began with Johnson and assistant director of bands Ronald Green calling on everyone to help form ideas for the BCBOD’s homecoming halftime performance.

“We know the alums — old, young and in between — they’re going to be expecting to hear certain things from their era,” Johnson said. “So the staff meets up and comes up with ideas. We ask our alumni for ideas and we even ask the administration what they want to hear for homecoming. Professor Green will get on the grind. He’ll start writing and we’ll put things in place. Two weeks later, here we are. Since homecoming is so busy, we try to make sure that our shows are properly in place about a week and a half before.”

And homecoming halftime isn’t the only task on the band’s agenda. The week began Oct. 14, when the band performed at an opening pep rally to kick off the festivities. In between practices, sectional rehearsals, and coronation, focus still remained on the main event, which Johnson guarantees will be something new and special for those in attendance.

“We live what we do … We do what we do because we are passionate about what we do. Our first objective is to recruit, retain and to graduate these students.”

“Let’s just say we’re going back further than 20 years in terms of hits,” Johnson said. “We’ll do Top 40, R&B and sometimes we’ll even do some jazz. One thing I can say we usually perform for the alums is a certain medley they look for. Last year, we introduced a love medley. This year, we’re going to introduce what we call a soul medley and we know that the alumni and audience will enjoy it.”

Though Johnson has been at Benedict College for only two years, the director brings 43 years of experience to a program that has grown exponentially under his tutelage. Since Johnson took over in 2016, the band has expanded from 85 members to 165.

Johnson believes the program is so successful because of what he calls their DO: discipline and order.

“We are what we call a DO organism,” Johnson said. “We’re not an organization. We consider ourselves an organism because we live. We live what we do … We do what we do because we are passionate about what we do. Our first objective is to recruit, retain and to graduate these students. We’re now known as the ambassadors for Benedict College and everyone sees us and what the BCBOD is doing. We’ve basically grown to be a household name around the southeastern United States. It’s just a wonderful thing.”

And as much as Johnson loves his career now, it’s not a career path anyone could’ve convinced the director of during his teenage years.

Johnson was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in McClellanville, South Carolina. His confidence and concentration primarily focused on his athleticism. His dreams were to become a running back for his beloved Washington Redskins, but an injury sustained in high school quickly thwarted Johnson’s plans. Wanting to remain close to the game he loved, Johnson decided his next option would be the band. Plus, he’d be able to attend the games at no cost — a sweet deal to a high school student.

“They had fun, they got into the games free, they ate, they were uniformed, they were organized and so that was the next thing that came up,” Johnson said.

“We’ll do Top 40, R&B and sometimes we’ll even do some jazz. One thing I can say we usually perform for the alums is a certain medley they look for.”

Johnson quickly fell in love with band life. He went on to attend South Carolina State College (now South Carolina State University) on a band scholarship. There, Johnson realized he wanted to be a professional performer instead of teaching music.

“[The band] got stuck on the road one semester and all of my classes, I failed,” Johnson said. “So then I decided that I was going to teach music for the rest of my life. Really, I didn’t choose music. Music chose me. If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve chosen music first. It’s been a great, wonderful blessing and has taken me all across the world.”

Before Johnson’s move to Benedict College, the director spent his time at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Although he was in a position to do what he loved, Johnson longed to return to South Carolina. At the same time at Benedict College, director of bands Herman Jones, known for transforming the BCBOD during his 10 years of service, was thinking about heading closer to Pennsylvania, where his immediate family resided.

“We were trying to set up a way where we could just switch positions,” Johnson said.

But before plans could be finalized, Jones died. Though the Benedict College community was saddened by the loss, the band would still need to fill the position. Johnson decided to head back to the South and left Green, then assistant director of bands at Lincoln, in charge.

“When I got the job at Benedict, I called [Ron] aboard,” Johnson said. “Ron and I have been together some 20 years. He’s a former student and one of the greatest musicians to ever live. He’s the chief arranger here and that’s why we sound like we sound.”

Together, the two have just enhanced what was already here with the students they had, and took the band up another notch, according to Johnson. To this day, Jones’ legacy is still being incorporated in everything the band does. “We don’t really do anything without mentioning him, because he was the catalyst of the program here at Benedict,” Johnson said.

And now, because of the band culture Jones helped create and the one Johnson continues to build, Benedict College is also gaining more recognition nationally. For the second consecutive ranking, BCBOD has been ranked in the Top 10 HBCU Division II Bands in the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Rankings.

Although Johnson is grateful for the recognition, he doesn’t believe that there’s any added pressure, because the only thing that matters is giving their all every performance.

“What the public says about us, we say that’s an opinion,” Johnson said. “Opinions are like noses, everyone has ’em. Our mission is to prepare out students to survive in the real world. What people say is what they say, but we work together as a family. Everything we do, we decide we’re going to leave nothing to be desired after our performances.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.