- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

DALLAS (AP) - Billy Briggs slid the saxophone’s neck strap over his head and stood to play.

His khakis were crisply pressed down the middle and his polo shirt tucked.

Set in front of his living room couch, there were no stage lights or fellow jazz players. He never liked to perform as a one-man show, he said.

“I’ve got to have some kind of rhythm,” said Briggs, a Plano resident, as his hands gripped his Martin tenor saxophone. Made in 1938, the model name etched into the brass is barely readable.

Decades earlier, Briggs once lay on the stage floor among a 12-piece band, kicking his legs in the air while he played.

But his knees aren’t what they once were. He isn’t 27 years old anymore, performing as one of the Texas Playboys in Bob Wills’ Western swing band.

He’s 92 - but he’s still playing.

So is his 77-year-old tenor sax.

“(People) think I’m going forever, but I know better. I’m fortunate I can still do what I do, and that people like what I do,” Briggs told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1MJyz3S).

He began playing the saxophone in 1938, two years after his high school in Calvert - a midpoint city between Waco and College Station - started its first band.

“I just liked the sound of it,” Briggs said of the sax.

Four years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. First stationed at the Blackland Army Air Field in Waco, he joined the 639th Army Band, where he sometimes played clarinet. While in the service, he bought the Martin horn for about $120. It’s still his sax of choice.

He wouldn’t trade it for a fancier model. It’s a part of him until he dies, he said. Then, one of his daughters will inherit the horn.

“I told her, ‘I don’t want another breath blown through it.’ It’s paid its dues,” Briggs said.

He came to Dallas in 1950 to play with Bob Wills’ Western swing band. There, Briggs spent one year touring and playing in dance halls throughout the state, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico. On the weekends, the band played at Wills’ ranch house club on Corinth and Industrial - later named the Longhorn Ballroom under new ownership.

With a bar top lined in silver dollars, the ranch house was a far cry from Briggs’ first gig as a teenager during the Great Depression playing $2 per show for a string band in Hearne - about 8 miles southeast from his home in Calvert.

“It was a magnificent thing,” Briggs said of the ranch house.

He left the Playboys after a year to attend business college. That led to a 32-year career with Mobile oil company, where he worked in purchasing at the research laboratory then on Duncanville Road.

During that time, he formed his trio, astutely named The Bill Briggs Trio. About three nights per week, the group played at fancy Dallas dinner clubs such as the Chaparral Club. One of the most exclusive restaurants in downtown, the club overlooked the city from the 37th floor of the Sheraton Dallas Hotel.

Briggs still plays at some of those clubs for special events such as the Dallas Petroleum Club on Ross Avenue. He has plans to perform there on New Year’s Eve. Occasionally, he takes the stage at The Free Man Cajun Cafe and Lounge on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum.

His daughter, Ann Briggs-Cutaia of Plano, will drive him to the show. She’s spent a lifetime watching her father play his sax.

“To me and my siblings, it was just that’s the way life was. Your dad played a saxophone,” said Briggs-Cutaia, a professional dancer and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. “We never really thought anything of it until we got older and realized what a talent he is.”

In October, Briggs is scheduled to play at the State Fair of Texas.

“If I’m living, I’ll be there,” he said.

At age 87, he recorded his first and only solo album with a friend in his Garland studio. The CD is in memory of his wife, Agnes, who died of leukemia two years earlier. They were married 63 years. He said she always wanted him to make an album.

“I sure wish I’d done it before she went,” he said.

On the cover, it reads “87 and still swinging.”

On June 20, Briggs plans to perform with Dave Alexander and His Big Texas Swing Band in Wichita Falls. Briggs has had a standing spot in the band since 1988 when he joined the group - then named Dave Alexander and the Legends of Western Swing.

“We called him ‘Take No Prisoners Billy’ because when he played I honestly felt like he was playing like this was the last time he would ever play the saxophone,” said Alexander, a Dixieland trumpet player who studied jazz at the University of North Texas. “I can’t tell you the thousands of standing ovations he got in the middle of our performances because he would wow the crowd so much.”

Originally, the band included about six former Texas Playboys. It was an effort by Alexander, then a recent college graduate, to revive Bob Wills’ legendary group. Alexander’s dad, Ashley Alexander Jr., was a former Texas Playboy. His grandfather also was a professional piano player.

“It was horns and piano and steel and fiddles and just total Texas music,” Alexander said.

The group quickly secured a 14-year performance run at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Briggs played for about eight of those years.

“When I brought that band to Houston, it was like I brought back Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Everybody that remembered those Texas Playboys became friends with us,” Alexander said.

That included former President George H.W. Bush, who attended the band’s shows and hired them for additional performances, Alexander said.

Last year, Alexander and Briggs performed alongside Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel on stage at the Eisemann Center in Richardson. In February, the pair joined the band in an onstage recording at Austin City Limits Live to launch the show’s 41st season.

Briggs doesn’t practice anymore for these performances.

“It’s just in my soul,” he said.


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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