As one of the original members of Benedict College’s Marching Tiger Band of Distinction, Ricardo Payton has watched his alma mater’s band triple in size, growing into a 185-member group that rivals the bands at most historically Black colleges and universities.
So you’ll have to excuse Payton if tears of pride stream down his face as he watches some of the children of his classmates give a special performance at halftime of this year’s homecoming game on Oct. 21 to honor the band’s 25th anniversary.
In 1998, the band at Benedict, a small private Division II school in Columbia, South Carolina, with about 2,100 students, worked with what it had to perform. Now the Marching Tiger Band of Distinction has played in major events such as the Honda Battle of the Bands showcase and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2022.
The band’s growth is something Payton never thought he would see.
“I’m most probably gonna shed a tear, no lie. I’m gonna cry ’cause I’ve been there since the beginning. To see where the program has come from to now, I’m most definitely gonna cry,” Payton said. “As far as pride, it’s phenomenal to see. Just to see the growth [over] the years, it’s phenomenal to me. I sit back a lot of times like, ‘We’ve come this far.’ ”
Donell Butler, the band’s media coordinator, said he, too, will be overcome with joy.
“For homecoming this year, when we celebrate that 25th, I’ll probably be red-eyed somewhere with some chin tears just to think of the favor on this program,” Butler said, adding every performance takes him back to his first band camp on Aug. 3, 2003.
Under the direction of H. Wade Johnson, the Marching Tiger Band of Distinction opened its season last week with band camp to begin preparing for its 25th season.
Students and recent alumni call themselves an organism — rather than an organization — because it never dies. That’s how much love they have for the band, where alumni consistently give back as mentors to the program. They, along with Johnson, are the scientists who help make the organism grow.
“We work as one. You know how our bodies work? We have the lung system, the respiratory system, the nervous system,” said Tayania “Tee Tee” Brewer, a 2023 graduate who was band president last season. “It works just like that in the band.”
Brewer and her bandmates endured the coronavirus pandemic, during which they had to practice over the Zoom platform to stay together.
“Twenty-five years might seem like a small number, but it’s a long time. The alumni paved the way for it to be 25 years,” said Brewer, a saxophonist who also was a section leader last season. “It’s just an honor to continue to be a part of the legacy, continue the legacy and to watch the legacy continue to grow.”
That’s everything Sean Daniels envisioned when he took over the band program in 1997.
During his first football game as director, Daniels learned he would be leading a drum and bugle corps. Soon afterward, Benedict’s president summoned Daniels and told him he had been brought on board to run a marching band.
Daniels began by adding early-season drills that a marching band would do, eventually incorporating them into performances. By homecoming the band was marching.
In the 1998 season, everything changed. Daniels named the band, a student artist drew its logo and Daniels called the band members the first dynasty. He insisted band members be disciplined, respectful and good students. Daniels always held band members to a high standard, particularly on the field where he also demanded a great sound on the field.
It was the foundation of the band that stands today, which makes Daniels proud.
“They’re aligned from the first year to the 25th. They are aligned all the way through,” Daniels said. “It’s through the students who march in the band, not us who directed it. There are people from the first dynasty who still have some connection with somebody on the 25th. To me, it meant maybe we did what we said we were going to do.”
That connection is what keeps the band strong today.
Janae McCloud, a 2023 graduate who was a drum major in 2022, said the band includes people from all over the country and the Bahamas. That’s part of what makes it special.
“We’re a smaller band compared to a lot of the other recognized HBCU bands in the nation, so it’s definitely a huge family, though we all come from different backgrounds,” said McCloud, who is now working on her doctorate in medical research at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“So it’s being able to take that and kind of put it all inside of a melting pot, if you will. That is kind of what keeps our culture stirred up, because we take in the ideas, we take in the stuff that we’re getting from people around the world, and we’re allowing that to fuel what we put out there.”
For Leon Frazier, one of Daniels’ first students, the band’s 25th anniversary also represents growth – and consistency.
In previous years while recruiting for the band, Benedict had to sell itself over larger band programs. Now the program is getting students from the best high school programs in South Carolina and discovering Benedict is their first choice.
“In my early recruiting days, there were a lot of remarkable programs that were vibrant and have not been able to maintain that consistency and growth for many different reasons,” said Frazier, now head of Benedict’s alumni association and recruiting.
“So it’s really special when you look around the landscape to see what is happening to a number of remarkable programs and to see that our program over that period of time [has] weathered many storms to where we are today and where we’re growing.”
Johnson is getting the Marching Tiger Band of Distinction ready for its special moment this fall. Rest assured, preparation starts now.
There will be something for everybody to embrace at homecoming from the song selections and culture on campus 25 years ago, including old-school dances and dress, Johnson said.
“Of course, we still have to cater to our students now. I guess I call them not just the hip-hop generation but the microwave babies, so to speak, is what I call the kids nowadays,” Johnson said.
It’s the least he can do to pay homage to Daniels, who started the band, and the other alumni who have paved the way and supported his students.
“Our alumni have been absolutely phenomenal,” Johnson said. “Through the years, we have had alumni coming, and it’s so many in terms of numbers [and] the support. They love their HBCU bands.”
That’s what makes his program work. While his leadership team works with band members during their time at Benedict, it’s their bond that solidifies the culture the band has built over the past 25 years.
“We deal with the students who are there during the academic years and whatnot,” Johnson said. “But the appreciation that really comes from our alumni after they leave because many of them don’t leave salty, so to speak. You gain lifelong friends [from] the experiences that you deal with, not just being in the band program, but the culture itself.”
Seeing the fruits of his labor is what will render Daniels speechless when the band takes the field during homecoming.
“I can’t even [imagine] just seeing that 25th year … seeing them come out there,” Daniels said. “I got excited when they just marched down the street at Macy’s.
“I had a goal. I was trying to do it, work with the kids, work with the faculty to do it, and it’s been taken from me to somewhere I couldn’t have predicted.”