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A fitting tribute: Memphis high school band competition trophy named after legendary band director

Published: Oct. 30, 2021 at 9:44 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - For over a year, the Liberty Bowl has missed the sights and sounds of the Bandmaster’s Championship due to COVID-19.

The regionally famous high school band competition, hosted by the University of Memphis, came back for its 55th time to the Bluff City, with 19 high school’s vying for the prize of Grand Champion.

“For a lot of the bands that come here to compete, this is the final competition of the season,” said UofM’s Director of Athletic Bands William Plenk. “This is kind of the culminating event for the work they’ve been doing over the last three-and-a-half months.”

This year, the trophy bears a new name, a name that rings synonymous with greatness in the band community, the Joe Sills Cup.

“Joe Sills was a legendary band director in the area,” Plenk said about Joe R. Sills. “He brought three different schools to this competition, each won three times in a row.”

Those three schools, Bolivar Central High School from Hardeman County, Murray High School in Kentucky and Ripley High School in Lauderdale County all won in their three appearances, nine championships in total.

It’s a feat that’s best remembered by his son, Joe L. Sills.

“Every time I hear a marching band, I hear a snare drum, I hear a cadence, I go right back to being in kindergarten and riding around in parades and going to drills and watching him sort of command what was his little army,” Sills’s son remembered fondly.

Joe L. Sills watched his dad take his bands to national prominence and heard stories of accomplishments that happened before he was even born, like his dad’s Bolivar Central band opening for a New York Jets game in the 60s.

“I did not believe it,” Joe L. Sills admitted. “I thought it was this crazy story until I talked to Joe Namath, and Joe Namath said ‘yes I remember that.’”

Joe R. Sills was hospitalized with COVID-19, and it was then that his son got the idea to have the trophy of the Bandmaster’s Championship, the competition his dad won so many times, named after him.

He reached out to UofM’s President Dr. David Rudd, who quickly connected him with Plenk, who said it was a no brainer.

“Immediately, it just made sense to do this, just because of how it ties together the past and present in the history of the contest and the bands of the area,” Plenk said.

The naming process took only a week to accomplish, according to Sills.

“I actually got the news that they were going to name the trophy after him while he was still alive, and I told that to him on FaceTime,” Joe L. Sills said. “Through the mask, it really sounded like he said ‘wow,’ and that’s the last thing he ever said to me.”

After his death, Joe L. Sills said hundreds of his dad’s former band students reached out to the family, and even a large portion of those students gathered at his graveside, playing him home.

“That’s the power of band,” Joe L. Sills said.

He was unsure of how he would feel coming to the Liberty Bowl for this year’s Bandmaster’s Championship, but he said it has been a healing process, seeing the trophy and some of his dad’s former students.

He did it all while wearing his dad’s Murray High School director’s blazer.

“It represents the peak of what he was able to achieve, and that was a national championship in ‘77,” Joe L. Sills said. “To me, to bring it back here, bring it back home, and the fact that it fits... it just made sense to wear it.”

As far as the trophy itself, Joe L. Sills said his dad loved trophies, everything from fishing tournaments, car shows and of course the many band competitions he won.

It’s a fitting tribute, Joe L. Sills says, to his dad and to the thousands of students he directed over decades.

“The trophy is more about them than anything. It’s a thank you. It’s a ‘Hey. I appreciate you so much for everything you’ve done for our family,’” Joe L. Sills said.

The Bandmaster’s Championship plays a duel role of giving high school bands a final chance to showcase their talents before the end of competition season and also serving as a recruiting event for UofM’s marching band, the Mighty Sound of the South.

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