If memory serves
The way Ken Burke remembers it, the whole thing started — though it certainly didn’t end — with the tuba players in the University of Wisconsin band.
It happened some time in the hockey season of 1973-74. Burke, a junior in the business school, was hanging out with a couple friends in his apartment at the corner of Tappan and Oakland.
One of them was Tom Blaske, a law student. He and Burke had both played tuba in the Michigan Marching Band.
The other guy was Robbie Moore, a neighbor of Burke’s. He was also the All-American goalie on Michigan’s hockey team.
Moore always got a kick out of the pep bands that played at hockey games. That night he got talking about a tune he’d just heard on a road trip to Madison.
Burke and Blaske both remember what Moore said: “There’s this cool thing the Wisconsin hockey band does.”
And he sang a catchy little tune that had stuck in his head, with three staccato notes at the end — bup-bup-bup.
That was it. Burke thought no more about it — until the following fall, when the Marching Band traveled to Madison. There Burke heard the Wisconsin horns play that ditty with the bup-bup-bup, the same one goalie Moore had sung.
In the stands he spotted the hockey pep band, a ragtag bunch of volunteers who pumped up the crowd with jingles and Michigan songs.
Burke walked over to a tuba player he knew named Joe Carl, one of the pep band’s unofficial organizers.
He said: “Hey, Joe, give me your horn for a minute.”
And he played the little tune that Moore had sung in the apartment.
Burke told Carl: “You guys should play that, and then after the bup-bup-bup, you could shout, ‘Let’s go blue!’”
And they did.
Now, Carl’s memory of what happened is slightly different. But he remembers that Wisconsin’s band was somewhere in the stew.
“The band traveled to Wisconsin for the football game,” Carl said recently. “And the Wisconsin band — they’re kind of rowdy, kind of interesting — and I do remember them doing something that ended with a bup-bup-bup, you know?
“It was their sousaphones as they’re marching into the stadium. We were waiting there to come in the stadium, and here comes the Wisconsin band, and they were doing something. I couldn’t recognize what the piece was … but I do remember it ended with this bup-bup-bup. I remember hearing that.”
That something with the bup-bup-bup came back to Ann Arbor in his head, Carl said, then to that hockey game at Yost.
“I don’t remember how that came around to ‘Let’s Go Blue,’” he said, “other than it was just kind of: They seemed to be goofin’ around, then we started goofin’ around.”
And that certain tune began to pop out of Michigan tubas that night.
Then, just after the bup-bup-bup — if Carl’s memory serves — an alto horn player named John Endahl yelled, “Let’s go blue!”
And the crowd loved it.
“Yeah, the crowd picked it up, absolutely,” Carl said. “And you get a crowd there in Yost Arena and it sounded like 10,000 people. It was really cool. It certainly caught us by surprise.”
By the following football season, George Cavender, director of U-M bands, had heard the “Let’s Go Blue” tune-and-cheer, and he loved it, too.
So one day he buttonholed Albert Ahronheim, who had been the Marching Band’s drum major. Now he was Cavender’s graduate assistant and the band’s principal arranger, and he had studied with Jerry Bilik, the U-M-trained composer, arranger, and musical director who conceived “M Fanfare.”
Cavender said: “Hey, Al, there’s this tune that this tuba player’s been playing at the hockey games, and it goes like this …”
Cavender sang it.
“I want you to do a full arrangement for the Marching Band.”
So Ahronheim sat down at a piano and got to work — singing notes, playing notes, and scribbling on a blank score.
Gradually, the arrangement emerged.
He started with the original tuba bassline — the low, thumping notes — and added trombones.
Then he wrote a new melody to burst in at a higher octave — trumpets playing a swinging Dixieland kind of thing. Then all the instruments ascended together into a riot of melody and counter-melody, punctuated at the end with those three popping periods — BUP-BUP-BUP!
Ahronheim got it down on paper. He handed it to Cavender, who looked it over and scribbled in the margin, at the appropriate point: “Yell ‘Let’s go blue.’” (See the upper right corner of the image, above.)
“It’s arranging more than composition,” Ahronheim said recently, “but the two are intimately related. What I did was an arrangement based on this bassline. I came up with that new melody, so I guess that was composition. But I don’t want to make too much of it. It’s not Beethoven.”
Listen in, Michigan
Listen to this mini-podcast as Albert Ahronheim — pictured here as drum major of the Marching Band — and writer Jim Tobin deconstruct this iconic tune, starting with Ahronheim’s initial conversation with Cavender. And then … keep reading below. (Image: Citizen Patriot file photo. Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts. Subscribe at iTunes, Tunein, and Stitcher.)
Credit all around
OK, so maybe it’s not Beethoven. But it’s closing in on half a century with no signs of age. It’s a Michigan calling card, of course, but it’s played all over the country. It’s popped up in movies from The Big Chill to Remember the Titans. (In the credits of Titans, Carl and Ahronheim are the very last names listed — thanks in part to Cavender, who urged them to get the tune copyrighted.)
“It’s a lot of fun, there’s no question,” Ahronheim said. “I had no idea how much fun it was going to be.”
So who gets the credit?
It looks like everybody deserves a piece of it, small or large — Robbie Moore, Ken Burke, Joe Carl, Michigan’s hockey fans, George Cavender, and Albert Ahronheim.
And maybe especially those tuba players at Wisconsin, even if we’d rather not admit it.
Burke’s friend Blaske put it this way: “As they used to say of the Panama Canal: Stolen, fair and square.”
And who’s to say Wisconsin didn’t swipe the tune from somebody else?
Robbie Moore, one of Michigan’s great goalies, was only 5’5”, but he went on to a career in professional hockey, including stints with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.
Ken Burke, a native Detroiter, earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Virginia. He went into the investment field, with stops in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York before winding up near Boston. His friend Tom Blaske practices law in Ann Arbor.
Joe Carl, originally from Dearborn, has been director of the award-winning marching band at Sumner High School in Washington state for more than 25 years. Out of roughly 1,800 students at Sumner, one in nine plays in the band.
Albert Ahronheim, who grew up in Jackson, lives and works in New York City. He’s still in the midst of a successful career as an arranger, orchestrator, and musical director.