Cover photo
Terry Patton

By Kathie Meyer, Leader Staff Writer

Whenever he hears Bobby Helms' 1957 Christmas hit "Jingle Bell Rock," Terry Patton of Port Hadlock gets a misty, nostalgic feeling. Once a saxophone player for Helms' band and then later his manager, Patton has seen the good times and bad of a musician's capricious life on the road.

It was the road that brought the two men together. Making a living as a carpet installer in Indiana in 1977, Patton was driving down a highway when he saw a nightclub marquee announcing that Helms would make an appearance at the club that evening.

He decided to catch Helms' act - a split-second decision that would set the course for a large chunk of his life.

Nashville bound

As a teenager in the '60s, Patton made money working restaurant jobs, but in school he studied under band teacher Duane Montgomery at Chimacum High School, where Patton served as the marching band's drum major.

"I owe my entire life to [Montgomery]. If it wasn't for him, I would have never been introduced to the tenor sax," says Patton.
After graduation, Patton and a partner reopened the empty Chimacum Café.

"I worked myself to death in that place," Patton remembers. During breaks he played his saxophone outside the restaurant's back door until one day he grabbed some clothes, packed that sax into his car, stuffed $200 into his wallet and drove down State Route 19 headed for Nashville.

Instead of Nashville, he ended up in Memphis. There he found work in a bar called Little Abner's, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, as the club's saxophone player. Besides playing music, one of Patton's duties was to pick up visiting musicians - a simple enough job, he thought, until the night he waited in the dark on the side of the road to transport a singer.

When his charge finally arrived, he received a scolding.

"Don't ever stop this car in downtown Memphis," said his rider. "Martin Luther King Jr. was just killed here last year, and [the black community] will kill you," he warned.

Patton, who had only seen black people when in Seattle before leaving home, didn't even know who Martin Luther King Jr. was. Back at the club, he told his boss - a man who frequently called his black employees the "N word" instead of using their names - that he was done being a chauffeur. Later, when it was discovered that Patton wasn't 21 years of age, he had to seek other employment.

Life with Bobby

Eventually Patton ended up in Indiana because of a stint in the U.S. Air Force. After he married, he stayed there and began to settle down until he walked into the club where Bobby Helms - also known for the hits "My Special Angel" and "Fraulein" - was booked for the evening.

When Patton discovered that Helms' guitar player would be a no-show, he offered his services.

"Do you play guitar?" asked Helms.

"No, I play sax."

"Got it with you?"

"Yeah, it's in the trunk of my car," responded Patton.

With that, Patton was hired. Quickly making himself indispensable, he spent the next 21 years as Helm's bandleader, road and personal manager. More than that, though, the two men were best friends, says Patton, and until divorce got in the way, they were also brothers-in-law.

Last week, Patton spread mementos across a table, illustrating his life with Helms. The pictures and news clippings are faded, and he has a story for each one.

He still has a check written to Helms from the American Federation of Musicians for $26.84 that Helms gave him, saying: "Keep it. Might be worth some money someday."

Although Patton never knew the King personally, he's got a picture of Elvis' uncle and pictures of Presley performing in his last concert in Indianapolis in 1977.

Another photo shows the infielders of a baseball team. That, he says, is from a tournament held in Nashville in 1979, when the Helms' team played against Barbara Mandrell's team. A piece of paper lists phone numbers, including Dick Clark's.

As he goes through his archive, he names several singers and musicians he and Helms either worked with or shared the stage with, including Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Moe Bandy, Porter Wagoner, Mel Tillis and Boots Randolph.

At the apex of his career in 1980, Patton finally realized his dreams when he found himself with Helms onstage at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. In a funny twist of fate, Patton played the piano instead of his sax, since brass instruments aren't allowed on "the show that made country music famous."

Patton kept that check stub, too.

"I made a whopping $29.87," he says. At the Opry, Patton explains, "Even if you're Garth Brooks you only get union scale, no matter who you are."

Helms continued his association with the famed Nashville venue on two Grand Ole Opry tours in the '80s in which Patton - the only featured soloist during the entire four-week gig - drew a positive review from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter. A look at the tour's program shows that Tex Williams and Kitty Wells also took part in the traveling Opry lineup.

Eventually the musicians did less and less touring and stayed content doing TV shows and occasional weekend gigs until, in 1997, Helms passed away at age 63. At the time of his death, Patton had full power of attorney for his friend, a testament to the bond between them. Before his casket was sealed, Helms' wife removed a custom ring Helms had worn and presented it to Patton.

After Helms' death, it seemed the right time for Patton to pack his sax and keepsakes in the car and head back up the road for the hometown he left more than two decades ago.

Even today, "Jingle Bell Rock" is listed as one of the top requested Christmas songs. Patton keeps the tune as a prelude to voice mail on his cell phone.

"We'd be in Florida, and Bobby would have a request to play 'Jingle Bell Rock,' and he'd say, 'Well, it has to be snowing somewhere,' and he'd play it," says Patton.

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