Army Band drummer looks toward retirement
August 23, 2013
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - Although he plays in the all-volunteer Washington Redskins Marching Band for fun, refreshments, and free football games, in his heart of hearts, U.S. Army Band percussionist Sgt. Maj. Myles E. Overton III is a Dallas Cowboys fan. As a result, he gets a fair share of ribbing from other musicians on the team's step ensemble.
"It's mostly about the musicianship and camaraderie," he said, explaining how fellow Norfolk State University alumni are in the group. "Once I'm with a team, I'm with a team win or lose. And of course these two are arch rival teams. I mean they really get serious. And if it weren't for my size [Overton stands a fit, broad-shouldered, six-feet tall], I think some people would be trying to change my mind."
Overton refuses to take sides in another friendly rivalry. Prior to joining The United States Army Band (TUSAB) "Pershing's Own," he was a Marine who played with The U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps "The Commandant's Own." He won't say which musical organization influenced him the most.
"I like having done it all," he said, demurring. "Why do I have to ... choose sides? Music is a universal language."
Overton plays in The U.S. Army Ceremonial Band, The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, and holds the elite position of special drummer at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns. In addition, he fills-in as needed with The U.S. Army Concert Band, The U.S. Army Blues, and the Army Band's pop/rock group, Downrange.
Overton has been with The U.S. Army Band for 31 years and is preparing to retire at the end of August. He's seen a lot in those three decades and has had the opportunity to play in a lot of different contexts for a large variety of audiences.
As part of his job with The Army Band, Overton has played alongside the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and at both the Olympic Games and the Special Olympics. He appeared at the Pentagon with members of "Pershing's Own" to offer musical succor and rally the American people just days after the 9/11 terrorist attack and performed at the Kennedy Center on the 10th Anniversary of September 11. The sound of his drumbeat has captured the ears of U.S. presidents and European royalty.
Overton was first captivated by music at age 6 or 7. He said his father would take him and his two brothers to the Neptune Festival Parade in Virginia Beach, not far from where he grew up in Norfolk, Va.
"I saw the way people were moved by different bands that came by," he said. "I kind of knew then it was something I might want to do.
"At the time my parents couldn't afford to have me take private lessons," Overton said, "... so I would try to duplicate [the sounds] I heard, and one thing led to another."
There were a few bumps in the road.
"In middle school there was a band director who asked me to play something like a paradiddle," Overton said, tapping out a common drum pattern on his knee in demonstration. "He actually told me in front of everybody, 'You will never ever play professionally,' which really ticked me off."
The budding musician said he didn't recall anyone else in class being judged as harshly. "Why would he tell me this," he said he asked himself. "I just figured, 'Well, I'll show him.'"
And he did, by turning a negative into a positive. When Overton returned to the school years later to lead master classes, he found the teacher had followed the drummer's career. "He actually apologized every time I came down [to visit the school]," the sergeant major related. "He said he used the wrong choice of words; that he was just in one of those moods, having to deal with 50 or 60 middle school kids, some of whom didn't want to be in the classroom. But I tell people that he's the main reason for who I am today. I can laugh about it now, but I wasn't laughing too much then."
After high school, Overton said he thought he needed to brush up on his musical "chops" a lot more. He said he figured, "If I'm going to go into the military - because that's the only place I can really further my education in this - I'm going to go into the toughest [service] I can think of. If I'm going to do this I figured it should be the Marine Corps."
"The first serious musical instructor I had was at the Naval School of Music at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Va.," Overton said. "It's a six-month course. The two years you would take in college you learn there in six months, because music is all you're doing - 24-hours a day, seven days a week. It was a crash course and I just learned how everything was properly done."
Overton had three duty stations as a Marine musician, with stints in field bands at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Okinawa, Japan, and the Marine Barracks at 8th and I in Washington, D.C., where he was with the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps.
After four years, Overton left the Marine Corps to attend college at Norfolk State University.
John Lindberg, a Norfolk professor, said there are three qualities he looks for in predicting the success of a musician: natural talent, the ability to project one's personality into the music, and preparation for whatever opportunities come your way. He said Overton had all three.
"He is a born leader," said Emery Fears, another Norfolk instructor. "He was like a magnet. Other students were attracted to his expertise." Fears said the wealth of experience he brought with him to the university as a military musician made him stand out from his peers.
Approaching graduation in 1982, the then 26-year-old Overton auditioned for The U.S. Army Band.
He said he thought to himself, "Do I want to do this? I had worries of doing basic [training] again. At the time I was married with one kid. I didn't know where it was going to take me. Anyway, I auditioned and I came here [to Fort Myer] a month later."
The percussionist is well known as a prankster and cut-up. While he is constantly aware of the solemn responsibility needed to carry out the missions he undertakes, the drummer is known for bringing levity to tense situations. Overton has a set of gag teeth he occasionally pops in his mouth to get a rise out of colleagues. The appliance isn't obvious when his mouth is closed, but when he senses a tense moment, he cracks a smile, displaying a grill of crooked, stained teeth with one gold front tooth. Tension broken.
His wife Yolanda has occasionally tried to enlist Overton's colleagues in ruses to prank her husband. "We like to get him when we can," Shields said, "because you never know when he'll get you." Shields keeps an official-looking photo of a ramrod-straight Overton in dress uniform flashing his famous less-than-pearly-whites on the wall of her office cubicle.
Yolanda said it's hard to get Overton's band mates to play along on pranks because they know payback is likely.
Overton laughed hearing this second-hand. "That's respect," he said, confirming there would indeed be consequences. Despite the fact his days with the Army Band are numbered, he added, "I've got a list of about 10 people I owe."
A propensity for humor might not seem the most essential requirement for a musician at the periphery of solemn public events like the visit of a foreign leader or a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Thankfully, perhaps because he's a drummer, he has good comic timing.
"Most of the missions TUSAB performs are high-level with high visibility," said Master Sgt. Edward Asten, Ceremonial Band percussion section leader and second primary drummer with the Herald Trumpets. "These missions happen in extremes of all sorts of weather conditions, and before all sorts of dignitaries from around the world. At times, the missions can be quite stressful. It's critically important to have someone to keep it light. I think most of us who work with Sergeant Major Overton have come to appreciate his sense of humor and impeccable timing for making everyone around him laugh at the most stressful times."
A 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Tanner Welch, said Overton's humor provides needed release in the down-time between ceremonies.
Welch, sergeant of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, said the drummer might say something amusing before heading out the door for a mission, but quickly pivots to become sober-minded and serious when the situation requires it.
"It's like flipping a switch with him," Welch said. "There's no disconnect. He brings smiles on a daily basis."
Overton was appointed special drummer at the Tomb of the Unknowns in the early '80s. He said there's nothing routine about the job.
"I still get nervous. There's not a time when I'm sitting there going, 'I got this down.' Oh, no, no," he said. "You're not in a band formation [at the tomb]. It's just yourself and the bugler who plays taps and a wreath-bearer. The world is watching and there's no room for errors or mistakes."
"During his long and distinguished career, Overton has probably been the Army's most photographed soldier, said Col. Thomas H. Palmatier, leader and commander of The U.S. Army Band. "As a drummer with The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets he has performed countless times at the White House and for historic events all around the world. His soldierly bearing, his unflappable poise under pressure, and his famous sense of humor, used to relax fellow participants, have inspired his fellow soldiers."
In addition to participating in TUSAB workshops that help develop young talent at area high schools, Overton has also forged alliances independently at area high schools.
Kenny Millard, assistant band director and percussion instructor at Anacostia Senior High School in the District of Columbia, is a fellow graduate of Norfolk State University, where both he and Overton participated in the university's marching band, The Million Dollar Funk Squad.
Millard said the drummer was instrumental in motivating his group and helping it win second place at a recent national high-step championship.
"I can always call him in to do a clinic with my guys," said Millard. "He knows his business and loves what he does."
His teaching can be "unconventional," Millard added, citing the advice Overton gave students while running through a cadence: musicians should "listen to what's around them all the time [including ambient sound] ... everything has a beat."
Overton said being a member of The U.S. Army Band has brought many rewards.
"When you go out from under this umbrella [the National Capital Area] you meet people who really appreciate what you're doing. They ask a lot of questions ... they'll give you a hug or a kiss. You see this mom that either has a son that's still on active duty or has lost a husband," he said, describing the reception band members get when on tour. "Then you get back [inside the Beltway] and you just feel good. You're doing more than what you think you do. It's more than just a paycheck. A lot of these places I've visited I never would have gone to had I not been here [at the Army Band]. So you have gratitude; like OK, what I'm doing here really means something."
Although he's leaving The U.S. Army Band, Overton isn't abandoning his avocation. He plans to remain in Woodbridge and continue teaching music out of his home.
As his active duty days wind down, Overton doesn't take his Army job for granted. One of his last big events was a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns with President Barack Obama on Memorial Day. "I've done quite a few and it still made me nervous," he said. "I think that's a good thing."