Oliver advises students to be both patient and humble



After 20 years of serving as the band director for Alabama State University, James B. Oliver, Ed.D., waves to the crowd as they express their appreciation for the impact that he has made with hundreds of students since returning to his alma mater to lead the band.

Cullen H. Davis, Senior Staff Reporter/Writer

Striving after your dreams and passions are what most envision for their life when they enter college or graduate. However, like anything in life, obstacles happen. The journey is challenging and will include struggle, but it is up to your dedication and strength to get through. 

Unfortunately, not many can say they accomplished this. Some fall by the wayside, get distracted or ultimately just fail to follow their purpose. To succeed, it requires sacrifice along with scary decisions. 

Nevertheless, pressure makes diamonds, and those that come out of the heat often leave a lasting impact. This could not be more evident than Alabama State Alumni, James Oliver, Ed.D. Using his decades of experience in the music world, he now leads The Mighty Marching Hornets, where he has been the band director for over 20 years. Oliver has used his platform to not only impact the lives of his students but bring national and international attention to his alma mater.

A Montgomery native, Oliver was the baby of the family, the youngest of three siblings. Being the youngest, he was the little brother that always did the opposite. Academically, he was not the type to study much, often getting B’s and C’s. A big contrast to his older sister, who practically got all A’s in her school career, “I am not my big sister,” Oliver said.  He describes his younger self as “very creative.” It was at this time where he first ventured into music. Figuring out his aspirations in life, the English rock band, The Beatles, were just being discovered. At 8 o’clock February 9, 1964, a record-setting 73 million people tuned in that evening to watch The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatle’s performance became one of the most seminal moments in television history and that was the day that would change Oliver’s life forever.

During the performance, Oliver focused on drummer Ringo Starr and enjoyed it so much that he asked his mom for drums. Although he envisioned a drum set, his mother only bought one drum. However, this did not stop Oliver, and his drive, along with his creativity, would plant the seeds of an elite drummer during his childhood.

“I was always music. It’s what landed me and kept me grounded,” Oliver said. Oliver would join the band in the fifth grade. Even though it was just one drum, his vast knowledge of the instrument played a major role in his learning process as other students in the band did not have drums or knew how to use them. Upon graduation, Oliver would attend Sidney Lanier High School, where he was an advanced player the moment he stepped on campus.

These times were not easy for young Oliver and his family. Like many can imagine, living in the segregated south of Montgomery, Alabama can pose many challenges. Oliver remembers not being allowed to enjoy regular activities with his friends and family, like going to Oak Park, because it was unsafe. Additionally, Oliver was not allowed to drink at just any water fountain because of the “colored” and “white” signs due to the Jim Crow Laws in the south. “I just thought that’s the way it was,” Oliver said. 

He vividly remembers a moment involving the H.L. Green department store. In order to use the bathroom on the first floor, customers had to pay a dime, and due to financial situations, this would be a burden. Oliver and his siblings would wait by the door and sneak in fast when someone came out to avoid paying.

But all times were not bad, “days were good for us because my mom made them better.” Oliver said. He recalls countless times when his mother would sit outside with the family lifting everyone’s spirits with laughter, funny faces, and jokes. It was during these moments that helped Oliver and his family not think about the harsh racial realities of living in the south, but Oliver saw a way out through music. He would manifest seeing his name on the bottom of TV screens to his mother, and that journey was already beginning despite the obstacles.

At Sidney Lanier High, Oliver would develop his skills as a drummer and overall appreciation for music. Talented music acts such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire and The Heatwave would become some major influences in his life. While playing for the band, R&B music was basically prohibited. The band had to play in accordance to what music catered to the white audience, which at that time was James Brown and Aretha Franklin. 

Tensions between the two races would be evident at large assemblies and gatherings such as football games. There were times where police officers had to be present to escort the Blacks to and from the events for safety purposes. During his tenure at Sidney Lanier, the band was never allowed to play at the Turkey Day Classic Parade. They were only allowed to play in the Saturday Montgomery Christmas Parade. However, they never failed to give a performance that left the crowd starstruck. In moments like this, Oliver learned the impact of music and its influence, “music is the key to the world. It calms a savage beast.”

Oliver knew his purpose was music and there was nothing else he wanted to do, but as high school graduation neared, he had to move on to the next chapter of his life. In his senior year of high school, he and four-band friends would frequently eat lunch and discuss college plans. One of those men being Cromwell Handy, director of Alumni Relations at Alabama State University. 

Oliver did not involve himself in the conversation due to feeling “out of place.”  He had no idea about anything relating to college because no one in his household attended. His mother dropped out of school in the 10th grade. His sister had a fascination with cooking and became a cook for Waffle House during their rise, and his brother, an avid car enthusiast, became a car detailer. One day, Oliver went home and had a change of heart and started to consider that maybe college was right for him. The group of young men would start discussions about schools, Florida A&M University being one of the schools atop the list due to their large attention from the band and seeing them on television. 

Several of Oliver’s friend groups did not get acceptance to FAMU, but Alabama State was banging on the door for all of them. Oliver would go on to say that “the acceptance letter changed my whole life… I can consider myself a college student.” Alabama State and that moment meant so much to him because it gave him a chance. He notes this as one reason he does all he can because Ole Mother Dear accepted him. 

At a young age, Oliver learned core values that would not only shape him to be the man he is but set the foundation for the opportunities he was able to obtain later in his career. He advised that people “need to be patient and practice discipline. We keep going, that’s what makes us better.” His leadership would come out during his time leading the Lanier High and Alabama State band. 

Before Oliver could step on the campus, there was one more obstacle he had to get past. In 1975, the United States was involved in the Vietnam War and conducted the draft for young men. A young Oliver was terribly scared when he had to register, but when he made his way, the lady at the front desk said, “You’re OK. They are not registering.” Oliver would feel incredibly lifted, safe and so good because there was no need to enter the war, and he had the opportunity to refocus on his music.

During his time of undergrad at Alabama State, a key figure for Oliver was William “Big Wimp” Tate. Tate was a fellow drummer that went to Lanier and also played at Alabama State. Tate would work with Oliver on the weekends, teaching him the drum cadence that he needed to learn for Alabama State. Oliver would look up to “Big Wimp,” saying, “I wanted to be him, throw the sticks like him, every move.” He would mimic him to the utmost, and with that, other bandmates started to take notice and respect came, earning Oliver the nickname “Little Wimp.”

In this age of bands, especially HBCUs, they were considered serious, and as Oliver would say, “anyone who came, could play.” His sophomore year in 1976, Oliver would become the section leader and transition from “Little Wimp” to “Big Wimp.” Although it was a great opportunity, Oliver was frightened. He attended school with much older men while also being their leader for two to three years. But the respect was there because he was “Little Wimp,” and he took this as a chance to move to the next level. 

Oliver recalls a distinct memory he will never forget when his band director Dr. Thomas E. Lyles called him out in front of everyone as section leader.

One day during the week, instead of practicing for the upcoming game, Oliver decided to go out for movies and pizza with some friends. At practice, Lyles would observe that Oliver did not know the music. Lyles would call Oliver out in front of the whole band, which made Oliver feel horrible. From then on, that never happened again, and Oliver changed his motto to “practice before fun.”

It was not just the Mighty Marching Hornets that made Oliver the man he is today. While attending, Oliver would become a member of The Beta Zeta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Incorporated. He would be the Dean of Pledges for three lines, 74 total members with no one quitting. 

While in undergrad, Oliver would pledge with his best friend, John. Although he was hesitant because of prior band engagements, Oliver was optimistic. Oliver would find himself in a familiar spot as a leader, training, teaching, and encouraging his brothers during the process. Oliver commented, “God kept me in leadership roles.”

Oliver would go on to graduate May 10, 1980. Although he was excited and proud, he noticed that all of his bandmates and fraternity brothers had jobs lined up post-graduation. Oliver would begin searching for his eventual first step in a legendary career. 

A sophomore in the band’s percussion section notified Oliver that his dad graduated from Alabama State and is a member of the Board of Education and looking for a band director in Dayton, Ohio. Oliver would send in his application and use all his graduation money to buy a flight to Dayton for the interview. The interview would go well, as Oliver would be the band director of Patterson Junior High School.

 Oliver was ecstatic for the Dayton Public School contract describing it as “another feeling.”  His friends and family would throw him a grand going away party, and the next day, Oliver headed for Dayton at 5 a.m. Passing through the McDonalds previously located on Fairview Avenue, a hot spot for all the parties after games, Oliver would be in a state of awe, knowing he would not see these places for a while. When he got to Birmingham, he thought of his best friend John and did not call because it was so early but thinking, “I’m passing through Birmingham and all my friends.” Oliver would describe that he “grew up” as he was driving to Dayton.

Patterson High School was a co-op school. When Section A let out, Section B would be in, and this is because the city worked with the students and school and provided training to the students. Nursing, mechanics, construction, beauty, and wielding were some of the training departments offered. At this time, Patterson High School was the only school that offered co-op in the United States and therefore garnered students from all over the world, including Australia and Germany. 

While here, even though he got the job, many people thought he was too young and would not get the band students together on one accord. However, when Oliver was able to do it and produce a beautiful outcome, it changed their whole outlook, “They really respected who I was,” Oliver said.

It was only a year later before his talents would be noticed on a higher level when Danny Davis offered him a part-time role at Central State University. From 1981-1982, Oliver would manage duties at both schools, Central State at 4 p.m for an hour and a half then attend Patterson High at 6 p.m. Fast forward to 1988 and Danny Davis made his way to Alabama State and Oliver would become the new band director of Central State University. He recalls being in the office of Patterson and the president of Central State offering to hire him and add an extra $3,000 to his contract.

At Central State, Oliver would describe it as more difficult. Oliver operated stricter and more disciplined than Davis, making some students quit. When asked, “what was the difference,” Oliver answered, “Davis did not go over the show over and over. No fine-tune or detail.” Oliver would conduct a band that would practice constantly. “Detail is important. Fine-tuning makes it better. Details make it greater,” Oliver said.

It was this mindset that made The Invincible Marching Marauders such a great band under Oliver’s leadership. They lost football but still had a band of over 150. He would be amazed at how the school did not have a football team. Still, their popularity was getting them booked every week at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) for halftime shows around Michigan and Ohio. Oliver and his band would make an incredible list of monumental experiences performing for the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Lions.

Oliver recalled a memory he would never forget. Former President Bill Clinton came to Columbus, Ohio and Oliver and his band performed a march. At the conclusion of the performance, former President Clinton saluted Oliver, an honor many people will never experience in their lifetimes. 

In 1999, The United States Football League sent a letter asking the band to perform in Europe, Barcelona and London. After thanking them but explaining that they could not afford it, the USFL then offered to pay for it. The band played for the Barcelona Dragons at The Majestic Olympic Stadium and were the first to march on the field in Barcelona, Spain. 

These amazing opportunities all came a night after the drumline played in a European basketball game. Oliver would have performances in the Sagrada Família Cathedral. In England, Oliver would march in front of Queen Elizabeth II when they were in London to play for the London Monarchs. During this time, he recalled, “The kids felt like celebrities. People were asking for their autographs.”

A month later, The Invincible Marching Marauders would be invited to the World Bowl, the European version of the NFL’s Super Bowl. The invitation came from a representative asking a taxi driver what they liked about the games and everybody’s response was, “the band,” so they flew back to London.

In 2000, Oliver would come home to his alma mater and what he says is a “full circle.” Oliver said that it feels like God made him successful in the things he does with the circle being complete. At Alabama State, Oliver continued his legacy and put his alma mater on a national stage. Performing for several NFL teams, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Steve Harvey Show, America’s Got Talent, and The Apollo. The Mighty Marching Hornets have even worked with popular acts such as Beyonce and Robin Thicke. The opportunities continue to roll as the Stingettes and HoneyBeez would be a part of a reality TV show, “Bama State Style,” and a Snapchat docuseries.

Oliver is supported by his assistant Earnest Harris and secretary Marcel Glen. He notes that Harris heavily assists him and does a lot while Glen handles all the necessary paperwork and has great ideas. 

Oliver says it is a blessing to be able to do all the things he never thought of doing or dreamed of. 

To the Hornet Nation, Oliver advises current students to “find your niche… do what you want to do. I frown at those not knowing what you want to do. You need to know to not waste your time. Major in what you really like to do because you will give your 100%.” 

Oliver believes in marketing yourself. Two things he says the next generation needs to keep in mind is to be patient and humble. Patience because it takes time, and patience is a virtue. Humbleness because somebody can help you in anything you do, from the janitor to the president.

He says it is important to pay attention and follow instructions to get to where you want to go. It takes it all, and it all works together. When you believe and do not give up, things begin to happen. In the words of his mentor and former band director Dr. Lyles, “Every successful man has gone through failure,” and Oliver has lived a life showing there is no such thing as failure if you learn from them and obtain your goals.