John Rhea "Yank" Lawson was born in Trenton, Missouri in 1911. His original instruments were the saxophone and piano, but he switched to the trumpet in his teens. He played with bands at the University of Missouri, then gigged around Shreveport, LA. Then from 1933 to '34 he worked with Ben Pollock, and then with Will Osborne in 1935.
Yank was a founding member of the Bob Crosby Band in 1935. From 1938 to '39 he worked with Tommy Dorsey, and with Benny Goodman in 1942. He had a prolific free-lance recording career in New York in the '40's and '50's. Together with Bob Haggart, he led a recording band which made several LP's in the '50's. He toured with his own band in 1962, worked with Peanuts Hucko at Condon's, and took part in numerous Crosby Band reunions. Yank co-led the Lawson-Haggart Band in Europe and continued playing well into the '90's. We lost Yank in 1995.
My father's association with Yank went back to the 1930's during Yank's days with the Crosby Band. He befriended Mom and Dad, who would burn up a lot of telephone time with him conversing and playing records over the phone. After the war, Yank was willing to set Dad up in the music business by providing valuable contacts, but Dad took a job in Venezuela working for Nelson Rockefeller instead.
I met Yank when I first went to New York. Yank took me with him to his gig on the Tonight Show, where I also got to meet Doc Severinsen, Sarah Vaughn, and Clark Terry. On another trip to New York (about '64 or so), Yank took me to a Jean Goldkette re-creation recording session he was on. Dad and I also visited Yank at his home in Massapequa, NY, where I met Bud Freeman (who was staying with him at the time).
I consider Yank to be one of the all-time greatest lead trumpet players, with his hot, driving, highly individual (yet simple) style. I spent a week in D.C. at Blues Alley, sitting at Yank's feet and listening to him, learning how to play melody.
Yank's first appearance at the Landing was in 1968 in conjunction with the first World Series of Jazz concert put on by Dad and me in San Antonio at the Theater for the Performing Arts (now the Lilla Cockrell Theater). This concert was conceived as a Battle of the Bands between the World's Greatest Jazz Band (we wanted to keep them honest) and our band. The World's Greatest was Yank, Billy Butterfield, Bob Haggart, Bob Wilber, Bud Freeman, Lou McGarrity, Carl Fontana, Ralph Sutton, and Gus Johnson. Our band had Ernie Caceres and Rich Matteson as "secret weapons."
This concert and the huge pre-concert jam sessions at the Landing proved to be so successful (it sold out) that we decided to do it again in 1971. We used the same lineup except instead of Ernie and Rich, we had Emilio Caceres, Haggart, Bobby Hackett, and Butterfield; and they had Eddie Hubbell and Vic Dickenson on trombones.
In 1973, Yank called from a gig in Acapulco, Mexico when he heard that Dad was sick. Somehow, the whole band managed to get out of the next gig in Ohio and most of them (Yank, Bud, Ralph, Gus, Wilber, and Haggart) at their own expense flew to San Antonio. We all spent a day and evening with Dad, talking about old times. Afterward, we all went downtown and had a private, long-running jam session at the Landing. Attendance was by invitation only. Afterwards, we stayed up all night talking, eating great Mexican food, and playing.