In the winter of 1928, the Fort Crailo Post 471 of the American Legion in Rensselaer organized a senior drum & bugle corps consisting of its own members. Since all of the members of the drum corps were active Legionnaires, they put all their efforts int making their musical organization an outstanding part of the American Legion, both at the state and national levels.
One of the most notable events of the time was the Corps' trip to San Antonio, Texas that summer where it entered the American Legion drum & bugle corps competition. In successive years the Corps went on to Louisville and Boston, and then in 1933 won the New York State championship at a competition held in Brooklyn.
In 1936 members of the Corps decided to make a change in their composition. There were numerous other Legionnaires at Fort Crailo who played various other band instruments, and many family members also expressed interest in joining a band. In fact, families of two Legionnaires had seven family members who wanted to participate. By Memorial Day that year the Post fielded a combined band and drum & bugle corps. By 1941 there would be 75 active members in the line of march.
The first bandmaster to teach this combined organization was Robert F. Winters. He immigrated to this country from Scotland where he has been bandmaster of the Highland's Queen's Guard of Edinburgh. He augmented the Band by bringing with him his two sons. Bandmaster Winters left the Band in 1946 due to poor health, and died in 1952.
As successor to Bandmaster Winters, the Band acquired the services of James J. Layden, prominently known for teaching many school bands throughout the Capital District. During World War II he was an instructor at the Navy School of Music in San Diego where he taught arranging and instrumental music. He played his last engagement with the Yankee Doodle Band in 1972. While driving home on a lonely back road following a Ballston Spa firemen's parade that year he passed away.
Prof. Layden was succeeded by Ray Geiss from Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. Geiss stayed with the band for only two years before his job took him out of the area. During his tenure, the Band recorded an LP album of march music.
Owen "Smokie" Johnson, a trombonist with the Band and a former music teacher, took over the reins as musical director in 1974, a position he still holds. Under his direction, the Band entered national American Legion band competitions in New Orleans in 1978, Boston in 1980, Honolulu in 1981, and again in New Orleans in 1985.
The Yankee Doodle Band, like the old drum corps of 1928, also gained a reputation in American Legion circles and elsewhere. The first year it was formed as a band in 1936, it entered the American Legion state music contest in Syracuse where it won second place. From there it went on to win titles as Best Appearing and Best Playing Musical Group in many parades. In 1939 the Band won first place at the New York State volunteer firemen's convention in Flushing, Queens, competing against 74 other units. This prize-winning reputation has continued through the years, and the newest members of the Band still take pride in looking and playing their best whenever they turn out for a parade, concert, or competition.
During World War II, thirty-one members of the Band laid down their instruments to join the "Colors." The great band of 75 pieces dwindled down to a mere 20. but still the Band played on. It still had its founders to guide it through the days of strife and gas rationing, which was very essential to an organization that traveled great distances to play for Bond drives and patriotic rallies. They had the foresight to hold the Yankee Doodle Band together "'til the boys came home." And hold on they did. Some members who tended to the home fires back then are still active with the band!
The color scheme that the old drum & bugle corps selected for its uniforms is still traditional with the Band today, although the uniforms have been modified somewhat throughout the years. The original uniforms included silver World War I helmets, puttees, and Sam Brown belts over white blouses. Eventually white Ike jackets replaced the blouses with Sam Brown belts. Those jackets are worn today during cold weather; short-sleeved shirts are worn in summer. Today the band wears World War II-era helmets and paratrooper boots.
The Band has been recognized widely through the years. At the 1957 American Legion national convention in Atlantic City, the Band was given the honor of benign the lead band of the entire New York State delegation in the mammoth ten-hour parade. Again in 1967 at the National Convention in Boston, high recognition was received.
When Nelson A. Rockefeller was first inaugurated as governor, the Yankee Doodle Band escorted the newly-elected Governor into his inauguration ball in the Washington Avenue Armory. When the Empire State Plaza was officially dedicated, the Band was asked to perform at dedication ceremonies. Since then, the Band has been called upon to perform all official ceremonies at the Plaza including the wedding of Gov. Hugh Carey, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands' visit to Albany, the day honoring Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy, and the annual Fourth of July concert prior to the fireworks display. The Albany Tricentennial proved to be a very demanding day for the Band. It performed for all official dignitaries on Charter Day -- July 22, 1986 -- along with a concert prior to the fireworks that evening.
The Band has had the additional honor of leading the New York delegation at American Legion national conventions in Miami in 1974 and Honolulu in 1981. The musical numbers for the reviewing stands at these parades were "New York, New York" followed by "Yankee Doodle." At the national convention in New Orleans in 1985, the Band was called upon to do something a few of the members thought would never be possible. When the Marine Corps Band from Chicago failed to show up for the International Karate Championship Meets (prior to the Olympics) to play Japan's national anthem, the Yankee Doodle Band stepped in. This was a first. Never having played Japan's national anthem, some piano music was hastily produced and after 15 minutes of rehearsal, the end result was a standing ovation from the Japanese athletes present. A few days later the Band played a stand-up concert on the deck of the Battleship Alabama, the ship that long-time Band member Joe Lauria served on during World War II fighting -- who else -- the Japanese.