In the late 1970s Jerry Pierce was a successful musician who’d come to the realization he wanted to move in a slightly different direction: He wanted to lead his own band and play all kinds of music.
More than 30 years later, Jerry Pierce and the Nightlife Band are still making music, booking plenty of shows and, most importantly, having a great time.
“My Fridays and Saturdays have been tied up for at least the last 35 years, but that’s kept me out of trouble, I guess,” Pierce said with a laugh.
The Elizabethton native, who is semi-retired from Pierce Remodeling, which his son Sean now oversees, is a talented singer and saxophone player. He leads a band that includes Libby Hatcher on keyboards, vocals and strings, Jim Black on drums and Tommy Dickens on bass. (Founding member Ronnie McKee on bass just retired from the group.) Pierce also performs as a duo with Hatcher, calling themselves Just the Two of Us.
They’re popular at weddings and private parties but also do plenty of public performances. One of their traditions is to play a New Year’s Eve gig, and they’ll do that again when they perform at The Doubletree Hotel to ring in 2012.
What are the keys to the band’s longevity?
“Versatility is one thing,” Pierce said. “We can play all kinds of music — 1950s rock, current rock, beach music, shag, country, big band, punk rock, jazz. We can do ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or ‘Yakety Sax’ or Jimmy Buffet or some cry-in-your-beer country stuff. We have three of us who can sing including a female voice and we have a lot of different music backgrounds, so we’re able to cover the song list pretty good. We’ve got some real strong musicians, they’re exceptionally good.
“And we really enjoy playing. We enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy playing for our friends.”
The band’s career was boosted by Pierce’s friendship with the late, great saxophonist Boots Randolph. The two met at a Randolph club show and hit it off, and eventually the Nightlife Band became frequent performers with Randolph over the course of about 12 years.
“He needed somebody to front the show and they knew me and put me in there, and he and I just struck up an instant friendship,” Pierce said. “He was already my idol, and then I got to talking to him and, shoot, he was just a regular person like me. He was so easy to get along with.
“We ended up taking some vacations together and we played a lot of shows. It was just great; we had so much fun.”
Pierce is also a talented songwriter. His favorites include “July 1959” and “Nobody Loves Here Anymore,” and he and Randolph co-wrote “The Shriner Song,” which was a hit for them.
Randolph died in 2007, shortly before he was scheduled to play a concert at East Tennessee State University along with Pierce and the Nightlife Band.
“After he passed away, we had to sort of come back down to earth,” Pierce said. “But we were very blessed, very fortunate to have played with him. It was just a dream come true, but it ended too soon.”
For several years before the Nightlife Band, Pierce played in a group called The Londonaires, who had an agreement to travel around playing weeklong and two-week gigs at Holiday Inns. For about eight years the group traveled extensively, getting paid to play while getting their room and meals covered. He loved it.
But Pierce remembers where his career was before he founded the Nightlife Band. He’d played in various bands, each specializing in a certain style of music, and he decided he wanted to have a regular band that could cover all those styles and more.
“I’d done a lot of different stuff but I looked at myself and realized I was just spinning my wheels. I really wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. He joined up with McKee and soon added Hatcher to the lineup, and they had regular gigs even though they hadn’t adopted the Nightlife Band name just yet. Now, with his band’s versatility, they can “sit on the fence and fall in any direction” when it comes to song choice and musical style.
“I tell people, ‘Come to one of our shows and listen to five songs and you’ll find something you like. Just give me five songs.’ And we’re one of the few groups that will take requests. It’s hard to call out a song we don’t know.”
Pierce’s saxophone influences start with Randolph, who did the classic “Yakety Sax” and played with Elvis Presley and dozens of other superstar performers, but Jerry also loves jazz greats Charlie Parker and Richie Cole, among many others. His own style fits with Randolph’s more than anyone, though.
“I’m a honker. I blow some jazz pretty good but I can really honk on the old ’50s stuff,” Pierce said.
As the Nightlife Band members hit 70 years old, they’re still going strong. Pierce’s career in bands has lasted for probably 45 years, he said, with no end in sight.
“It’s been really enjoyable. I haven’t made a million or had a No. 1 record but I’ve had a great time. I can’t remember any time I’ve hated this job.
“As long as we’re playing well and having fun, we’ll keep going.”
For more information, visit www.jerrypiercemusic.com.