Local Obituaries

Big-band leader Fred Morgan made music, mended instruments

Fred Morgan, standing, leads his Fred Morgan Big Band.
Fred Morgan, standing, leads his Fred Morgan Big Band. Photo courtesy Lou Coppola

Fred Morgan, a saxophonist and big-band leader, entertained Sacramento-area audiences for decades while tending to musicians’ most fundamental needs at his musical instrument repair shop in Rocklin.

A mentor to generations of musicians and aspiring repairmen, Mr. Morgan died Feb. 6 at age 89.

Lisa Morgan said her father died two days after suffering a heart attack and fall. Although he stopped playing professionally last year, he continued to work in his shop, Fred’s Musical Repair, on Rocklin Road, until the day he was stricken, she said.

Alfred John Morgan Jr. was born Aug. 31, 1925, in Glendale in Southern California, and grew up on his grandparents’ ranch in the El Dorado County community of Cool. He started out playing an old metal clarinet, his daughter said, but his grandmother soon realized the instrument didn’t suit him. She sold her piano to buy her grandson a saxophone.

“He just loved the voice and tone of the saxophone,” Lisa Morgan said.

Mr. Morgan graduated from Placer High School in Auburn, then joined the Army. He served with the 44th Infantry Division, landing in France shortly after D-Day.

Returning home, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at Conn Vocational School of Instrument Repair in Elkhart, Ind., becoming a certified instrument repairman.

Several major instrument manufacturers had factories in Elkhart, and many of the craftsmen who built the instruments served as instructors, said Lou Coppola, executive director of the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society and one of Mr. Morgan’s music colleagues. The students had to learn to play all the instruments so they could test their repair work.

In 1951, Mr. Morgan married Gay Stuckert, whom he had met when she was playing in the band at Roseville High School. Lisa Morgan said her mother earned her teaching credential but also was the bookkeeper for her husband’s business.

For a while in the 1960s, Mr. Morgan was employed at McClellan Air Force Base, working a swing shift so he could keep up with instrument repairs in his garage workshop and play gigs nights and weekends.

In the 1970s, he opened a shop in a strip mall on Rocklin Road. Lisa Morgan described it as “a little clapboard shop, filled with dusty horns.” Her father adorned the walls with posters and photos of musicians. He and his father built the three repair benches. Tools hung on peg boards, and in the middle of the shop was a vise to hold big brass instruments undergoing repair.

Over the years, Mr. Morgan mentored many apprentices, including Tom Hannickel, now a repairman at Kline Music in Sacramento.

“I doubt that I would be a repairman without apprenticing with Fred,” Hannickel said. “I learned basic things like how to disassemble a saxophone and put it back together. It gave me a leg up,” he said, when he went to instrument repair school.

Hannickel said there are only about a half-dozen instrument repairmen in the Sacramento region and most are affiliated with music stores. Mr. Morgan was unusual in that he didn’t sell instruments but dealt strictly in repairs.

Hannickel said he also learned to play the string bass in Mr. Morgan’s band, the Fred Morgan Big Band.

“He was one of the most respected guys in Northern California,” Coppola said, noting that Mr. Morgan was sought out by musicians with instruments needing repair.

Lisa Morgan said summer was the busiest time in the shop, when band instructors brought in school-owned instruments.

Mr. Morgan also kept busy making music with his band, as well as trios and combos. They played at bars, parties and for family events such as weddings and anniversaries.

The 15-member Fred Morgan Big Band was among those that played for dances sponsored by the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society. Coppola said Mr. Morgan’s band played the traditional swing, fox trot and waltz, but also Latin dances, which the big bands of the 1930s and ’40s didn’t play.

One of the most memorable performances, he said, was a New Year’s Eve party at the Holiday Inn in downtown Sacramento ushering in the year 2000. The event drew people from as far away as Shasta, Modesto and Reno.

Lisa Morgan said her father last performed with his band at an outdoor music series in Placer County last summer. “After that,” she said, “he kind of stopped playing professionally.”

Members of Mr. Morgan’s band plan to continue their founder’s legacy. Grant Parker, chairman of the music department at Cosumnes River College and a 30-year member of the band, said Mr. Morgan passed along to him much of his music collection.

“He had one of the deepest books of music from the ’30s through the ’50s,” Parker said, adding that the group will continue to perform as the Fred Morgan Big Band.

Parker was a 24-year-old music teacher at Folsom High School when he joined Mr. Morgan’s band, and he said many members have played with the group for 15 to 20 years.

When it came to his repair business, Mr. Morgan was very generous, Parker said. “He made money doing it, but he didn’t make a lot of money doing it,” he said.

Mr. Morgan often allowed customers to pay over time as they were able and would drop whatever he was doing to handle an emergency repair so a musician could make a performance, Parker said.

In addition to his wife, Gay, of Rocklin, and daughter Lisa of Roseville, Mr. Morgan leaves a son, Stuart, of San Diego.

In keeping with Mr. Morgan’s wishes, his daughter said, no funeral is planned. “Dad hated funerals.” she said. “You could hardly get him to go to one.”

Instead, the family is working with Parker on a tribute performance by Mr. Morgan’s band to be held sometime in the spring. People wishing to be notified of the event can send an email request to fredmorganbigband@gmail.com.

Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.