For nearly six decades, the University of Memphis has hosted the contest of the Mid-South’s top high school marching bands. For nearly six decades, the winner of that competition has laid claim to the most prestigious band championship in the region. Now, for the first time, the grand prize of that competition will have a name — the Joe Sills Cup.
The competition has been held in Whitehaven, at Crump Stadium, Halle Stadium and the Liberty Bowl. Though the venue has changed over the years, since 1963, the winner of what is now the Bandmasters Championship has earned the coveted title of “baddest marching band in the land.”
“We are thrilled about the opportunity to name our championship trophy after legendary band director Joe Sills,” said William Plenk, UofM associate director of bands with the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. “His legacy, and the naming of this award, will connect the history of the Bandmasters Championship to the present, helping us all gain a deeper understanding of the marching band tradition in the Mid-South. We are grateful to Joe for the positive impact he had on so many lives in our region; a legacy that will be with us long into the future.”
Sills competed in the contest, then known as the Mid-South Invitational, from 1964-95, taking home the championship trophy nine times. He achieved a three-peat in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s at the helm of three different programs: Bolivar Central High School, Murray High School and Ripley High School.
Sills died on Jan. 15 from complications related to COVID-19 at age 78.
His bands were known for innovative marching patterns and powerful musical productions that helped small, rural schools from the Mid-South compete on the national stage. Powered by precision footwork, his programs were twice invited to both the Orange Bowl in Miami and the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando and were also featured in the Lions Club Parade in New York City.
In 1977, Sills led the Tigers of Murray High School to a Bands of America Grand National Championship, a feat that earned him a permanent place in Mid-South music education history. However, it was in Memphis that his music career shined brightest.
In Memphis, Sills played his trumpet out of poverty and into history. In 1960, he was recruited from Haywood High School to Memphis State University by the school’s most revered director, Dr. Tom Ferguson. Sills was one of the first horns to play Ferguson’s new fight song, “Go Tigers Go,” and was a member of the Tiger pep band in 1963, when a trip to the NIT basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden earned them a new nickname, “The Mighty Sound of the South.”
As a student, Sills moonlighted at live shows with the Bar-Kays while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education. With Sills a director, no contest earned him more podium finishes than the Bandmasters Championship.
“Dad would be astonished to have his name permanently attached to the winner’s trophy,” says Sills’ namesake son, Joe L. Sills. “His band family was his first family, long before I was born. I can’t think of a better way to remember my father than to hear his name called at his favorite competition — one that his students worked so hard to master — every year.”
The 55th Bandmasters Championship will be held on Saturday, Oct. 30 from 3-9:30 p.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium and will feature 18 regional high school marching bands. This annual event is hosted by the University of Memphis Band Alumni Chapter. Tickets are available online at www.alumni.memphis.edu/bmpresale21 or at the gate.