They’ve duked it out in Whitehaven, at Crump Stadium, at Halle Stadium and at the Liberty Bowl. Though the venue has changed over the years, since 1963 the winner of what is now the Bandmaster’s Championship has earned the coveted title of “baddest marching band in the land.”
For nearly six decades, the University of Memphis has hosted the contest of the Mid-South’s top high school marching bands. And 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 Championship Trophy.
“We are thrilled about the opportunity to name our championship trophy after legendary band director Joe Sills,” said William Plenk, 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 to 1995, taking home the championship trophy nine times. He achieved a three-peat in the 60s, 70s and 80s at the helm of three different programs: Bolivar Central High School, Murray High School and Ripley High School.
Sills died on January 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 Miami Orange Bowl and the Florida Citrus Bowl, 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. But 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 bachelors and masters degrees in music education. As 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.”