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Profiles In Badassery: Paul Spotts Emrick

The modern college marching band has its very roots at Purdue with a long-time director.

Pat Lovell-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

It's back! It has been far too long since I did a proper Profile In Badassery on a Purdue alum, but Michael, our resident women's basketball writer, suggested a good one for this week in advance of Homecoming. Part of the joy of Homecoming, and college football in general, is the marching band. John Wadas and Michael Harvath here are AAMB alums along with multiple readers. It is safe to say that without Paul Spotts Emrick the Purdue All-American Marching Band would not be the institution it is today.


Emrick was born in Rochester, Indiana March 30, 1884. This was approximately three years before the first ever Purdue football game, but his contributions to football weekends would come shortly after the debut of the program itself.

Emrick comes from a highly musical background. His father was the director of the Citizens band in Rochester and his uncle also organized a local Rochster band. His uncle's band became the 187th Regimental Band in the Civil War and eventually played for President Lincoln as he reviewed Union troops near the end of the war.

In 1904 Emrick graduated from Rochester High School and decided to attend Purdue to study electrical engineering. In high school he directed musical groups that played for dances and dramatic performances, something that would play a critical role in his time at Purdue.

Time At Purdue:

The first Purdue band was formed in the 1880's at Purdue even before the football program and soon became entwined with game days. Many students were either self-taught or learned from local tutors, so it was primarily a student-run organization. By 1902 the band had nearly 50 members and was starting to sustain itself through various concerts.

In 1904 Emrick came to Purdue as a freshman and immediately hjoined up with the band. He quickly became one of its first leaders. He could play clarinet, violen, cornet, and several other instruments. The following year he was elected as President of the band, a role he would serve in until 1954.

In that role, he made college marching band history. Before 1907 bands simply stayed in ranks and performed. In the fall of 1907 Emrick shook things up and started the trend of modern college marching bans by having the group break formation and form a letter on the football field. The Block P was born:

It is easy to take marching bands for granted now. These groups learn a show in the span of a week, while summer drum and bugle corps perform dozens of shows each summer for thousands of spectators. All of that came from Emrick forming the Block P, which is now a proud 105 year old tradition.

As Purdue's band page notes, the Block P was not the only first:

  • First band to carry all the colors of the Big 10 schools
  • First band to play the opposing school's fight song.
  • First band to think enormous when it came to drums, creating what's still considered to be the "World's Largest Bass Drum."
  • First band to perform at the Indianapolis 500, a tradition that continues today.
  • First band to stage a night half-time show on a completely darkened field by lighting its members and instruments with tiny, battery-operated strings of lights.
  • First band to create nation-wide recognition for its featured twirler - the Golden Girl.
  • First college band to play at Radio City Music Hall.
  • First band to have an alumni on the moon - Neil Armstrong in 1969.
  • First college marching band to appear in Singapore Chingay Procession.
  • First college band invited by China to perform in 2008.
  • First Big Ten Band to perform in the Macy's Day Parade in 2010

After graduation:

Emrick would receive his degree in 1908, but would never go far from Purdue. He immediately took up a faculty position teaching electrical engineering and would do so until 1946. He also stayed in charge of the band until 1954, pulling double duty. During his tenure the band would welcome home soldiers from World War I in 1919, give the first all-illuminated night performance in 1935 at Northwestern, and start performing at the Indianapolis 500.

Emrick did such a good job that John Phillip Sousa himself brought the Sousa band to Purdue to perform one of Emrick's compositions. He also presented Emrick a cup in 1925 designating Purdue as the best college band in the country.

Emrick would later design the famous Big Bass Drum in 1937 in addition to serving briefly with the military in World War I.

By the time he retired in 1954 over 6,000 students had participated in the band and he had laid the groundwork for Purdue becoming one of the finest Marching bands in the country, all without an official School of Music. That is possibly one of his greatest achievements. Most schools have a School of Music where band members study for specific music degrees, but at Purdue, every single band member majors academically in something else.

Emrick would live for another 11 years after retirement, passing away from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 28, 1965. His legacy is on the field of hundreds of college campuses every fall when the Marching Band comes out to play. Each band has its own traditions, but the very idea of formations on the field proudly came from a badass Boilermaker.