It was a eureka moment, an epiphany that altered the course of his life.
Fred Chiles yearned to make music -- dance music, marching music, show music. Why, he could even teach music. Yes!
No, his father said. “You will be a doctor.”
So he enrolled in pre-med. He was working on a summer research project, operating on a dog, cutting and stitching and clamping off vessels.
A song on the radio changed everything -- Ray Charles belting out “What’d I Say.” It hit him then, like a lightning bolt. He put down the scalpel, peeled off his surgical gloves. “I don’t want to do this,” he declared.
And he didn’t.
At 76, he looks back on a long and fulfilling career in music that covered everything from teaching to clowning. He played in bands, including his Fred Chiles Trio. He plays now with a six-person group called Friends. He was choir director and assistant band director at DuPont High School and band director at Riverside High. He operated a music store in his native Montgomery. And, for three years, he performed in circuses as Fredo the Clown.
Busy as ever in retirement, he substitute teaches, gives private lessons, performs with his band and serves as minister of music at the Episcopal church.
He’s a robust, joyful man filled with gratitude for the gumption it took to pursue his dream and thankful for the adventures granted to him through his unquenchable passion for music.
Thank you, Ray Charles.
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“I grew up in Montgomery where the Tech library is now. I had a great life growing up there. This was before integration, but we had a very eclectic neighborhood, Italians and Swedish people and so forth, and we all got along wonderfully.
“My dad was a college graduate in architecture and mathematics. When he graduated in 1936, he couldn’t get a job because they didn’t hire black people as architects.
“So he was also in math and started teaching at Washington High at London. He didn’t like teaching. Six months was it, although he came from a family of educators. My dad’s mother was a slave owner’s daughter from Virginia and he sent her to college, and she got a degree in special education. She moved here when she married my grandfather, Sam Chiles, in Montgomery.
“My dad started driving a school bus. Then he heard the post office was hiring blacks, so he got a job there and remained a postman for 41 years. My mom went to Madame Walker’s Beauty School in New York and came back to Montgomery to live with her sister. She married Cad in 1939.
“Dad wanted me to be a doctor. I wasn’t interested in music at first. When I was 5 and a half, Dad rolled this piano into our house. He said, ‘You are going to learn to play the piano.’
“Mom and Dad played Chopin and Duke Ellington and Count Basie. So growing up, I heard all this music growing up on an old Victrola.
“I was 6 when I started taking piano lessons from my aunt. She would come to our house. I didn’t want to take lessons. I would run up to the Tech football field and stay until I thought she was gone.
“My aunt suggested I take lessons from another teacher, Wysor Lee. She was a big influence on me. The light bulb came on when she put me on marches, band music. It was fun.
“I started getting pretty good. I went to Simmons High School, a black school. I made the high school marching band in seventh grade. I started on sax. James Warren, my band instructor, was on the road with Count Basie. He played the piano and that was inspiring. He could really knock stuff out.
“When we integrated in ’56, I went to Montgomery High School where James Higgins, the band instructor, started teaching me piano. I learned a lot.
“In high school, we decided to form a little garage band, the Contours. The first dance we played for was at the Pioneer Club, and we thought we were really going to be making a lot of money. Not many people came to see us. We ended up making a quarter apiece. I wish I still had that quarter.
“After high school, we knew we were going to college, not negotiable. I went to West Virginia State. We formed another group there. I was in pre-med. Dad said I was going to be a doctor and make a lot of money.
“My cousin got me a job in gastrointestinal research in Chicago for the summer. I was operating on a dog one day, and Ray Charles came on the radio with ‘What’d I Say.’ I thought, ‘I do not want to do this anymore. I wanted to be a music person.’ When I told my dad, he said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’
“I wouldn’t go back to school. I had a big job with Wurlitzer Music doing demos on their organs. I became the assistant sales manager for the downtown Wabash store. I started doing more concerts. I was making a sizable amount of money. Dad wanted me to come home. I told him I was making more than he would ever make at the post office and I was staying.
“Not long after that, I lost my job because I went out and bought a Cadillac convertible. I noticed in sales meetings things were starting to get cold as ice. My co-workers were jealous.
“My money was running low. There were days when my food was a cup of coffee and a Reese’s cup. My aunt came at Christmas and asked me to come home with her and go back to school. She asked me to drive her home.
“I brought her back to Montgomery. It was the prodigal son returning. I can still see Mom and Dad standing there with arms outstretched and, ‘Welcome home son!’
“I went back to school as a music major in music education. I went on the road with a band, came back to school, went on the road again. That kept happening. I got married to Elaine. We lived at Dunbar. She got a job at Tech teaching.
“I went back on the road with the Fred Chiles Trio. I have a picture of the marquee at the Holiday Inn on the boulevard with our name on it. We were doing real well. Charleston was booming club-wise.
“Some people heard us from Cleveland and said they would talk to an agent in Cleveland about us. This agency booked all of these big stars. We became part of that entourage.
“Then our group broke up. Our singer was talking to our agent about going out on his own. I packed up and brought all my equipment back to Montgomery.
“I started managing a liquor store. Then I decided I needed to finish my degree, so I went back to school to finish my degree and made straight A’s.
“I wanted to have my own business, so my brothers and I opened this business called the Music Shoppe, a really fine music store. We sold pianos and organs and band instruments, the whole bit.
“The circus was in Charleston. Coco the Clown called me. I’d played for the Hetzer’s circus in Huntington. Coco was there and heard me and asked if I’d like to become a clown. I told my wife I would be making a lot of money. People don’t realize how much money circus people make.
“I went up to Grand Rapids where Coco was performing. He was wealthy. The family had these big motor homes, so I lived with them. They taught me how to do clown stuff. I became Fredo the Clown.
“They had a clown band and I could play music and do acrobatics and I was a natural comedian.
“Coco performed with Ringling and they did auxiliary stuff. I worked with that part. I was with the Wallendas and the Smahas who had Lipizzan stallions.
“The circus has many different components. This is the last year for it. If someone needed a circus in Detroit, they would call the Smahas and Coco and different components and have this circus.
“Clowning was a good release and it was good money. I did that off and on for three years.
“We had the second child so I came off the road. Meanwhile, my parents were running the store. Coco was in Charleston with another circus and called and asked what I was doing. It was time for my music recital. We had about 75 kids. I asked if they would come up to Montgomery and do a show.
“The whole family brought the motor home up in front of the women’s club in Montgomery and did the stilt walking and all that. It was fantastic.
“The miners went on strike in the late 80s and Montgomery was a big mining town, so we shut the store down. I had started at Roosevelt Junior High as a choir director.
“I worked there and at Charleston High. I also worked with at-risk kids for the Job Training Placement Association. Cedar Grove had a problem and they shipped me up there.
“After two years at Cedar Grove, I went to DuPont and became choir director and assistant band director. I did that for 11 years.
“Randy Moss was my student. He was smart and interested in music. His sister was in our show choir. He took music appreciation. I only gave essay questions and he always aced them.
“They were shutting down DuPont when Riverside High School was built. I interviewed for band director and got the job.
“I was at Riverside 13 years. I retired in 2012. We formed another group called Friends, a six piece group. I couldn’t take sitting around the house. I started substitute teaching. I get five or six calls every day. Once you are in education, it’s hard to get away from it for a lot of us who really like teaching. I missed the kids.
“I’m minister of music at St. Christopher Episcopal Church. I have a meeting today with the minister and choir tonight. Every day is an adventure. I still teach private students, too. I don’t just sit in the house.
“I feel my life has been one of total fulfillment. I am still fulfilling things I want to do.
“I feel I have really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. Students especially. I still get calls from students who graduated 20 years ago saying thanks.
“My dad said I truly fulfilled my dream, what I was meant to do.”
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-342-5027.