By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Shinnston native Brandon Willard is all grown up now, but he has NOT outgrown his passion for the drums. His affection for percussion instruments started as a child who mowed lots of lawns to earn money to buy his first drum set! He still recalls being reprimanded for using his knife and fork to play rhythmic patterns at the dinner table, and throughout his school years, pencils became adequate drumsticks for a desktop cadence!
A Lincoln High School graduate in 1996, Brandon followed his passion in Morgantown, becoming a member of West Virginia University’s Drumline, which has played a great role in establishing the band’s recognition as the “PRIDE” of West Virginia. There, Brandon received his Bachelor’s degree in Music Education in 2001.
Following college, he taught in Clarksburg at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s for six months while also teaching the University’s Drumline before moving to Charleston where he taught music for five years at Logan High School. He has remained in Kanawha County, WV ever since, was an adjunct professor at the University of Charleston for seven years, teaching private lessons and undergraduate education courses while employed in the public school system at the same time. Brandon currently teaches music at John Adams Middle School.
During this time, Brandon was also part of an orchestra made up of musicians from his area as well as some from Kentucky and Ohio. They played for many weddings and corporate events.
And then … drum roll please … Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr., the smooth jazz crooner originally from Logan County, WV, won American’s Got Talent’s sixth season and suddenly became a ‘headliner’ in need of an orchestra.
“One of the guys in the band I was playing in knew Landau and was asked to help him put together a ‘big band’ to accompany him as he toured. Landau really wanted to showcase West Virginia musicians, and since we were the only active ‘big band’ that played a lot of music from the Great American Songbook era, we were ‘in’ – without even an audition, but we had to be available to travel and be there for his list of booking dates! Essentially, Landau got his group of WV musicians, and we got one heck of an opportunity! It was a dream come true for all of us.”
They started with 18 musicians – some public school teachers, some college professors, and some professional musicians, and although there have been a few changes through the years, most of that core group is still with Landau. They had a sound and production company that worked with them, and while their time on the road varied from year to year, it was often 50-60 shows. While most of the performances were on weekends, it often necessitated weekday travel. And being a teacher, it often presented some difficult juggling for Brandon. He is thankful, though, that his school administrators have been very supportive in allowing him to take personal days for travel or leave early once in a while. More recently, however, due to the pandemic and many rescheduled performance dates, travel has not presented a problem.
“Landau does a Christmas tour every year, which typically begins in the fall. It is pretty intense with up to 30 Christmas shows during the fall season,” Brandon added. “We’re not sure what this season may bring, but there is a livestreamed show being planned for some time in October.”
When asked what Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr. is really like, Brandon said he truly is just as genuine as he appears to be.
“Honestly, what you see is what you get with Landau. He is still very humbled by the support he has received, and he will NEVER shortchange a fan,” Brandon explained. “One thing that has always struck me from day one about him and it still holds true to this day … he will stay and sign autographs, pose for pictures and visit with people; as long as they are there, he stays – often much to the frustration of security people! This really endears him to his fans and helps explain the longevity of his musical career. He enjoys performing and loves to make people smile. He has never outgrown himself, is still very cognizant of where he came from, and remains proud of his WV roots.”
Brandon also noted that Landau has visited schools and talked with students and he has a great rapport with kids.
“He tells them the whole story – the good and the bad. He was raised by a single mom and didn’t have a lot. As a teen in Michigan, he had some serious lows, and he tells them all of these things. He really attended the ‘school of hard knocks’, but he came out of these situations on the right side, which says a lot about his character,” Brandon continued. “You know, the average life span of a performer like him who has won a show like AGT is about two years unless they really become a mainstream performer. But it has been nine years now since his win, and he is still loved. He developed a great management team and they found unique ways to keep him relevant. Audiences love his talent and I think they appreciate that he has remained an authentic, grateful human being who followed his passion and made it.”
Brandon says he has seen so many sights as a part of Landau’s Big Band – from up and down the East Coast, across the country to Hollywood and up and down the Pacific Coast as well. He has also used some of his experiences as a teaching tool. Brandon arranged a video call for some of his private music students and they were able to witness a sound check and see the production side of performing and how to work with people from a venue. It was a unique situation and a great opportunity for students who might be contemplating pursuing music professionally.
“I tell my students to take their skills and their love of whatever it is and make a career out of it. In music, it can be just as beneficial and enjoyable for others as it is for you,” he stated.
Asked what his favorite style of music is, Brandon said it depends upon his mood. Jazz drumming has always been a ‘strong like’, but he also likes country, bluegrass, pop music and some rock. But it is ‘performing’ music that he truly loves, making people feel like getting up and dancing!
“Music in general is so satisfying for me, and working with Landau has presented me with so many opportunities I might otherwise not have had,” he concluded. “There is sometimes a noticeable divide between performers and their band, but that is not the case with Landau’s Big Band. We are all good friends with a common interest – our love of music – and Landau considers himself our equal, not our superior. It is a wonderful relationship with a lot of kidding around and this shows up even in our performances on the stage. The pandemic has halted our shows and I think we all miss the camaraderie. We’re all ready to make music together again and perform in front of a live audience. We’re anxious for the beat to go on,” he concluded.
Brandon is the son of former East Shinnston residents Fred and Debi Willard. He and his wife Ann live in the Charleston area with their two sons, Austin and Lee.