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Richard Woodell. (Larry Penkav a photo)

He failed at sailing but he aced music

Richard and I weren’t familiar with Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy. Otherwise, we might have floated our boat.

Or, more specifically, our idea of a raft. We were only 10 or 12 years old, after all, and the physical laws of fluid displacement had yet to be covered in general science.

I met Richard Woodell in Miss Wood's first grade at Franklinville School and we soon learned that we lived close enough to walk to each other’s homes. It was during one of Richard’s visits that we came upon the idea of building a raft.

There were some boards in my family’s barn and we got a hammer and some nails to fashion what we thought would be a raft. As we prepared to tote our vessel to a small pool in the woods, I noted, “If this doesn’t work, we’re sunk.” Richard laughed at my pun.

Well, as it turned out, the water wasn’t deep enough to actually sink or swim. But our “raft” went swiftly to the bottom as soon as we placed our weight on it.

The 'Sensational Sabers' were photographed in this 1961 Christmas party at the GE Clubhouse in Asheboro. Pictured from left are Richard Woodell, Larry Bowman, Frank Vestal (partially hidden), Eddie Williams, Mackie Allred and Bobby 'Squirrel' York. (Contributed photo)

We learned from that experience what Archimedes could have told us: We needed some thick logs under the planks to displace our weight.

Richard was pretty artistic, though, and could draw war scenes during breaks in class that included tanks and artillery and infantrymen and, perhaps, an LST or two. I tried to copy his work but my tanks looked more like doll houses.

By the time we were barely teenagers, Richard’s artistic focus turned toward music. His uncle, Arnold Dixon, was a superb guitar player and he taught his nephew some of the basics. 

“He got me started, teaching me chords,” Richard told me recently. “Then I taught Mackie.”

Mackie Allred was a classmate of ours and he caught on pretty quickly. 

I remember Richard showing me some chords, like A and E and G7. But I didn’t have a guitar of my own and wasn’t able to practice. Besides, I was more of a sports guy.

Anyway, Richard talked about starting a band and he was going to call it The Sabers. He even drew up possible logos.

Mackie was the first to join Richard's band, playing bass and rhythm guitar. The Sabers had a definite Franklinville flavor as Richard brought in drummer Dickie Allred, who soon went to another band and was replaced by Bobby “Squirrel” York. 

ichard found a sax player from Asheboro in Eddie Williams and Frank Vestal, another Franklinville guy, was a keyboardist, later to be replaced by Ish Brady from Siler City.

“We hired Ted McMahon of Greensboro to play the Hammond organ,” Richard said. Toward the end, Joe Spencer of Asheboro, who went on to fly commercial jets, played drums for The Sabers.

Oh, and don’t forget the lead singer, Larry Bowman of Franklinville, a stout guy with a booming voice that gained him the nickname “Belmont.” He could belt them out with the best of them.

You’ve heard of the teenage garage bands from the 1960s. Well, The Sabers were a living-room band, practicing in the front room of the Woodells. I sat in on a couple of those jam sessions and found out there’s a lot of work involved in being a good band, with all the parts in harmony.

I must say, I had a bit to do with at least one of their songs. I took Richard a 45-rpm record of Johnny & the Hurricanes’ “Red River Rock.” But Richard liked the flipside better, a rousing instrumental called “Buckeye,” which he worked into his playlist.

The gospel group, Glory Road, included Mike Thompson, Jim Garner, Barry Scott and accompanist Richard Woodell. (Contributed photo)

It was around 1960 when Richard, who turned 14 in November of that year, got his band going. I remember The Sabers playing at Franklinville School and the principal, Mr. Holland, noting with admiration what you can do when you work hard at something.

Richard told me they played at other schools, entertaining at lots of proms. But they were soon playing public venues and company parties. The Sabers were featured at the GE clubhouse in 1961 for General Electric's Christmas party.

“The first place we played was Barney’s on South Fayetteville Street,” Richard said. “There were a lot of teens on Friday and Saturday nights.” 

They also had gigs at Tom-Tom Supper Club and the Castaways in Greensboro, Jokers 3 in Raleigh, The Hayloft in Durham and Barney’s Danceland in Southern Pines.

But much of their playing was for fraternities at Duke, UNC, NC State, East Carolina, Western Carolina and other colleges.
And, for those who remember, there was Perry’s Danceland, near the Guilford County line.

In fact, they played at venues up and down the East Coast.

Richard married Vickie Honeycutt in 1965, continued to play another three years for various bands and then “gave it up.” It was taking too much of his time, along with a full-time job and a growing family.

He and Vickie have two daughters, Donna Lidstone and Shannon Gladwell, four grandchildren and seven great-grandkids. One of them, Mikey Browey, plays drums in his school band.

In 2007, Richard said, he helped form a gospel group called Glory Road with Mike Thompson, Jim Garner and Barry Scott, accompanying them on the keyboard, but left the group in 2015 to play at Central Falls Baptist Church. He plays keyboard and guitar and also accompanies wife Vickie, who sings.

So, at 75, Richard may have slowed down, but his love for music is as strong as ever.