Bob Lawton taught music and directed bands and orchestras for 34 years before he retired and he and his wife Jean moved to Chapel Hill. Some retirement. Before he knew what was happening, Bob had become the church’s director of instrumental music, creating, directing and presiding over several groups, handbell choirs, brass choir, string orchestra and 24-piece pit orchestras for the church’s biennial musicals, including The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof.
When he and Jean traveled with the multiracial gospel choir United Voices of Praise to Germany in 2003, they lodged in the home of another retired musician who offered Bob a stack of big band arrangements he no longer had use for. Bob bought a cheap suitcase and brought the charts back to Chapel Hill, where he created a 17-piece swing band. Who ever heard of a church with its own 17-piece swing band?
In the years since, The Ambassadors Big Band, now directed by Larry Triplett, have become a popular fixture in the area’s music scene, performing for weddings, parties, banquets, at country clubs and roadhouses, retirement communities and music festivals. Its favorite gig is a popular annual Valentines Dance at United Church of Chapel Hill, its home base.
This year, the Valentines Dance, now in its 14th year, takes place from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on this Saturday, Feb. 11, in the church’s large Fellowship Hall at 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Tickets cost $20 at the door or $15 if reserved in advance at unitedchurch.org or by phoning (919) 942-3540. The dance, which has become a popular annual event in the community, always features an array of chocolate treats to nibble while dancing and listening to the live music.
The Ambassadors favor traditional big band arrangements made popular in the 1940s and ’50s by the bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others of that era. The Ambassadors Big Band consists of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, piano, bass, guitar, drums and male and female vocalists.