January 27, 2016

Star of Halftime Show 1

In 1967, the Fine Arts Center’s Willie Hill caught the eye of 40 million Americans

At 9 p.m. EST on Friday, February 5, two days before the Super Bowl, CBS television will broadcast a special looking back at the first 50 years of halftime shows. It will trace the phenomenal growth of these spectacles over time, and reveal that long before they came to be built around superstars on the order of Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Paul McCartney, and U2, they were surprisingly down-home.

In fact, it might be argued that the star of the very first halftime show was Willie L. Hill Jr., now a professor of music at UMass Amherst and director of the university’s Fine Arts Center. Back in 1967, Hill was the head drum major for the widely heralded marching band at historically black Grambling College (now Grambling State University).    

It was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement: there were racial riots in cities from Detroit to Los Angeles, the racially charged In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court justice. In an attempt to have the halftime entertainment promote racial harmony, the marching bands of Grambling and the predominantly white University of Arizona were invited to perform together on the field.

That collaboration, in front of 60,000 spectators inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the 40 million Americans watching at home on television, was monumental. The bands marched together and ended by forming an outline of the continental United States—a symbolic blending of black and white considerably tidier than the situation outside the field. Proudly leading the combined ensemble was Willie Hill.

“We had collaborated with other black bands all the time,” Hill recalls, “but here’s an all-white band from Arizona—it was a different twist to what we were accustomed to. We had to make sure we were hot stuff.” They did, and in 2008 Hill, who has had a long and distinguished career in music education, was inducted into Grambling State University’s Hall of Fame.

The CBS special will include Hill along with two Arizona marching band members who participated in the halftime show. It will also feature behind-the-scenes looks at other performers and performances and give a glimpse of what it takes to produce the show today.