Memorial Concert to Celebrate Life, Music of John Skinner

Carmichael, CA  |  By Susan Maxwell Skinner
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Man with a horn. John Skinner provided music for thousands of Sacramento area celebrations. Skinner family photo.

Carmichael, CA (MPG) - Musicians who worked for bandleader John Skinner will offer a memorial celebration of his life on Sunday, September 17 at Carmichael’s La Sierra Community Center. The tribute reflects Skinner’s life-long philosophy. “Happy crowds remind me why I started playing in the first place,” said the music man. He died recently at the age of 71.

During the most recent Skinner concert, fans witnessed a final performance from the group’s famous leader. From his seat in the audience, his solo from Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful Word” rang clear and vibrant. Aware of Skinner’s health challenges, teary-eyed fans stood and applauded. His last solo was also a last post.

Self-dubbed “Johnny Trumpet” grew up in Orland CA. His pianist mom provided a trumpet and a teacher for her musical son. When Mexican trumpeter Raphael Mendez visited town, the 10 -year-old cajoled a lesson from his idol. “Mendez lit a fire under me,” he explained. “From that day, I spent every spare minute practicing.”

He turned pro at 16. Recruiting school friends, Skinner formed a big band while still an Orland High School junior. “We called ourselves the Crescents,” he recalled. “A resort hotel gave us a gig. We finished newspaper runs, grabbed white jackets and were paid for music. We all got our first union cards.”

In summers, Eagle Scout Skinner trekked to Cazadero Music Camp in Sonoma’s redwood glades. A Utah music professor discovered the lanky prodigy and Skinner advanced his pro-career at USU Logan. “I taught 30 students a week,” he said. “I led the school’s jazz and pep bands. I also played for a theater orchestra in Salt Lake City.  I still managed to graduate.” The 6 ft. 4 ins Big Man on Campus also managed to fall in love. He and fellow USU student Susan Stoddard married with the ink still wet on their Bachelor degrees.

The Vietnam War draft was looming and Skinner volunteered for Air Force service. Deploying from Travis (CA), Captain Skinner flew the C-141 Starlifter for more than 5000 warzone hours in four years. When peace came, he piloted the massive C-5 Galaxy all over the world as a reservist. Moving his wife and daughter Kathryn to Sacramento, he began his namesake big band. Skinner also started a long haul with the Flying Tiger freight airline. “I scheduled my trips around music gigs,” he admitted. “My band worked every weekend. One December, we had 15 big-band jobs.”

Skinner music found favor with Governor Peter Wilson, who hired the band for many gubernatorial events. For seven summer seasons, Skinner performances lured thousands to Town and Country Village Friday dances. “We were paid well,” recalls longtime drummer Dan Kassis. “John never missed a detail, never got a location wrong. He was endlessly loyal to his musicians and gracious to our families.”

The leader wed a second Susan Skinner in 1986 and continued his international career juggle. He played gigs in Japan, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and Hong Kong – and in many US states. He contracted musicians for circuses, ice shows and for stars like Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole and Luciano Pavarotti. After a 2015 Don Rickles show, Skinner was summoned to the star’s dressing room. The bandleader was relieved to learn “Mr. Warmth” merely wanted a picture with “that big trumpet guy, Skinner.”

The big guy practiced his horn every day. He graced any number of volunteer ensembles and was a stalwart of the Capitol Pops Concert band. But the dynamo slowed down eventually. Taxed by mobility issues, Skinner hired fellow trumpeter Rick Baker to front Skinner band performances. The boss still contracted, hired and cracked a whip from the sidelines. At his last Carmichael Park appearance, he was greeted by scores of fans. “My favorite gigs are park concerts,” he told them. “It’s great to see people dancing from our first song to our encore.”

Front man Rick Baker recalls the concert. “I’m happy we all got to hear John play one more time,” he reflects. “He was like a big brother to me. Talking to him nearly every day was a centering part of my life.”

Skinner championed music education. He regularly drove for many hours to applaud young musicians on his beloved Cazadero Music Camp stage. When boxes rattled, he opened his wallet for countless performing art causes. Fair Oaks and Carmichael Park concert seasons benefited from his sponsorship. He gave dozens of musicians their first professional break; ongoing gigs helped support families for decades.

The benefactor loaned money to musicians down on their luck. He also stacked performers’ tip jars.  “Music’s been good to me,” declared my husband, Johnny Trumpet. “Anything to keep the music playing.”

The La Sierra Center concert venue is at 5325 Engle Rd, Carmichael. Anyone may attend the September 17 memorial. Light refreshments will be served. Downbeat is 2 pm. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Cazadero Music Camp: PO Box 7908 Berkeley, CA 94707.