210902ind Cranston

A life-sized statue of Bowen Church, a East Greenwich musician whose eccentric personality was the stuff of legend in the late 1800s, was erected in his honor at Roger Williams Park in Providence, the site of many of his famed summer concerts that would attract crowds from all over Rhode Island and beyond.

I lost a friend to COVID last week, no I take that back, Chuck Doris was more than a friend, he was family. So, who was Chuck Doris? Well, if you were around South County in the late 1970s through the 1980s and beyond and spent any time listening to live music in local establishments and eateries, you would have seen him. Chuck was one half of the music group Second Avenue, and from Alias Smith & Jones in East Greenwich to the Ground Round, Duffy’s, and the Oak Hill Tavern in North Kingstown, and to the numerous similar locations in Narragansett, Wakefield, and Kingston; Chuck and Glen, the boys in Second Avenue, were known and beloved. They knew every song the audience called out to them, had a quick come-back for every heckler, and were kind to a fault in dealing with all the restaurant and bar workers they encountered, including a certain Ground Round food and beverage manager who later got a crazy obsession with South County history. Chuck had two passions in his life, music and my wonderful sister, and the whole Cranston clan misses him already. In honor of Chuck let’s explore a great music-based tale with roots in all the places he used to play.

One hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for the name of East Greenwich’s own Bowen R. Church to be mentioned in the same sentence with John Phillip Sousa and David W. Reeves; two musicians still remembered with reverence by brass band enthusiasts and aficionados even today. Church was called many things back then. He was “a prodigy”, having first performed for the public at the age of nine years old. He was “the world’s greatest coronet soloist”; a title some feel he still deservedly holds now. He was “inspirational”; his main rival for that world’s greatest title, Herbert Lincoln Clarke, in his memoirs remembered that it was hearing Church play at an 1881 concert in Toronto that inspired him to put down his chosen instrument, the violin, and pick up the coronet. But then and again, Bowen Church was also remembered as being eccentric, quirky, and difficult; but all that was part of his magic, his aura, one of the reasons that young lads in Providence would resort to fisticuffs in order to get a front row seat at his famed summer concerts at Roger Williams Park during the Gay ‘90s. Bowen Reynolds Church of East Greenwich Rhode Island was an honest to goodness celebrity in his day.

Bowen Church, who was named after his maternal grandfather Bowen Reynolds of North Kingstown, was born in 1860 at the other end of the state, in a mill village called Valley Falls. Soon after his birth, his family moved to East Greenwich when his father Clarke Church got a job as road bed section master for the railroad in this vicinity. They lived on a farm near “Blind Betsey Briggs Corner”, the intersection of the South County Trail and old South Road near the North Kingstown/East Greenwich border. By an early age Bowen was exhibiting musical talents that were unparalleled in the region. By age nine he was performing publicly and a few years later, he was noticed by prominent musician, David Reeves, who was traveling on the train that young Bowen was working on. Bowen, who was walking up and down the rail car aisles offering a cool drink of water to parched travelers, saw Reeves’ coronet and boasted that he could play it as well as anyone. A curious Reeves offered his instrument to the bold lad and was amazed by what he heard. Before long, the child prodigy from E. Greenwich was being mentored by Reeves and was on the road with the Providence based American Brass Band (ABB) one of the most famous musical groups in the nation. There were a few other young members of the ABB who traveled with them as well, and Bowen, in his later years, remembered sharing sleeper car berths with these other boys and switching places every other night, as the boy on the outside often got little sleep “fearing that he would be tossed into the aisle from the top berth every time the train took a sharp curve”. Before long, Bowen Church was the principal soloist for the ABB and then its leader and conductor. Throughout all this period, he was in constant competition with his colleague Herbert Clarke, the boy he inspired to greatness, for top billing across the nation as the world’s greatest coronet player. The always flamboyant and popular Church rarely had to worry about taking second billing anywhere he played though. And it Was John Phillip Sousa himself who, after hearing a young Bowen Church play, proclaimed that he was the greatest coronet player he had ever heard.

Bowen Church left this world in March of 1923. He was described at his death as a “Rhode Island folk hero” and five years later, a life sized statue of Church, coronet in hand, was crafted in solid brass by Gorham Manufacturing and installed with much fanfare in Roger Williams Park, adjacent to where he and the American Brass Band used to play each summer. The American Brass Band, which was up until fairly recently under the direction of South County resident and URI Music Professor Gene Pollart, still exists to this day, the oldest continuously operating brass band in the nation, and the statue of Bowen Church still stands there proudly in Roger Williams Park. Sadly though, most folks look at it as a generic remembrance of those days gone by, when a good seat at a concert in the Park was worth fighting for; East Greenwich lad Bowen Reynolds Church deserves better.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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