Chuck Ray was the pivotal person in the formation of what has become known as the Peninsula Banjo Band. In the evenings, Chuck played his plectrum banjo at Shakey’s and Big Al’s pizza parlors and on weekends gave banjo lessons in the basement of the Cupertino Music Store on the Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road. Chuck’s students thought, in 1962, that practicing and playing together might be interesting and helpful. Chuck agreed and they began. Gradually they improved and before long were asked to entertain. They called themselves the “Cupertino Banjo Band” (Glenn Atkinson, Jerry Deerwester, Don Flora, Pearl Nicolino, Chuck Ray, Manuel Rodriques, Steve Sedlak, Sidney Steele, and Merle Wilhelm). Later, as the group increased in size, they temporarily called themselves the “Golden Gate Banjo Band” before voting in 1971 to be known as “The Peninsula Banjo Band”.
In 1965, the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Mt. View, Sakura Gardens, while visiting in Japan, discovered a young devotee of Harry Reser, a fellow who played the tenor banjo with extraordinary skill. He invited the youngster to come to Mt. View and to play regularly in his restaurant. Zenzo Tagawa rapidly became the Americanized “Charlie” Tagawa and was soon discovered, not only by numerous restaurant patrons but also by the banjo players in the area. Asked to join the Cupertino Banjo Band, he did so and soon became their leader. He has remained so for all but two of the subsequent 33 years. Charlie played regularly at Sakura Gardens and its successor restaurant, Imperial Gardens, for fifteen years. On many evenings, one or another of Charlie’s banjo or gut-bucket playing friends would drop in to listen or to jam with him.
In 1974, the group elected Charlie as President, preparatory to filing as a charitable, nonprofit California corporation. Succeeding Presidents have included Leo Campey, Glenn Atkinson, Cas Stockard, Bob Delaney, Chuck Daley, Terry Bull, John Goulais, Carl Adams, Paul Nearhood, Tom James, Gene Ripley, Helen Wick Martin, George Thum, Ray Ferrie, Flo Lewis, Floyd Oatman, Steve Adkins and, currently, Jim Strickland.
The first and early records of donations to charity by the band are obscure but the first clear recollection of stable and continued donations were those made to the Braille Fund. Two members of the band were blind (Emil Hakkila and George Chung). Charitable contributions then and since have always favored those organizations having some emotional connection to the group.
In about 1970, Keith Pinckney, the 10 year old son of Bob Pinckney and brother of 12 year old Doug Pinckney, all members of the band, developed leukemia. Keith died from his disease a year or two later. During that time he was treated regularly at the Stanford University Hospital by Dr. Richard Wilbur, a pediatric medical oncologist on the full-time faculty. In sympathy with this situation, the band’s donations were directed for the next twenty years to the Stanford University Hospital and to Dr. Wilbur’s research efforts. During that interval, the Hospice of the Valley (Santa Clara) was added to the band’s recipients on the recommendation of Dell Coy. Donations to this organization often included playouts at their fund raising dinners.
Since 1994, the band has transferred its donations to other organizations in recognition of the attention and assistance given to ill or dying members of the band (e.g. the Diabetic Society of Santa Clara, O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, El Camino Hospital in Mt. View, Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, the American Diabetic Society, the San Jose Visiting Nurse’s Association and, more recently, the Ronald MacDonald House in Palo Alto. Contributions to these various organizations over the years now total approximately $170,000.
Recently, focus has also been placed on preserving the banjo and encouraging the development of new banjo players through scholarship training programs. Scholarships have been established for banjo lessons and a scholarship for tub-bass training has also been established.
This, in principle, is reminiscent of the development of the Banjo Youth Band by Charlie and Don Obertone in the early 1960s. The band was composed of their students (ages 6 to 16) and included banjos, guitars, a piano and both standup bass and gut-buckets. Don moved away within a year or two but Charlie went on to lead and teach the group through the early 1980’s. The highlight for this group was their two-week-long trip to Japan in 1974 during which they called themselves the “Banjo Ambassadors”. They traveled from Tokyo in the north to Nagasaki in the south playing at several points along the way plus on TV and in the first Tokyo Banjo Jubilee.