CONCORD -- Call it ragtime, Dixieland jazz or riverboat music, members of the East Bay Banjo Club call it "happy" music and have been playing it for 50 years.
Every Tuesday night, banjo amateurs and professionals gather at Bambino's Pizza in Concord to hone their skills to perform at all sorts of venues.
For weeks the band has been practicing tunes from The Beatles to play at the Sacramento Banjo Band's annual Banjo-Rama from April 11—14, at The Clarion Inn at Arden Village in Sacramento.
"We are very excited about it," said the band's music director Bill Cooper, 62, of Martinez, in an interview just days before his sudden death Thursday, April 4.
"His death was a great shock to all of us," said club president Sheila Welt of Concord.
She said Cooper's wife, Sue Horn, plays the flute for another band and is organizing a memorial.
Welt said although Cooper's passing hits at the heart of the 40-member club, they will still put on a show at the Sacramento Banjo-Rama.
"We know Bill would have wanted us to continue," said Welt. "The whole show will be dedicated to Bill because he is the one who wanted to do The Beatles."
Last week, Cooper, who had been with the club since its beginning, said, "Many of (The Beatles') songs translate very well to the banjo. John Lennon's first instrument was the banjo."
The program includes "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," sung by the club's youngest member Danielle Torres, 9, who will put down her banjo and belt it out.
"I do really like playing the banjo," Danielle said. "But I love singing."
The annual banjo festival features 400 to 500 banjo players, including world-class stars and bands from the greater Bay Area.
The East Bay Banjo Club attends the Sacramento event every year and is scheduled to play around 11:30 a.m. Sunday, April 14.
Professional musician and club member Jack Convery is stepping in to direct the show, said Welt.
"We will be playing "happy" music," she said, but added, "It's been an extremely tough day having our first (formal rehearsal) without Bill."
Betty David has been named the interim music director and will lead the band through its upcoming music events.
Unlike most banjo clubs in the area with strict prerequisites for membership, the East Bay Banjo Club has only one requirement to join -- a desire to play the banjo and have fun.
"Anyone who plays or wants to play is welcome," said founding member Larry Risner of Concord. "At one time we had over 300 members."
That was at the height of the instrument's popular mid-20th century revival when banjo bands were a mainstay at many Shakey's and Straw Hat pizza parlors.
"I knew three chords when I walked in with my five-string," recalled Welt.
Her friend, Ardie Jarrett of Walnut Creek, has a banjo ukulele. When visiting her mother's Montana home in the summer, Jarrett discovered the instrument in the attic. Her mother never played it and gave it to Jarrett.
"It was in very bad condition," recalled Jarrett. "The head was broken and most of the strings were missing. I brought it back to California and had the head and the strings replaced.
"For a long time, this little old banjo ukulele hung on the garage wall with lots of pictures and memorabilia," said Jarrett.
Welt had joined the banjo club and Jarrett said, "Sheila was really having lots of fun, and when I found out that all I needed to join was a four-string banjo, I took it off the wall and joined."
Walnut Creek resident Harry Higgins was the bandleader of the renowned Red Garters' of San Francisco and also a member of the Oklahoma Banjo Hall of Fame.
"I was lucky enough to play five nights a week for 17 years," Higgins said. "Turned out to be the longest-running bandleader sitting on one chair in one room."
Higgins learned about the East Bay Banjo Club from a fellow player.
"I just wanted to have somewhere to play that was and still is just fun," said Higgins, who can also be heard from 8 to 9 a.m. daily at Peet's Coffee in Walnut Creek.
Higgins granddaughter, Danielle, fell in love with the banjo and followed her grandfather onto a club stool.
"One day I asked my grandpa if I could learn how to play the banjo," said the Concord resident. "In 15 minutes, I knew how to play 'You Are My Sunshine.'"
The club makes it easy for anyone interested in playing, including having banjos for sale and a buyback program. They also have a list of instructors they can recommend.
Those who don't play, but like listening and wish to support the club, are welcome to attend any Tuesday night session at Bambino's Pizza, 1895 Farm Bureau Road, Concord.
"We welcome all comers," said Cooper, in his final interview.
To become a member, attend a performance or to book the band, contact club president Sheila Welt at President@eastbaybanjo.org,
MEMORIAL FOR MUSIC DIRECTOR
A memorial for the East Bay Banjo Club's music director Bill Cooper will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at Bambino's Pizza, 1895 Farm Bureau Road, Concord.