From Dogwood Festival participant to president to grand marshal

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Chris Keaton says two of the most humbling experiences of his life, which he “never saw coming,” were being inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2016 and  being invited to serve as the grand marshal of the Vinton Dogwood Festival Parade on April 29.

The Hall of Fame recognition came about because he was a member of the Band of Oz, who will be performing a reunion concert at this year’s Dogwood Festival on April 30, celebrating their 50th anniversary in music. Keaton will be sitting in for a set.

Keaton grew up in Vinton, the son of Vinton’s first optometrist, Dr. Herbert Keaton. He said his father witnessed his birth in 1955 birth and then rushed to Vinton for the grand opening of his office on Pollard Street. His mother is remembered for her 50-plus years as a church organist– some at Thrasher Memorial.

Keaton said music has always been an important part of his life from piano and voice lessons to band in elementary school and at William Byrd High School. He attended what was then East Vinton Elementary (now Herman L. Horn) and was in the first class to attend the new William Byrd High School in the Class of 1973.

He credits his parents and piano teacher Elma Swain, among others, for encouraging and supporting him, leading to his career in music and the music business. He has become an award-winning music producer and publisher, in addition to being a performer.

His father was friends with WBHS band director Jimmy Sims, who inspired him with stories told at the counter at Cundiff’s Drug Store down the street from his dad’s office, about the days Sims played with the Big Bands of the era and made him “want to be part of the music business.”

His learned to play saxophone from his own band director at William Byrd, Steve King, who was a “big influence” on him.

He recalls Bootie Chewning gave him the chance to perform at the Dogwood Festival back in the days when the program included events on the front lawn of the War Memorial.

“We were a band of 12-year-olds playing in front of the biggest crowd we had ever seen,” says Keaton. “It was the coolest thing ever. We thought we were playing at Woodstock.”

He also had the chance to perform in the Vinton Lions Club Minstrel shows of the day. He says he was “always in bands” throughout his youth. In addition to his music, Keaton also served as the editor of the high school newspaper, the “Byrd Echo.”

He nostalgically recalls time spent at Dogwood parades in his youth.

Keaton’s wife is also a “Vinton girl,” Gina Humphries Keaton. He said they have known each other practically their whole lives. In fact, she marched in the Dogwood Parades as a Girl Scout Brownie. He marched as a member of the “Tootin’ Terriers.” They have one daughter, 17-year-old Maddi, who Keaton says is very talented and interested in musical theatre. (In 2008, his daughter was able to march in the Dogwood Parade when the Tootin’ Terriers held a reunion.)

After high school Keaton attended Virginia Commonwealth University where he studied applied music. He went on to play with regional bands in Virginia and North Carolina, and toured as a performer with  the legendary Gary U.S. Bonds, as well as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He played with High and Mighty from 1976-78, touring the U.S. and overseas, and then the Kings.

The original Band of Oz (Johnnie Byrd, Buddy Johnson, and Keith Houston) formed in the 1960s, playing beach music in eastern North Carolina with mainly guitar and keyboard.

Keaton joined them in 1984, doing vocals and playing saxophone until 1988. During his time with the band, he convinced them to finally record “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which he says was only right given their Band of Oz name.

He adapted the music to “accommodate and feature the voice of Big John Thompson,” which is what he said led them to include him in the 2016 induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of  Fame. It was one of the tunes they performed at the induction ceremony.

Other inductees in 2016 included the Avett Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Kellie Pickler. Musicians honored in prior years include Andy Griffith, James Taylor, Charlie Daniels, and Roberta Flack.

The Band of Oz is best known for their songs “Southern Belles,” “Ocean Boulevard,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “Shaggin’.”

Keaton said that of all the bands he played with, he stays in touch with members of two: High and Mighty and the Band of Oz, who both had a  tremendous influence on him and his career.

After the Band of Oz, he returned to the Roanoke area and went into business with Tony Holcomb creating music for TV and radio commercials. That led to them eventually moving the business to Nashville in 1993.

“People in Vinton have had a lasting influence on my life,” Keaton said. “ For years (Vinton business owner) Bob Wood suggested we move to Nashville. Only after years of constant reminders from not only him but my wife’s grandmother, Alpha Scott, did I finally take heed. I should have taken their solid advice much sooner.”

But before he moved, Keaton served as president of the Vinton Dogwood Festival in 1993 in its 38th year. The Vinton Messenger headline was “Keaton graduates from participant to president.” His father was president of the Dogwood Festival in the 1960s.

The program from 1993 shows the Highty-Tighties from Virginia Tech were the highlight of the parade with Washington Redskin Joe Jacoby as grand marshal.

Festival events included the Miss Vinton Dogwood Festival Pageant, the Little Miss Vinton Pageant, a Dogwood Festival BBQ Dinner at the War Memorial, a race sponsored by CMT Sporting Goods, a bike race, and the Dogwood Invitational Softball Tournament.

As Dogwood president, Keaton recalled that when he was a child, the Dogwood parade was “amazing and unbelievable with astounding floats.” He says that one of the children of Dogwood Committee member Anthony Conner said that “the Dogwood Parade was as good as Christmas,” so that became their inspiration.

Keaton said that thanks to Susan Teass, who now chairs the Dogwood Queen and Court Committee, he served as executive director and emcee of the Miss Vinton Dogwood Festival Pageant as well. That path led him to work with the Miss Virginia Pageant and the Miss America organization, where he was able to serve across the country as a judge in different state pageants for about 10 years.

His career evolved in Nashville and he is now a music executive and owner of Keaton Music Ventures, a music publishing business, and Chris Keaton Presents, managing and developing artists. He has won gold and platinum awards in music publishing, including “Building Bridges” for  Brooks and Dunn, “Let’s Be Us Again” with Lonestar, and “Stars on the Water” with George Strait.

Keaton said he is a “firm believer that music changes people’s lives.” He recalls a pivotal moment in his own life as seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

The Vinton Dogwood Parade led by Keaton gets underway at 2:30 on Saturday. The Band of Oz reunion concert is scheduled at the Vinton Farmers’ Market from 2-5:30 on Sunday, April 30.

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