Continuing a decades-old tradition, Ed Bernet and his band, the Levee Singers, were scheduled to perform in this year’s Park Cities Fourth of July Parade. His love of music dates to his days as a student at Highland Park High School.
While playing football and basketball, running track, and swimming for the Scots, Bernet also played in a country band called the Hilltop Ramblers with his brother Dick, and a few buddies. After Bernet enrolled at SMU in 1951, the Hilltop Ramblers transitioned to the Cell Block Seven, a Dixieland band that wore striped pajamas as its uniform.
“I had never played Dixieland before,” he said. “It was just a fun kind of New Orleans-style music, and there wasn’t anything like it in Dallas, so it really caught on.”
By 1960, Bernet’s football career — which included seasons playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Texans on either side of a stint in the Air Force — was over. So he got together some of the players from the Cell Block Seven and formed the Dixieland Seven.
“Jack Ruby, by that time, had a place downtown, and we played there several times,” Bernet said. “He wanted to have us play for a year, but he was reluctant to sign a contract. I didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, Bernet took over the lease of a small jazz club on Mockingbird Lane where the band had played several times. The renamed Levee opened in March 1961, after being remodeled and redecorated.
The Dixieland Seven played sold out shows on Friday and Saturday nights, but didn’t know what to do on weeknights. Bernet had heard about a banjo sing-along bar in California, and thought that was a good idea. So he formed a side project, the Levee Banjo Band.
That band soon became the Levee Singers, who garnered the attention of an agent in California. He booked them for a show at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and on all the important musical TV shows of the time.
“We might have gone in that direction, but we all decided we had our families and the Levee, and we didn’t want to risk it on making it big,” he said.
Bernet eventually sold the Levee to focus on his recording studio and entertainment-booking business, not to mention his family. He and his wife, Susie, had three kids, Brant, Blake and Jenny.
The band has gone through a few member changes over a half-century and is now comprised of Bernet, his brother Dick, Ralph Sanford, and Ralph Lindsey. They perform the last Tuesday of every other month at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre.
“I feel like God has led me in everything I do,” Bernet said. “I don’t think I ever really decided, ‘OK, I’m going to make my life music.’ ”
Shannon Dickinson, one of the owners of the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, said most Levee Singers shows are sold out to crowds dominated by fans who used to watch them right down the street at the Levee.
“They are a Dallas tradition,” Dickinson said. “Everywhere you go, if you say ‘the Pocket Sandwich Theatre,’ they say, ‘Oh, don’t the Levee Singers play there?’ They’ve become associated with us.”
But Bernet is associated with more than just music. For a decade, he has been making bronze sculptures for a client list that includes Harlan Crow. The real estate developer commissioned a piece depicting President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, and Bernet sought guidance from Highland Park sculptor Angela De La Vega, whom he met when two of his granddaughters were Highland Belles with her daughter.
“He is just the kindest man,” De La Vega said. “He’s creative, kind, compassionate, and loving.”
All around Bernet’s house are pieces he’s crafted — his sculptures, beautiful models of churches and houses, a grandfather clock, his long blue dining table, and his kitchen island.
“The fun thing about that is that will go on in our family for 100 years,” he said. “None of my grandkids or great grandkids will want to get rid of them.”
The Levee Singers will perform at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre on Tuesday, Aug. 27.