Scott Ball / Rivard Report
On Monday, a select group of party guests will don their tuxes or sparkliest dresses for the 35th annual One Minute to Midnight New Year’s Eve party at a home in Beacon Hill.
Hosts Lamar Sawyer and Chanda Day will fill a footed bathtub with bottles of Champagne and the linen closet with glass flutes. Sawyer will pluck oysters into shells on a massive tray of ice. Never mind that he first cleaned the shells in a dishwasher 35 years ago.
Besides good food and bubbly, the other constant that has propelled guests to this party since 1983 is the musical entertainment. One Minute to Midnight (OMM) began in the early 1980s as a loose improvisation of friends who met while volunteering at KRTU-FM, Trinity University’s jazz radio station.
“The amazing thing is that we haven’t killed each other by now,” Jill Mason, the group's vocalist since 1985, said at one of the final rehearsals before New Year’s Eve. “We’re the perfect dysfunctional family.
“Musically there’s all this angst and tension, which have made it interesting and sometimes painful, but that’s why we love each other. We share the love of music with each other.”
It all started in 1979 when Sawyer, now 70 and a public schools risk management consultant, moved to a two-story home on West Mistletoe in Beacon Hill with one piece of furniture: a grand piano. The home quickly became a haven for friends as Sawyer played his piano with a disorganized and discordant assortment of rockers for legendary Halloween and other parties.
In 1983, things got serious.
“The key to this was that Chuck had his old drum set from high school, so we started rehearsing,” Sawyer said.
Chuck Leifeste, now 60 and a landscape designer, emptied his attic and gave the band a cohesive sound. They began to attract a more serious group of vocalists, a bass guitarist, and horns, and in 1983 hosted their first New Year’s Eve party.
“We probably did a dozen songs, mostly old '50s rock 'n' roll and some swing era because the singer wanted to do Billie Holiday,” Sawyer said.
A 1984 feature in Full Tilt Boogie, a now-defunct local rock tabloid, described their music as “everything except country and western polkas.” And the only classics, Sawyer said in the feature, were “not Debussy but Marvin Gaye.”
Gary Whitford, a writer and band keyboardist who died in February, is credited with giving the band an identity when he arranged magnetic letters belonging to the Sawyers’ kids on the family's refrigerator. Whitford arranged the letters to read, “The Sawyers Present One Minute to Midnight.”
With the name, a legacy began. They created a press release touting the One Minute to Midnight World Tour at the Nash Drug Store, a popular music club on San Pedro Avenue. They printed T-shirts, matchbooks, wooden nickels, and fans embellished with a straight-up arrow and a second arrow just to its left – a clock on the edge of turning midnight.
Though they had barely begun to play in public, an event-planning directory named OMM the best wedding band in San Antonio. That led to jobs at country clubs, hotel banquet halls, small clubs, and the King William Fair. The Irish Festival hosted them on a river barge and at La Villita and the Arneson River Theatre.
The house on West Mistletoe became a draw for touring recording artists who dropped in to play, including folk and jazz wind player Paul McCandless, jazz pianist Spencer Brewer, and American roots instrumentalists Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel. Local musicians would drop by after finishing their New Year's Eve gigs, wanting to play or party.
Rehearsals became more frenetic with children underfoot in the '80s and '90s. When they got older they added their spirited voices to “Mustang Sally,” “Heat Wave,” and “Let’s Stay Together.” Now in their early 20s or older, the kids have remained friends and one, Adam Mason, started a successful Austin band, Slomo Drags.
While Monday's party will be stuffed with dancers and oyster fans on the deck, guests at past parties would pack the entire house from the basement to the second floor, including its sauna. A lot of the time, no one knew who they were, just people who heard the music and stopped in.
When OMM started, Day was married to Craig Wiley, guitarist, vocalist, and band co-founder who died in 1998. In those days she ran sound and lighting at the “away” gigs.
Now married to Sawyer, she bakes cakes, pops popcorn, and sets out wine for the band and drop-in guests at weekly practices. Her cheerfulness puzzles female friends who would not tolerate weekly parties in their homes nor sacrifice their living rooms to music equipment. After Sawyer decided OMM would no longer leave home for gigs because everyone was getting too old to schlep equipment, Day said she lost any chance to refinish the hardwood floors. Nonetheless, she loves the band.
“It's about the power of music, voices and instruments in harmony, that bind us together over the years,” Day said. “The band family changes and the music changes with new elements. What doesn't change is the joy as new people come to play or listen, and old friends sit around and share stories and different music they have heard.
“All of this comes together as a prime focus as New Year's approaches. This is the time the band plays for their friends and have the people we care about sing along, dance, and celebrate life and the continuity that their music has brought for decades.”
As part of that effort to bring friends together, Sawyer in 2006 used the newly available ability to search people on Google to find and invite me to the party. After greeting lots of old friends on that cold night, I spied a handsome stranger and hastened to investigate. By midnight, we were kissing under the mistletoe and, by September, we were married.
One other marriage plus countless romances have grown out of New Year's and other OMM parties.
OMM now consists of Sawyer, Leifeste, and the Masons, Jill and Mark. There's also Michael Williams on bass and vocals; Jay Baker on trumpet, flugelhorn, and vocals; and Dee Lusk on guitar and vocals. Paul Springer joined in 1985, moved away, and is back on guitar, just as several others have dropped in and out over the decades, including popular weatherman Ron Taylor, formerly of KENS-TV during the 1970s and '80s, on tenor sax. In recent months, Chris Jordan joined as second trumpet player.
Sawyer’s view of the New Year’s Eve parties is more pragmatic than his wife’s.
“It puts us on our best game,” he said. “ We actually start trying.”