In 1976, Freddy and Linda Martin and Bob Hoehn met with the management of an Atlanta area television station to discuss starting an Atlanta-area drum and bugle corps. After a series of successful meetings, Spirit of Atlanta was founded. The corps was originally named “Concourse”. A contest was held to find a new, more appropriate name, and “Spirit of Atlanta” was chosen. The corps was a DCI first in that it was sponsored by television station WXIA, making it the first corporate-sponsored drum corps. The founding director of the corps is Mr. Freddy Martin.
With Freddy Martin (pictured right) as corps director, members were recruited (including several from Jacksonville State University in Alabama), a program with no particular musical style was worked up, and Spirit of Atlanta was introduced to the drum corps public at contests in at least nine states in the South and Midwest. At the 1977 DCI World Championships in Denver, Spirit finished twenty-third of forty-five corps.
A first year finish of twenty-third was respectable, but Spirit of Atlanta wanted more and an effort was made to secure the finest instructional staff possible. Two new caption heads were hired; brass head Jim Ott (pictured left) from the DCI Champion Blue Devils and percussion head Tom Float from Toronto’s Oakland Crusaders, a corps renowned for their drumming. With these two hires, the core instructional group was in place which would take the corps to new heights. Adopting a style that has been referred to as “Southern Jazz”, Spirit stunned the drum corps world in 1978, vaulting into eighth place at DCI Prelims in Denver; then at Finals, the corps rose even higher, finishing in sixth place and losing the High Brass title to the Phantom Regiment by one tenth of a point. Both the brass and percussion were among the best in the drum corps activity, and Spirit moved up into a fourth place finish at DCI in Birmingham, Alabama in 1979, featuring the song that would become the corps’ trademark tune, “Georgia on my Mind.”
Tragedy struck Spirit while the corps was on tour in 1980. When one of their vans was in a traffic accident on Interstate 55 near Grenada, Mississippi, brass arranger and caption head Jim Ott was killed. Spirit’s members and staff were devastated, but the corps recovered to honor Ott’s memory by repeating their fourth place finish at DCI Finals in Birmingham, AL. In 1980, the percussion line had the high execution score at finals and tied for the overall high percussion title.
Prior to the 1981 season, the corps lost its corporate sponsorship from WXIA. Financial adjustments were made and the corps continued on. Following the loss of Jim Ott in the 1980 season new staff members were needed to fill the vacancies. For the summer of 1981, the drill designer was Steve Moore; horn caption heads included Gary Markham and Joel Schultz. Visual Designers were Freddy Martin and John Armstrong. The guard instructors brought in the varied talents of Julie Gilbert of the Crossmen, Cindy Anderson of the Guardsmen, and Robert S. Robinson of Jacksonville State University and Chapter V Winter Guard. Tom Float (pictured right) remained percussion caption head and Mike Back, who was a percussion instructor in 1980 returned to the staff. Spirit of Atlanta repeated the musical program of the 1980 season in 1981, with the exception of the concert number, hoping for higher levels of competitive success. This was not to be the case, as the corps finished in ninth place in 1981. The percussion was the highest scoring caption for the year, but Tom Float departed at the end of the 1981 season.
1982 was a re-building year for Spirit, with an all new creative staff in every caption. Mike Back (pictured left) became Percussion Caption Head and Arranger, a position that he held for the rest of the decade. After failing to make finals at DCI Midwest, the only meeting of the reigning Top 12 prior to Championships, the corps rallied to make an 11th place finish at semi-finals in Montreal, only to be overtaken at finals by the Cavaliers. Spirit’s season ending 12th place was a bit disappointing, but the corps witnessed a rather large return of veterans the next season, which helped springboard Spirit back into the “middle of the pack”.
Freddy Martin began putting together a much more aggressive creative and instructional staff for the 1983 season. Famed drum corps arranger Larry Kerchner was hired to compose the brass book, Mike Back remained as the Percussion Arranger, and Sal Salas was hired to head the visual program and design the drill. Sal brought long time friend Tam Easterwood to Spirit, who began to lay the ground work of putting the color guard on the map. Throughout the season, the mantra “Spirit’s Back!” was heard throughout stadiums, as the corps made it’s move back into the hunt for a Top 6 placement, trading wins with the likes of the Madison Scouts and Suncoast Sound. Spirit finished the season in 7th place.
Spirit’s creative staff remained in place in 1984 with one notable addition… Scott Chandler (pictured right) to the guard staff. The combination of Scott with Tam Easterwood was a match made in heaven, and fans witnessed the emergence of dance and body movement as a focus for the color guard performance. The guard ended the season in 3rd place. Spirit’s percussion also had a very strong season, winning Field Percussion throughout the season against every other Top 12 corps. The percussion took 4th at finals, while under the new subjective scoring system Spirit scored 93.1 — good for 6th place, in front of their hometown crowd at Georgia Tech’s Grant Field.
For 1985, Spirit decided to create a more polished and sophisticated program by performing Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Brass arranger Ray Baumgardt (pictured left) was hired, who was known for his powerful compositions for the Madison Scouts in the mid 70s. Mike Back’s drumline continued to impress, but it was the color guard who set the world on fire by bringing Spirit’s first caption award back to Atlanta by winning the High Guard Award. Spirit finished the season with a score of 91.0 in 7th place.
In 1986, the tenth competitive season of the corps, the “throwback” show of Southern blues, jazz and gospel earned them a sixth place finish and an all-time record high score for Spirit of Atlanta of 94.1 at DCI Championships. Robert Smith wrote the brass book, while all other creative staff returned from previous years.
1987 was a bit of an odd year. Spirit continued ahead with the Southern blues and jazz themed shows and the corps hit the gate running at the beginning of the season; beating the Garfield Cadets head to head and staying neck and neck with them most of the summer. However, at the end of the season; the Cadets had gone on to win the DCI Championship and Spirit finished in 10th. Only two corps beat the Cadets that entire season…Santa Clara Vanguard, who finished 2nd, and Spirit. Spirit’s guard had another fantastic season, winning their second High Guard Award in three years.
In 1988, a decision was made to turn away from jazz and blues to the classical idiom. Although the corps’ competitive placement improved from tenth to ninth place and scored in the 92’s just weeks prior to finals, the classical show based on Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” was panned by drum corps fans that were used to the high-powered brass and exciting shows for which Spirit had become known.
In 1989, Spirit dropped from finals for the first time since 1978, performing a space themed show…“Interstellar Suite”, by Amin Bhatia. Spirit’s identity crisis coupled with the fall from DCI’s coveted Top 12 set the stage for many years of recruitment difficulties. Although the corps regained Finalist status in 1990 by returning to its roots of southern music and finishing the season in 11th, that competitive success was to be short lived. Financial and management challenges plagued the corps. From 1991 to 1993 the corps’ competitive status declined. The financial problems culminated leading into the 1994 season, when the corps announced it would be inactive that summer.
The corps returned to the field in 1995, and began a long rebuilding process. These years would prove challenging, but saw some increased success as the corps progressed from 23rd place in 1996 to a regained semi-finalist status in 1997, and peaking at 14th place in 1998. The corps changed uniforms along the way to a navy blue top with cream pants.
Financial challenges would continue to hound the corps leading into the 2000 season, which saw a mid-summer management turnover and a difficult touring year. Nonetheless, the corps finished 15th, and a majority of the membership from that season would continue with the corps over the next 4 years.
In 2000, while the corps was rehearsing at JSU just prior to the start of tour, the corps director attempted to fold the drum corps. Due to a very strong response by corps alumni, parents, staff and other members of the drum corps community Spirit of Atlanta got through the season, finishing in 15th place at DCI Finals in College Park, Maryland.
Following the management challenges of the 2000 season, Spirit of Atlanta re-organized in preparation for the summer of 2001. It officially relocated to Jacksonville, Alabama, and officially became known as “Spirit, from Jacksonville State University”. This relationship with the university provided a foundation of stability the corps had not experienced for more than a decade. The 2001 season saw a significantly more competitive drum corps finishing in 13th place while wearing baby blue uniforms again. In 2002, Spirit regained finalist status for the first time since 1990 finishing 10th overall – the highest placement since 1988. Spirit of JSU would make DCI Finals again in 2003 and 2005-2007. Going into the 2008 season the association with Jacksonville State University was essentially dissolved, resulting in a simplification of the corps’ name to “Spirit Drum and Bugle Corps from Jacksonville, AL”. The corps continued to operate out of Jacksonville, AL for the 2009 season.
In 2010, the corps surprised the drum corps community by announcing its return to Atlanta. After the 2010 season, it was announced by the corps’ Board of Directors that for the 2011 season, the corps would once again be known as “Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps.” Spirit of Atlanta surged back into finals again in 2011, jumping from 16th place the preceding season to 12th at DCI Finals.