James Henry Fillmore, Jr. was born in Cincinnati on December 3, 1881 into a family of composers and publishers of religious music. A somewhat incorrigible boy, he was bored with church music. He preferred more exciting music such as that used in circuses. In fact, her ran off with circuses at least three times. This caused no small amount of consternation in the family, which had a dignified English-American bearing (he was a second cousin, twice removed, of President Millard B. Fillmore), so he received much of his education in a military school.
He graduated from the Miami Military Institute in 1901. Frustrated at being unable to influence the Fillmore Brothers to branch into the publication of band music, he left home. He married his secret sweetheart Mabel Jones, a vaudeville dancer, and joined the Lemon Brothers circus as a trombone player. He returned to Cincinnati and the publishing company after one season, but it was several years before the family accepted Mabel.
Gradually, Henry persuaded his father and uncles to publish more band music. The firm eventually became a leading band house, primarily because the music of Henry Fillmore and his seven aliases had become very popular. Another factor was his expertise as an arranger and editor.
Meanwhile, he was heavily involved with bands in the Cincinnati area. Under his leadership, the Syrian Temple Shrine Band became America’s finest fraternal band. Industrialist Powell Crosley enticed him to organize a professional band, and it, too, achieved widespread fame through broadcasts over the powerful radio station WLW. One novel feature of the programs was Henry’s exceptional dog, Mike the “radio hound,” who barked at predetermined spots in the music.
Henry’s music was now being played by bands throughout North America and abroad, and his intense schedule as composer, arranger, music editor, and conductor began to take its toll. In his late fifties, he developed a serious heart problem. Doctors told him his life expectancy would be less than one year unless he retired. They also suggested that he move to a warmer climate.
He moved to Miami with the expectation of living only a short time. However, he was revived by the Florida sunshine and lived almost two more decades. Much of his renewed energy could be attributed to a new life as mentor of school musicians throughout the state of Florida. He loved the kids, who adopted him universally as their “Uncle Henry.”
His activities in the music education field soon became a serious commitment. One of his old friends was John J. Heney, a noted former percussionist of Sousa’s band, who was obsessed with raising the level of school bands in Florida. Together they traveled about the state encouraging school officials to start bands. The end result of their extraordinary promotional efforts was the creation of three dozen new high school bands.
An especially loving relationship developed between Henry and the band at the University of Miami. He was named “permanent guest conductor” and accompanied the band on trips, including three to Central America. In appreciation of his concern – and his generosity – the university awarded him with an honorary doctorate.
Despite the warnings of doctors, Henry became even more active in the band movement. He was elected president of the prestigious American Bandmasters Association and held the organization together through the years of World War II when travel was restricted. And he seldom passed up a chance to be present at functions of the Florida Bandmasters Association.
As might be expected, he paid the price for not heeding his doctor’s advice. After being weakened by a series of illnesses, the big heart of Henry Fillmore finally gave way. He died peacefully in his sleep on December 7, 1956. His body was cremated, and his ashes were interred with those of his beloved Mabel at the Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami.
The band world had lost a giant, but his music will live as long as there are bands to play it. Benefiting most from his legacy was the University of Miami Band, to which he bequeathed most of his estate. The Henry Fillmore Band Hall with its Fillmore Museum is a symbol of that legacy.