February 13, 2004

Remembering Bernie Milton

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February is the month when we recognize well known American holidays such as Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day as well as those not as common including both President Lincoln’s and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. It is because of both of these two historic figures that February had also been named Nation Black History Month.

“Black History Month is a time when we are reminded to look back on our roots and not only recognize who we are and where we came from, but also to remember those close to us who made a positive impact on our lives,” said Ronnie Whiley, a member of the Ithaca community. “This is why I supported the initiative to rename the center pavilion [on the Ithaca Commons last October] the ‘Bernie Milton Pavilion.'” Whiley said that there is no better way to help people remember their heritage than through honoring the lives of those who made a difference within the local community.

Bernie Milton, a musician and notable Ithaca community member, was born in 1942. His mother, Agnes Milton, was a graduate of Ithaca College, and while he was growing up she taught local children how to play the piano. From an early age Bernie was exposed to the musical scene and, it inevitably rubbed off on him; his mother decided she would introduce him to the music world by taking him to sing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when he was just eleven. He sang one of Elvis Presley’s hits, “I Got a Woman.”

Milton signed his first recording contract in 1960 “and had a regional hit, ‘The Waddle’ in 1962. He led several bands though the 60s, 70s and 80s; such as Bernie and the Cavaliers, Bernie Milton and the Soul Patrol, and the Bernie Milton Experience, all of which toured up and down the East coast,” said Chris Wheatley, manager of WICB Ithaca College radio.

Bernie was well established as a local musician when he joined the WICB air staff in 1983. He was approached by the student management of the station about doing the show “Looking Back” and he agreed. Every Friday until his death in 2002, Bernie shared his love of soul rhythm & blues and Motown music with the central New York radio audience. “His unique on-air style was simultaneously laid back and enthusiastic,” said Wheatley. Today Bernie Milton’s nephew, Ricky Milton, continues to do the show in his memory each Friday.

Milton first became popular with the Cornell community as early as the late 1950’s, and became especially prominent at fraternity dances during turbulent late 60’s, into the 70’s. During the 80’s he began performing at Cornell Reunions, as some of those classes returned for Reunion Weekend. More recently he reappeared on campus, ‘most notably at the Alpha Delta Phi Victory Club Charity Balls and occasional fraternities. He was being rediscovered strongly just as he passed away,” said long time friend John Russo.

“Bernie had a connection with students that was magical. He touched so many lives, but his connection with the students was special. It continues today that students come to me at Rulloff’s [in collegetown] and talk about how Bernie would show up at a fraternity and just hang out with the fellas,” said Franklin Henry, a fellow musician who shared the stage with Milton.

From his days at the Apollo Theater as a child, to his career as a regional and national celebrity with “The Waddle”, to concerts up and down the east coast, to his many fraternity appearances, “his presence is still very much missed and it will continue to be missed,” said Henry. “[My band still performs] many of the jobs we played with Bernie such as Victory Club, and various fraternity functions. It is pretty much in honor to his contributions to the university and the guys that keep his memory alive. Cornell is one place where our group of musicians can congregate and reminisce about our days as the Bernie Milton Band.”

Archived article by Shannon Delaney