All Airman Air Force Show ‘Tops in Blue’ of 1956
Whisked away from his mundane United States-based TTY and cryptography work, James Fairley was 27 years old when he was stationed at Sidi Slimane Air Force Base in French Morocco to work full-time in show business.
Not only did he play the saxophone all over the world but he also doubled as an actor, comedian, and Master of Ceremonies.
Performing on the Ed Sullivan variety television show was the pinnacle of success for all the ensemble members. The Ed Sullivan show’s first episode had aired in 1946 and continued on Sunday nights for 23 years. Their breakthrough performance on the Ed Sullivan show was on Sunday, July 29, 1956
However, it was not all glitz all the time.
The 35 to 40 members of the performance ensemble were responsible for packing the tour buses, the planes, hauling equipment from country to country and city to city, publicity, setting up the stage, baggage, cleaning, maintaining musical instruments, costume maintenance, and all the heavy lifting that employees of a touring band of performers are typically hired to do.
The Airmen were their own roadies. It was a small price to pay to live an artistic dream.
These were among the happiest days of Fairley’s 90 years on earth.
Members of the variety show worked together, regardless of race, interchangeably.
The U.S. Air Force, which was the first branch of the armed services to integrate, was ahead of the times in attempting equal opportunity for their soldiers.
For example, cited in news clippings as Sergeant Fairley, Big Jim traded his saxophone for the off-stage position of assistant Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of operations, inspection, and transportation while Airman Phillip Schwarz was assistant to Fairley in overseeing the spotlights as well as singing in the band.
Considered the best all airman production of its era, the 1956 cast consisted of 24 men and 3 women performers. Fairley was a member of the Blue Notes band, which played jazzy numbers and stayed on stage throughout the entire variety show to play background music for the many vocalists, comedians, dancers, and impressionists.
Little did Fairley know at the time that Tops in Blue would lead to a world of possibilities.