Friday, June 6, 2003 | 9:27 a.m.
Billy Hodges wanted to play the drums in his junior high school band, but that instrument already had been taken.
"My father was told the only opening was for the trumpet, so that's what he learned to play," said Heidi Harris of Las Vegas. "He never thought he would wind up playing the trumpet for a living."
But play for a living he did -- as lead trumpet on world tours with legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman, in the movie about the life of band leader/trombonist Glenn Miller and on the Las Vegas Strip for five decades.
William C. "Billy" Hodges, longtime lead trumpet for the Riviera hotel's Dick Palombi Orchestra, who backed up such stars as Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli, died Sunday of cancer in Las Vegas. He was 74.
Services were Wednesday for the Las Vegas resident of 45 years.
"Bill was one of the best lead trumpet players ever in Las Vegas," said Barbara Hayes, the Riviera's entertainment director from 1984 to 1995 and the wife of Palombi, who was in Mexico Wednesday when he was told of Hodges' death.
"Also, because Bill was in my husband's band, he was the last lead trumpet in the last live showroom band on the Las Vegas Strip before resorts went to tape-recorded music."
Thom Pastor, secretary-treasurer of Las Vegas Musicians Local 369, of which Hodges was a member since 1958, said Hodges is "an unsung hero" of the Las Vegas stage -- a performer at the top of his game who toiled in anonymity.
"Billy was an immense talent who night after night hit the high notes -- he had perfect pitch," said Pastor, a saxophonist. "But people today don't realize what musicians like him meant to the history of this town. And they are not recognized when they go to grocery stores or other public places."
Harris said Hodges wouldn't have it any other way.
"My father was never one to brag about his accomplishments," she said. "Although he performed a lot of solos, he never wanted to be a star. He just considered himself part of the band."
Born Aug. 4, 1928, in Charlotte, N.C., Hodges was the son of railroad dining car steward William Hodges and the former Clara Anderson. As a teenager, he toured with big bands during summer vacations from high school. Among them were the Dan Berry, Erv Hinkle and Ray McKinley bands.
Hodges later joined Benny Goodman's band and did two major international tours, including the historic 1958 performance in the Soviet Union, Pastor said.
Hodges also performed in the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note Band that formerly was the Glenn Miller Air Force Dance Band. In 1954, Hodges performed as the trumpet player in "The Glenn Miller Story" starring Jimmy Stewart.
Four years later, Hodges came to Las Vegas to check out potential job opportunities, with little intention of staying, his family said. But he soon found work in the house band at the old El Rancho Vegas across from where the Sahara now stands and decided to settle here.
Hodges was introduced to Bonnie Edmond of the Edmond Sisters singing trio that at the time was performing at the Dunes. The couple married in 1960, had two children and later divorced but remained friends. Bonnie Clites survives him and today resides in San Diego.
Over the years, Hodges worked with numerous headliners, including the Rat Pack -- Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., -- and Merv Griffin, who hosted segments of his syndicated television show from Las Vegas in the 1970s. Hodges also was in the band for Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethons.
In 1995, Hodges retired and pursued his hobbies that included photography, boating and making custom trumpet mouthpieces. He also tutored young, promising musicians, among them Patrick Hession, former UNLV band trumpeter, who currently is lead trumpet for the Maynard Ferguson Band.
In addition to his daughter and ex-wife, Hodges is survived by a son, Chris Hodges of Gaithersburg, Md.; a sister, Elizabeth Organ of Jacksonville, N.C.; and two grandchildren, Rio and Reina Hodges of Gaithersburg.