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Posted on Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

French Dukes reunite for precision drill show at Veterans Memorial Park

By Tom Perkins

In the mid-1960s Michael Bridges was part of a tight-knit African-American community on Ann Arbor’s north side. Bridges termed that time the “hippy-dippy” 1960s, and said there was trouble to be found at nearly every turn.

But he, his friends, and some of his family found something else to occupy their time: a precision drill team.

But it wasn’t just any precision drill team. They formed and carried on the French Dukes. Its members contend it was and remains the greatest drill team of all time.

The Dukes never lost a competition. They performed in front of President Richard Nixon -- twice. They were invited to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And they performed in parades and in front of countless crowds across the country.

But most important, members of the French Dukes say the group activity kept them out of trouble and taught them respect and discipline at a time when there were plenty of other distractions in Ann Arbor. Now, more than 30 years since they last performed, the Dukes are preparing for a reunion show at Ann Arbor’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday, July 14 at 5 p.m.

The Dukes are also trying to help revive the team and encourage Ann Arbor teenagers to carry on the French Dukes legacy.

The French Dukes drill team “was something that a bunch of the young men on the north side of town were doing,” Bridges said. “We were all close friends and we were a close-knit community. We got a chance to travel, and it kept us out of trouble and it gave us something to look forward to.”

A precision drill team is essentially a military-style performance troupe that steps, marches and performs in unison. The members create special moves that are unique to their team and perform them throughout a show or parade. The group’s commander calls the steps, and the other 16 team members must do them in unison.

Uniforms are also important, and the teams are judged during competitions on how well they dress. The Dukes were known for their beige and blue and beige and red uniforms. Most of the young men involved with the French Dukes and other precision drill teams at the time were between the ages of 13 and 15.

Bridges said the Dukes started around 1961 or 1962 at the suggestion of some Ann Arbor Elks Club members who wanted to see the boys doing something constructive with their time. Eight members started drilling in the basement of an Ann Arbor home, but quickly moved on to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where they began attracting crowds.

Their first competition was a high school talent show, which they won, setting a precedent for the next two decades.

The Dukes then began performing in parades and knew they were on to something when people would follow their group down the parade route and ask for encore performances at the end, Bridges said.

In 1968, the French Dukes, who derived their name from French tams they wore on their heads and the old 1960s song “Duke of Earl,” performed during soon-to-be-president Richard Nixon’s campaign stop in Lansing.

When Nixon was elected, he remembered the French Dukes and invited them to perform at his Inauguration Day parade.

“That was something new for us,” Dukes Commander Carlton Bell said. “We had never been around big people like that. It was just a real thrill for us. For a lot of people, that’s the first time they flew on a plane, and it went good.”

The Dukes competed mostly against teams sponsored by other Elks Clubs around the state and country, and they never lost. They collected 11 national and state championships by the time Bridges left the group in 1966 and dozens more after. They were invited to countless parades and events, and even ended up getting invited to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” though they were unable to raise the money needed to get to the show in New York City.

So what set the French Dukes apart from the other teams?

“We were very creative. It was remarkable,” Bridges explained, adding that the team members were also dedicated and worked extremely hard at perfecting their moves.

The Dukes had a signature karate step that was popular, and their uniforms were always impeccable.

“We knew when we put on a show we didn’t want to look bad; we wanted to look good,” Bridges said. “And when we got done we wanted people to stand up and applaud.”

For several months, the Dukes have been practicing three to four times a week in preparation for their reunion show. The youngest Duke is 45 years old while Bridges is the oldest at 60.

“It’s really tiring because we’re old, but we still can do it,” Bell laughed. “It’s taking a little time to get real, real sharp, but we’re working on it.”

They say the most important part of the performance will be renewing interest in the precision drill team. Already they have a small group working with French Duke Larry Young Jr. .

“We want to give them something to keep out of juvenile delinquency, ” Bridges said.

But on Saturday, around 20 French Dukes will see if they’ve still got their steps.

“I keep getting messages on Facebook from people asking ’Are those really the same French Dukes? ’ They remember us from when we were kids and a lot of people are excited to come and watch us again,” Bridges said.


glorie etzel

Sun, Jul 15, 2012 : 4:08 a.m.

I always loved watching them. I was at Vets today and I really enjoyed myself. Hats off to the ladies that put it together. They should put on a step show at one of the high schools so they could do it on the track and everyone could see from the stands. I would be more than willing to pay to see them!

Ms kat

Sat, Jul 14, 2012 : 5:16 a.m.

Recently myself and another person did an interview with the Co-founder Roy Campbell of the French Dukes. Even though this is an interesting article, many facts are incorrect. It would be a disservice to Mr Campbell if the Ann Arbor New did not redo this story and write the fact on how this group really got started. The French Dukes were founded by Roy Campbell and Teddy Murray in 1961. They got together with eight more young men and created the French Step up and later change the name of the drill team to the French Dukes. Lonzo(Bojack)Drumright was their first commander. Having had experience drilling in the Army. He helped to correct and perfect their steps. After many practices and fundraiser to get their own uniform, they asked the Ann Arbor Elks Club to sponsor them, for it was the only way to get in the parade. Their first performance was in the Memorial Day Parade in Ypsilanti in 1961. Their first competition was at an Elks State Convention. All these facts can be verified by Co-founder, Roy Campbell. I hope Mr Perkins will redo this story and print the facts. Its only fair that credit be given where credit is due. Ann Arbor is a small community and I know this story is upsetting to those who know the truth.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 9:22 p.m.

"Mama drills, papa drills......FRENCH DUKES!!!!"


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 5:36 p.m.

Wish I could make it back up there tomorrow, but I can't. But I go back to the time when the French Dukes were the benchmark by which all drill teams, nationwide, were measured. Glad to see these men getting together again, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of a couple of generations who may have never had the opportunity to see and admire the discipline and work which these men portray.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 4:26 p.m.

That last picture of Larry Young is too cute!

sharon gillespie

Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

Interesting article but some of the fact are incorrect. I hope Ann Arbor News will correct the history of the Dukes. The French Dukes were founded in 1961 by Teddy Murray and Roy Campbell not by someone at the Elks. The Elks did eventually become their sponsor. Teddy Murray came up with the name "French Dukes" and their first performance was in a Memorial Day Parade in Ypsilanti in 1961. Their first competition was at an Elks State Convention. All these facts can be verified by Co-founder, Roy Campbell.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 3:19 p.m.

Am I really Reading This? In Ann Arbor, a Military Drill Team is going to Perform? Then to add insult to injure, at Veterans Parks? What are the Progressives doing? Next, they will be Flying the American Flag! Sounds like a great show! It would be nice to see more of this sort of stuff!

Kenneth Mitchell

Mon, Jul 16, 2012 : 1:13 p.m.

First. of all, XMO, this is not a Military Drill Team. The French Dukes, are a non-military group of Black Ann Arborites who contributed something worthwhile to this community, of all races. The Progressives have nothing whatsoever to do with the French Dukes. We don't carry an American Flag, though as citizens of America we have every right to do just that! If you don't like what we represent, GET OVER IT!!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 6:21 p.m.

Nice positive post.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 3:19 p.m.

How great! Let's have MORE publicity for this! and a second or third performance. Maybe during the art fair? How about during local parades? Maybe during all the summer things on Fridays on Main Street?? Get the word out more!!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 2:36 p.m.

The French Dukes are just too cool, I remember them in AA parades...looked everywhere for a video...none to be found...and that's a damn disgrace!! Bet that changes Saturday!!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 1:21 p.m.

Where at Vets Park are they performing??


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 2:38 p.m.

Just go, it won't be hard to figure out!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 1:18 p.m.

I can't wait to see them perform !! As a young girl in the 60's I was always mesmerized when watching their drills. I grew up on Miller and went to Mack, Slauson, and Pioneer - - and remember their outstanding performances at the schools. You just always wanted more when they were done. You go, guys !!!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 1:06 p.m.

As a little girl, I would go with my Dad to his used car lot (now Argerios), and watch them practice at the Farmers Market. Then I would try to do the same steps and moves at home in our driveway! Happy to hear of the reunion show, wish I could be there!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 12:30 p.m.

I used to love watching them practice at the Farmer's Market! It would be so great if they could put together and mentor a young team who would keep the tradition going!


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 12:17 p.m.

Sorry, I'll miss the performance, have another engagement. But, they are totally awesome and very worthy of watching and enjoying. Best wishes.

Momma G

Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 12:05 p.m.

I wish I were going to be in town. I'd love to see them. I remember them performing in H.S. and seeing them in parades. They were amazing to watch. Hope they are successful in getting young people to join and do something fun and keeping them out of trouble.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 12:04 p.m.

Cool! I remember when were using Jones Elementary (now CHS) for theater practice on Saturdays, after the school had been closed down for being too black. They kept having to drag us back, away from the windows where we would stand and watch the Dukes drill across the street at the Farmer's Market.


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 12:04 p.m.

I remember going to the market to watch them practice in the late 60's Where at Vet's will they be performing?


Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 11:23 a.m.

Very exciting to hear. I was always in awe watching them perform. I'll be there!

Lets Get Real

Fri, Jul 13, 2012 : 11:07 a.m.

Nice article about a group placing importance on respect and discipline and paying it forward for today's youngsters. Good luck with your performance.