When he was 5 years old, David “Red” Lehr made his onstage debut when he stepped on top of an orange crate to play trombone in his father’s local band at a picnic in Tilden.
That started a music career that has spanned decades and includes playing for a president and in baseball stadiums for the New Athens man, who is now in his early 80s.
“I just always liked music,” Lehr said.
Lehr, who was born in Tilden, began playing music in the Methodist church his family attended.
His mother played piano in the church for 50 years, and his father played trombone for that same time span.
His mother read music, but his father played solely by ear.
Lehr took after his father, as he has a rare ability called perfect pitch that allows him to identify and recreate a musical note without a reference tone.
“I got most of my talent for playing by ear from my dad,” Lehr noted.
When he was in grade school in New Athens, Lehr’s music teacher tried to teach him to read music, but he struggled with it.
So he stopped trying to read music, and ever since has played by ear. He can hear a song once and play it from memory.
“I can play without music and play exactly like its written,” Lehr said.
He continued playing throughout school, picking up his now-signature sousaphone in grade school and playing the tuba in high school.
In high school – where Lehr met his wife of 58 years, Carolyn – Red would often compete in music contests, earning ribbons.
An early highlight of his career was when the Waterloo German Band was performing at the New Athens Homecoming and local legend Harry Wolf saw Red playing with the high school band.
Wolf, who later became good friends with Red, invited the young man to play a song with the Waterloo German Band.
It was then that someone in the audience who played in a St. Louis band first heard Red.
In 1963, that individual called Red and asked him to play tuba in his band at the Gaslight Square entertainment district because the regular tuba player got in an accident.
From that gig, Lehr got a full-time job playing at a place in the Gaslight Square called Your Father’s Mustache with the Don Scherr Banjo Band.
“I thought it was great,” Lehr said of playing professionally. “We got free beer. The Gaslight Square back in those days was really a going place.”
That band played at St. Louis Cardinals games, so Red began playing there, too.
He played in the final night game at Sportsman’s Park and continued playing at Busch Stadium until the organ player took over.
During his tenure there, Red played at the stadium when the Cardinals won the World Series under fellow New Athens native and Red’s longtime friend, Whitey Herzog.
Herzog also introduced the Lehrs to Stan Musial, who would often spend time with the New Athens families.
“We had a real good friendship,” Red said of Stan the Man.
While playing at the Cardinals games, Red also got a job performing at the nearby Banjo Palace, where he played for about eight years.
All told, he performed consistently for over 40 years in St. Louis – including at a club called The Sting and a floating restaurant called Robert E. Lee.
One job in St. Louis was at a Republican Party that included George W. Bush, who was running for president at that time.
“I told him that every president I ever played for got elected, and he got a kick out of that,” Red recalled.
The New Athens High School Hall of Famer has performed with several bands throughout his life, including a jazz trio called the Jazz Incredibles, Old St. Louis Levee Band, Red Lehr’s Powerhouse Band, River City Ramblers and St. Louis Rivermen.
That latter band packs the Columbia American Legion every year as part of an Eppinger Foundation event.
Red has also played with symphonies from Chicago and Hawaii and the U.S. Army Band. The military veteran earned two musical awards from the military.
Additionally, he has played in almost every state, often at jazz festivals, and in countries including England, Germany, Japan, Holland, Spain and Scotland.
“I’ve done this all over the world, literally,” Red said as he chuckled.
Red developed enough of a reputation that readers of a popular jazz magazine called American Rag voted him a member of the millennium jazz band for the United States in 2000.
That was for the tuba. Readers also voted Red onto the international millennium band for the sousaphone.
Red credited Jean Kittreel and Gene Pokorny, the other two members of the Jazz Incredibles, with much of his success, though he gave special kudos to Carolyn.
Throughout all his time playing music, Lehr also worked at Lehr’s Meat Market in New Athens, which he took over from his father in 1972.
Red’s son, Jeff, now manages the business full-time after doing it when his father was on music trips.
Lehr’s daughter, Lori, is a psychotherapist in Belleville.
Looking back, Lehr said he has enjoyed all the aspects of his life.
“When I was playing music, there was nothing I wanted to do more,” he said. “When I was in the meat market, there was nothing I wanted to do more.”