While serving as the Airmen of Note's staff arranger, MSgt Sammy Nestico had a strong hand in the development of the band's style, and he was responsible for about two-thirds of the charts in the Note's book. So he was well qualified musically to take the baton. He soon proved to be a capable leader as well, and an excellent teacher. The men who played for him recall his period of leadership as being one of the great learning experiences of their careers.
By early 1955, the last of the original four-year enlistees had left, and Sammy found himself fronting a different band from the one that Kepner introduced in 1951. Only trumpet section leader Ken Eshelman and lead trombone John Shuman remained. Eshelman split the trumpet lead with Andy Peele and Ken Grasley, and the sax section was led by Mel Owen. Most of the jazz was blown by tenor sax Tommy Newsom and trumpeter Bobby Zottola. Frank Rinaldi was spotted on drum solos, and Sammy also featured his own Dorsey-styled trombone.
Sammy placed a lot of emphasis on ensemble work, and showmanship was also an important part of the band's performances. A review by the highly respected British musical journal Melody Maker sums things up very well...
"This band could blow any British band, including [Ted] Heath's, off the stand for musicianship and showmanship . . . leader Sammy Nestico . . . gave the impression that he stamped his name on every note before it crossed the footlights . . . there was the team work of the saxes - precision playing plus. No British sax section I've ever heard sounds like it . . The trumpet section . . instead of four men, it was like a giant blowing one colossal trumpet . . . the drummer . . . was crisp and light, solid and swingy."
Mel Owen (54--)
Jimmy Craig (--55)
Charlie Almeida (--55)
John Bowling (54--)
Howard Terrell (--55)
Ken Grasley (54--)
Bobby Zottola (54--)
Dick Johnson (55)
Tommy Zang (--54)
Duff Thomas (55-)
The band inherited a full schedule, with a lot of road trips. The climax was a two-month European tour in the spring of 1955, with the Note playing both military bases and civilian concerts in Germany, France, England, and North Africa. The packed houses at the civilian concerts were especially rewarding. Here they were greeted by enthusiastic big band fans who were eager to hear the type of music that the Airmen of Note could deliver so well.
In spite of these successes, Sammy longed to return to arranging. Furthermore, his strong dislike of flying made road trips somewhat of an ordeal. So after the band returned from Europe, he turned in his baton and, having completed his enlistment, left the Air Force. Col. Howard didn't want to see the Air Force Band lose a talent of this caliber and offered Sammy his previous job as staff arranger, along with the opportunity to write for the Air Force Symphony Orchestra. This offer was too good to pass up, so after only a week off the band, Sammy reenlisted. Writing for the Air Force Symphony and other units of the Air Force band proved to be a challenge, and Sammy considers this experience to have been valuable in furthering his musical career. He also continued to write charts for the Airmen of Note until he transferred to the Marine Band in 1965.