Remembering a man who embraced the child within
Originally published Monday, April 4, 2005
By Jami Whited
JEROME -- He always told his daughters, "You don't have to be in the
limelight to be a success, you can be just as successful in the
shadows." And as successful as he was in the shadows, bassist George
Atwood remained humble and gracious for everything he was given.
Atwood, a prominent musician in the 1950s and 1960s and well-known with
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, died on Easter Sunday, March
27 in Twin Falls. Atwood had lived in Magic Valley since the early
Born in 1920 in Alabama, his mother died half an hour after his birth.
Atwood's father and two aunts raised him.
Teachers discovered his talent in music and, at 12 years old, Atwood
won an all-state competition playing the tuba.
At age 14, Atwood joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus,
cleaning up after animals. He soon was training with the best clowns of
the golden era, including the legendary Lou Jacobs.
With a twinkle in his big brown eyes, Atwood was sure to put smiles on
the faces of both children and adults. As Go-Ee the Clown, he had a
wire hooked to a small light bulb in his big red nose to blink at
children and one to a big plastic heart on his chest for girls.
His music talent never faltered. After leaving the circus he toured
with Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman and was later in the U.S. Navy band.
While serving in World War II, Atwood received his Purple Heart after
his ship was hit and shrapnel struck his leg. It was never removed.
But that didn't stop Atwood. After spending a year in the hospital, he
stayed active as Go-Ee and also in the music industry, including the
Lubbock Symphony Orchestra.
One of his favorite bands to work with was Buddy Holly and the
Crickets. In 1958 he played bass on Holly's recordings of "Heartbeat,"
"Love's Made a Fool of You" and "Wishing."
Holly told Atwood he wanted to build a recording studio in Lubbock,
Texas, and wanted Atwood to be a studio musician and serve as a public
relations person, just two months before his infamous death in a plane
"I don't think he ever got over the loss of Buddy. They were friends,"
said his daughter, Paula Clary.
Other musicians feel the same way about Atwood.
John Pickering of The Picks, a trio of backup singers who vocally
backed up several musicians, including Holly, met Atwood at the Norman
Petty Recording Studio on Clovis, N.M., in 1957.
"He was the gentle-giant type," Pickering said. Atwood played on The
Picks' recordings of "Moondreams" and "Look into the Future."
Big George, as he was affectionately called, also played bass for the
Norman Petty Trio, The Roses, Roy Orbison and Buddy Knox.
Music may have been his passion, but Atwood also enjoyed drawing,
genealogy research and photography. He had a knack for calling circus
animals, enjoyed fishing and colorful flowers.
"He loved to plant beautiful flower beds and enjoyed gardening," Clary
Even while receiving care at a nursing home, he planted snapdragons
outside his door.
Upon leaving the music industry, Atwood and his wife moved to South
Padre Island, Texas, where he managed condominiums and made balloon
animals. While on the island, a can of chlorine gas exploded on Atwood,
leaving him with a chronic lung condition.
Even with his illness, Atwood never wanted to be a bother to anyone and
continued making people smile.
"George wanted people to be happy, he would just look for the one thing
that people would enjoy," said Sharon Johnson, a former caretaker who
Atwood considered like a granddaughter.
Christmas, Easter and Halloween were among his favorite holidays and he
often dressed up as Santa Claus to visit schools.
In Lubbock, he worked at a toy store and often fixed broken or damaged
toys. One Christmas, Atwood repaired a life-size doll, tricycle and
blue pedal car.
"I remember going into the room on Christmas morning and the doll had a
beautiful yellow dress on and she was sitting in the car with a
tricycle next to it," Clary remembers, falling silent. "And that was
just Daddy. He took what little he was given and did the best he
Even while living somewhat in the shadows, Atwood was never far from
people's minds. In June 1999, he was inducted into the Norman Petty
Studios Hall of Fame at the Jerome City Library and the mayor declared
it George Atwood Day.
"As a song by West Texan Jimmy Dean once said of 'Big John,' George
Atwood was in every way a 'big, big man,'" Pickering said.