Former ‘disco cop’ to give jazz concert in Riverhead

06/19/2018 6:00 AM |

You may know Craig Boyd of Riverhead as the “disco cop” who used dance moves to direct traffic at a busy intersection in Hampton Bays and became known nationally for a time.

Or you may know him as the chairman of the music department at Suffolk County Community College, a position he held from 1994 to 2013. 

You may even know him from his first band back in the 1960s, called the Big Men. At age 14, Mr. Boyd played in that band with the late Vietnam War hero Garfield Langhorn; they played at the 1965 World’s Fair. Curtis Highsmith later joined the band to form Little Curtis and the Big Men, one of the most popular local bands. 

But on Friday, Mr. Boyd, who is still a professor of music at the college, will get back to doing what he started out doing: playing music in his hometown of Riverhead, in a presentation he’s calling “Full Circle.”

He will perform a solo jazz guitar concert at Riverhead Free Library at 7 p.m. Friday, June 22. 

Mr. Boyd said it was the rockabilly music of Duane Eddy that originally turned him on to the guitar as a youngster.

“My mother saw that I was interested, so she went down to Ninow’s Music and bought a guitar for me,” he recalled. “To this day, I can’t remember when I didn’t have a guitar.”

He was 6 when he started taking lessons from Otto Ninow in Riverhead. His mother and his entire family were musically inclined, and his mother made sure everyone played an instrument. 

“The guitar game me purpose in life,” Mr. Boyd said in an interview this week. 

He would walk to Ninow’s from Roanoke Avenue school for lessons, but he also learned from migrant farm workers who played at Grangebel Park.

“These men used to walk around with guitars on their backs, they were blues men,” Mr. Boyd said. “You don’t see that anymore.”

Craig Boyd with his guitar. (Courtesy photo)

When he was 12, he joined his first band, which included Mr. Langhorn, who would later sacrifice his own life in the Vietnam War to save other soldiers from a live grenade.

Mr. Langhorn was his “mentor” on guitar, Mr. Boyd said. 

“He was really a nice kid,” Mr. Boyd said. “I can see his big smile now. He knew chords on the guitar that I didn’t know.”

Pfc. Garfield Langhorn posthumously received the Medal of Honor, and a bust honoring him is located outside Riverhead Town Hall. 

Mr. Boyd later attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, earning degrees in music composition and music education. He taught music in the Riverhead School District for several years before going to Suffolk County Community College, where he was director of bands for 10 years before becoming chair of the music department. 

In 2005, he received the State University of New York’s Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.

In the late 1970s, he worked as a session musician while attending school. Over the years, he produced, recorded, composed, arranged, conducted and performed jazz, classical, pop and dance music. 

His brother Wayne convinced him to become a part-time traffic control officer for the Southampton Town Police Department. 

By Memorial Day 1981, the “disco cop” was born. He started doing his moves while directing traffic at the intersection of Shinnecock Road and Foster Avenue in Hampton Bays, which leads to the ocean beaches. He was then moved to the busy corner of Good Ground Road and Ponquogue Avenue, where he started getting noticed. 

Mr. Boyd, then 30, began dancing in the middle of street while simultaneously directing cars, and it caught on. (Catch his old routine on YouTube)

He would spin his arms while hopping on one foot before telling a driver whether to stop or go. Sometimes, he’d spin around completely in the middle of moving traffic before giving directions. 

“The store owners and the people in the community were very positive about it,” he said. “I had no idea it was bringing so much attention. It was just my way of doing things. And I never had an accident.”

He said his background in conducting music actually helped him direct traffic. 

The locals loved him — and he was even featured in a Burger King commercial. He recalled a time someone was parked in a fire zone and he went into a bar to tell the man to move his car; about five men from “out of town” became hostile and confronted him.

“Then, all of a sudden, about five local guys, big guys, came up, and said, ‘You all right, Disco?’ They had my back.”

He only did his “disco cop” routine for two summers, and says he never wanted to become a full-time police officer. 

His run-in at the bar, he said, “was nothing compared to what a real police officer is involved in.”

In an 2011 interview with the Southampton Press, Conrad Teller, who was Southampton Town police chief at the time, said the department received numerous letters about the disco cop and “most of them loved him. He kept traffic moving and it was a very tough spot in them days.”

Nowadays, an electronic signal conducts traffic at the intersection of Ponquogue Avenue and Good Ground Road. But Mr. Boyd said people still remember him.

“It was quite an experience,” he said. 

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Top photo caption: Craig Boyd “disco cop” performs as he directs traffic. (Courtesy photo)

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