While I wrote about old friends in last week’s column, fellow Star Courier writers Mike Berry and Rocky Stufflebeam both touched on another interesting subject: Old music.
It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, because I was there.
And so were they.
There was an active live music scene going on in the area back in the 60’s, fueled, mostly, by the “British Invasion” of rock bands like the Beatles, Yardbirds and Rolling Stones, and reflected in the sudden popularity of US bands that included the Beach Boys, the Byrds and a whole host of others. Kewanee and its surrounding towns suddenly became a hotbed of garage bands made up of young guys (mostly) who dreamed of making it as musicians or, at least, of getting some girls to talk to them.
I first got my hands on a guitar when my brother and sister both started playing instruments while in college in response to the folk music craze that swept college campuses in the late 50’s/early 60’s. I was a “folkie” myself at first, but switched my musical allegiance approximately 7 seconds after I heard the Beatles play “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” on the Ed Sullivan Show. By the summer of 1966, I was an aspiring rock singer/guitarist looking for a place to be. At the same time, Mike and Rocky were doing similar things. Mike had a great musical pedigree. His dad was a well-known area musician, while both he and his cousins, Dennis and Gene, were musical up-and-comers who were both admired and envied because they seemed to actually know how to play their instruments beyond the basic three-chord progressions most of us relied on. I was cruising Kewanee with some friends, when we made a stop at a garage on Tenney Street. The four-piece band rehearsing inside consisted of a lead singer, a drummer, a bass player, and a curly-haired lead guitarist named Rocky (I’ve omitted the other guys’ names in case they’d rather forget about that chapter in their lives.) Sensing a golden opportunity, I wangled a chance to sit in and displayed my abilities as both a player and singer with an enthusiastic rendition of a mostly forgotten song called “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” written by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers and made famous that summer by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. By the end of the song, I was led to believe that I was in, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Well, maybe not history, per se, since probably no one but Rocky and me and the other guys in the band remember much of it. But it was, nonetheless, a crowning moment in what remains a fond memory.
Those early days were not without challenges, however. For one thing, I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so I had to rely on friends and, often, my parents to get to and from rehearsals and playing jobs. I was kind of surprised at how supportive my parents were with the whole thing, as they ferried me back and forth from Galva to Kewanee. It was not until I became a parent myself that I realized they would have probably done anything to get me, my electric guitar, and those damnable three-chord songs out of their house and into anyone else’s garage or basement.
A steady place to practice was a bit of a problem, too, as parents would get tired of our clutter, noise and friends and send us packing. We finally settled in at a small backyard shed that the bass player’s dad had built to house the chinchilla ranch that was going to make him wealthy. The furry money-makers were long gone, so we moved into the tiny structure and began to make noise in earnest.
The quality of that noise was pretty mixed and fancy, both because of an inconsistent talent level and the equipment we played. I admired Rocky’s gear, which included a Swedish-made Hagstrom guitar and a piggyback Sears Silvertone amp, both of which would probably be worth something today if he still had them. I was never able to afford one of the fine American electric guitars with names like Fender or Gibson, so I had a series of inexpensive knockoff brands that were hard to play and sounded worst. My amps were generally underpowered, undependable no-name models until I obtained, for the princely sum of fifty dollars, an aged Fender Tremolux amp that I still own and is worth a pretty penny indeed, despite some serious cosmetic issues that existed when I bought it that made it look like it had been used as an ashtray right before it was dragged behind a car.
Though my memory may have shined things up a bit, I seem to remember that we eventually got pretty good. We played a lot, getting jobs at school and church dances and other places. We had a decent repertoire of songs that included hits from the WLS Silver Dollar Survey and a few more esoteric tunes that we liked.
Eventually, work and college brought it all to an end, though I’ve continued to play a lot of music for a lot of people in a lot of places over the years, leaving me the only working musician among that original bunch of guys. We didn't get rich and famous. Not surprising, as reflected in an old question-and-answer joke that goes like this:
Q. How do you make a million dollars as a musician?
A. Start with two million.
And I guess that’s so.
But the lessons I learned playing in that first band have lasted me a lifetime. I learned about things like confidence, cooperation, hard work and determination.
And, most important, I learned how to dream.