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After my divorce in 1961, I decided to concentrate on learning how to play guitar. In my early years, I had a few lessons on violin, piano and dobro, but I hadn’t kept up. My friend Jerry Kujava sold me his old Kay, and taught me a few chords to get started. Then he had to go to the county jail for 60 days, and when he came out, I knew many more chords than he did.
I should explain: A woman who stayed at home could not sign for a loan, so Jerry’s name was on the loan he took for furniture and appliances. He came home from work one day and found his wife’s father and brother had come with a trailer and carried his wife and belongings off to parts unknown, and he went to jail for concealing mortgaged property.
The old Kay was an auditorium style, with an extra large body and a very wide neck. As soon as I could afford it, I want to Duluth with Jerry, and at Hawley Music I made arrangements to buy a Gibson Southern Jumbo on time. It came with a cloth case, which I later replaced with a solid Guild case.
Jerry was teamed up with Rob Gil-more, who had a powerful voice (he loved Mario Lanza) and played his Gretsch Country Gentleman like Chet Atkins. They played occasional gigs at private parties or wherever and on weekends they were free, we took our guitars to lakeside bars and played for drinks. Rob explained that I was the better guitarist, but he played with Jerry because he was a good man on the mic. Jerry was good looking and women flocked around him.
They played the PaloMar in Oliver on occasion, and I went there to hear other bands as well. Next door at the Deluxe. a band from Cloquet appeared and drew a big crowd. It was the DelMars, led by Bert Wendling and his brother Dick. I didn’t know Bert then, but years later he told me the band was named after Del Marie Hebert, Spec Hebert’s daughter, and a well-known beauty, whom Bert and a lot of other guys had a crush on.
I was living at my mother’s house on 22nd Street, and Don Brown had just gotten married and moved in across the street. I had known Don for a few years then. He was a cousin to the Mitchell boys I had known all my life. Don was a huge Johnny Cash fan, and I was too. We would go down his basement to do a little woodshedding on our guitars. In the early days, Cash played with the Tennessee Two – Luther Perkins on lead and Marshall Grant on bass. Luther had a unique style of playing, and Don knew how he got that thumping sound. The secret was to sort of muffle the strings with the heel of your hand.
Les Clemens whom I had heard playing his guitar when I was a teen had moved to the country, and I would go to his house and play the old songs. Around the same time, Rob, Jerry, me and whoever else showed up had jam sessions at Bob Zacher’s tavern in Sawyer. One of the guys showing up was Les’s youngest brother Laury, who played a great lead guitar. His voice, not so much. A few years later, I was tending bar at the Eagle’s Club and his band The Tempests were playing. Laury’s voice was very strong, and I asked him how he had done it. He said he would sing a song in one key until he could do it easily. Then he would go up half a step at a time, singing until it got comfortable.
Les Clemens kept dragging me out to play gigs. I was mic shy, and hated getting up with one. We went to one gig where some relatives of mine were. I was embarrassed trying to play and sing in front of them, but Don Brown to the rescue. He was comfortable with a mic, so he kind of took over, and I just had to strum and harmonize.
I jammed a little with Jim Wuollet at my house and realized he could play lead guitar. I told him that, and he said he hated playing an electric guitar, much preferring an acoustic. A couple years later, he was playing in The Rubber Band with my classmate Hank DeRusha. Electric guitar. Don “Fluffy” Vafias on bass, Scotty Axtell on drums.
I was playing more with Les, and put a Barcus-Berry pick-up on my Gibson.
We were playing a lot at Bev and Bill’s in Wrenshall. Jody Hecker was a teenager who played drums, and wouldn’t sing, Les didn’t sing much, so I did most of it. It was torturing my voice. Then Louie DeRusha played drums. He sang a few songs too, which helped tremendously. Louie also played bass guitar. I picked up an Epiphone bass, and when Louie started playing that, he didn’t want to drum any more.
I was going to night school at UMD, so I had to quit. Les found another guy to sing with him while I sat out. Hank was beginning to suffer from asbestosis, and decided to move to Arizona, so the Rubber Band broke up.
That spring, Digger DeRusha asked me to start a band with him. Digger was Hank’s son, who was and still is a master musician, so I jumped at the chance. We got Don Vafias and Scotty Axtell to join us. Scotty left almost immediately to join Don Brown’s band. We picked up Tim Hagenah.
Digger wanted a honkytonk sound, and we became the house band at the Eagles. People wanted to call us the Rubber Band, but Digger said “We’re not the Rubber Band, we’re the Other Band.” That name stuck.
We were doing well through the summer, but in the fall, we all got bad colds at once. We called in Dave Stenson to do the singing for us. Dave has a great voice, and is funny at the mic. When we got our voices back we talked Digger into keeping him with us. Digger and Dave were old friends, but this wasn’t the band Digger wanted, so after the first year, he decided to leave.
We got Jim Wuollet to play with us. Jim had had his fill of bands, so he agreed to play only one year. After that year, we again needed a lead guitarist.
Bert and Dick Wendling had moved to Minneapolis, playing there for about 10 years. Then Dick decided he’d had enough, and Bert moved back to the area to start medical school. I heard he was looking for work, so I called him, and asked if he was interested. He was, so we got together at Fluffy’s house and jammed a little.
Bert had to drop out of med school, so he was looking for extra income. He came up with the Country Opry, which we staged at the Cloquet High School. Our band accompanied invited singers. We had the female vocal group called Misty singing backup, and a guest band to play a set of their music. The first guest band was Don Brown’s. His son Greg was trying to make it as a record producer, so he had done an album with his dad. We had 4-500 people at the first Opry, so I think Don sold a lot of albums that day. Les Swanson was playing steel guitar for Don at the time, and he would join us on his own after that. Les owned what is now called the Oldenberg House in Carlton.
After playing in bars and for wedding dances where people were mostly talking, it was a real rush to play for people who were there to listen.
The 1980s were good years for musicians and music lovers. Practically every place with a dance floor had bands, at least on the weekends. We had all the jobs we needed in Cloquet, so we seldom took jobs elsewhere. We did play a couple of times on Barker’s Island in Superior, and once as part of a 5 band show at the Gopher. This show was sponsored by WDSM which was the country music station in Duluth. One of the other bands was Laury Clemen’s The Tempests. WDSM sent 4 of their DJs including Carla McCauley, whose family also had a band which did not play here.
We did get as far as Ely for a wedding dance, and to the Canterbury Inn in Shakopee, but those were just rare instances. We played a couple of times at the Taylor Falls campgrounds for a pig roast put on by a printing firm from St. Paul. We brought our wives to that and had a great time. My van had a fold-down bed in it so we could stay overnight. We got a couple very good meals out of it too.
Don Brown had me fill in for him at times, but my favorite time was for a street dance during Carlton Daze, where Billy Barnard filled in at lead guitar. Billy is well known from teaching at UMD and for his jazz guitar work. For this, we were filling in with a country band, and Bill has no trouble with that either. It was a pleasure working with him.
Our second Country Opry was in Proctor, and our guest band was Swanny Cash with his band Hard Times. Swanny was from Duluth, and he played occasionally at the Cloquet VFW. Billy Bernard was also on that program, as was Pete McCartney, who had played the fiddle with Whiskey River, a popular regional band. Les Swanson brought his steel to fill out our sound.
Tim Hagenah had a high tenor voice, Fluffy’s voice was near bass, and the rest of us divided up the harmonies so we could do some four-part songs. I played a little keyboard on a few songs like Dire Strait’s “Walk of Life.”
In the late ’80s, Bert died of a massive heart attack, and Fluffy got a superintendent’s job with Rust Engineering, so we had to audition bass players and lead guitarists. I brought in my friend Ron Demianuk, who had played bass for 17 years with County Fair, a band from the Iron Range. We auditioned several lead guitarists and settled on Les Hazelton, who had a music degree from UMD and had spent a year or so on the road with a rock band before he got a sales job in Duluth.
I finally bought a 1985 Collector’s Series Ovation acoustic/electric to play without worry of feedback. Then I got a call from Don Brown. His son Greg was going to have Johnny Cash in the studio, and he wanted to know if I would like to go to Nashville with him to meet Cash? How fast did I answer? Stay tuned.
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