Remembering The Vultures
WESTBROOK -- In the early 1970s, it was not unusual for at least two country or country-rock bands to be playing a "gig" somewhere in Westbrook.
The VFW Club would probably have a band. Al's Bar -- which would later become the Elkhorn Inn -- usually had music. Sometimes there would be a wedding dance or something going on at the Legion Hall.
Two of the area's best bands were Bar None and D.C. & Company.
Both were similar. They would start the evening with mostly country songs, like Bar None performing Waylon Jennings' "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" or D.C. & Company singing Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings."
But, as the evening progressed, both of these talented groups would go back in time and rock the crowd back to the late '50s or early '60s, with classics like Buddy Holly's "Rave On" (Bar None) and Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" (D.C. & Company).
I followed both of those bands faithfully for several years and loved the music they played, getting to like country and fondly remembering the "old rock" songs that we used to listen to on WDGY (Minneapolis) during the day and KOMA (Oklahoma City) at night.
Little did I know then that two guys from each of those bands had played with a pure '50s and '60s rock band, The Vultures, nearly a decade earlier.
Now, I had heard of The Vultures, as they had played for Heron Lake High School's prom in the spring of 1965, when my older brother Dane was a senior.
But, I was an eighth-grader and never got close to the prom.
Colleen Freking, the current high school secretary at Southwest Star Concept High School in Okabena, grew up as Colleen Burns and was a HLHS junior in '65. She had seen The Vultures before and would hear them play many times after.
"Oh, they were so good," Colleen remembers. "They had a great sound and played such good songs -- they were just awesome."
So, how good were they?
Good enough to play with J. Frank Wilson of "Last Kiss" fame and good enough to open once for the Everly Brothers and another time for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
That was pretty big stuff for four young guys out of Westbrook, who had almost no musical training and certainly learned on the fly as they developed the style that made them so popular in southwest Minnesota.
The four members of the Vultures -- all Westbrook High School graduates -- were drummer Roger Sondergaard, bass guitar player and lead vocalist Wally Bloch, lead guitarist John Pederson and rhythm guitar player Jim Pederson.
Only Bloch had much musical experience, having played saxophone in the WHS band.
The Pederson twins really got the ball rolling when they each bought guitars -- from Sears -- and taught themselves how to play.
"It was slow progress at first," recalled Jim, who later played lead guitar for Loose Change, a three-man band from 1988-2008.
"We didn't have that much time to practice," chimed in John, who was the lead guitar player for Bar None. "We had school, cows to milk (about 60) and in the winter, we had wrestling."
The twins played a few instrumental gigs at various events in the Westbrook area and then persuaded Bloch to join them.
"At first, they wanted me to play saxophone," remembered Bloch, who played with several bands -- including D.C. & Company -- over a 44-year career. "But, The Beatles were just coming in big then (February of 1964) and they had three guitars and a drummer.
"So, I bought a bass guitar and learned how to play, but we still needed a drummer."
Bloch, who Jim says was "the only musician and the brains of the outfit," had the ability to read notes, which is something he never learned.
"That's right," said John. "We were both note illiterate."
But all three learned how to listen to a song and figure out the chords, developing a feel for playing by ear that became a part of them over time.
"It did become automatic," Jim recalled about learning and repeating a song.
While in their senior year in the late winter of 1964, John, Jim and Wally -- along with drummer Dave Bergendahl, who was even a couple of years younger -- performed in a talent show at the school's gymnasium.
"We played two songs, 'Kansas City' (Wilbert Harrison) and 'Summertime Blues' (Eddie Cochran), and we got more cheers than anybody," recalled Wally. "But, we got beat out in the judging by a baton twirler."
Soon after the talent contest, the band took on the name of The Sonics, and Roger Sondergaard -- who was a bit older, having graduated from WHS in 1961 -- became the group's new drummer.
Sondergaard, who died unexpectantly of a heart attack at age 52 in 1996, was featured in a six-page story about The Vultures in "The Flip Side: An Illustrated History of Southern Minnesota Rock & Roll Music from 1955-1970" by Jim Oldsberg, published in 1991.
Sondergaard loved music, but didn't know much about how to play any instrument.
"Roger would bang on chairs with coat hangers in our basement," recalled '62 WHS graduate Bruce Lichty, who now lives in the New London-Spicer area and was a good friend of all four Vultures. "With some help from Wally, he learned how to play the drums and just kept getting better and better."
Sondergaard later became the drummer and a main vocalist for D.C. & Company and for Split Image (1976-78) before moving to the Twin Cities area and doing the same for a decade with the Night Sounds '65.
According to Sondergaard in "The Flip Side":
"The twins had an old set of Ludwig and Leede drums, something that a polka band had probably used. The set consisted of a snare drum, cheap cymbals and big booming bass (with flashing lights and a scene painted on the front of it).
"I didn't have the foggiest idea how to play the instrument. Wally, being quite versatile -- and actually the twins, too -- but Wally, in particular, showed me the basics. You know, how to hold the sticks, the alternating beats with your right foot and then left (the rhythm riot), and then the bass drive. Gradually, it evolved in me."
By the spring of '64, the four-member band was set and the gigs started coming in.
"We didn't know many songs at first," recalled Wally. "When we played at the Jeffers prom, we only knew about a dozen, so we kept playing the same ones."
The band's P.A. system was far from the best, but the Sonics -- who changed their name to the Ex-Sonics, then the Exonics before settling on The Vultures (bird names were popular in the mid-'60s) -- just kept plugging away.
"They played the popular rock music of the time," recalled Lichty, who designed their first poster -- a caricature of a vulture on a mic stand. "The guys played a lot of local dances and really drew nice-sized crowds of high school and college kids, who really had fun because The Vultures' music was so in tune with the times."
The band was learning more and more songs and doing them well.
"I remember one time we played seven of the songs that we were in top 10 that week," recalled Wally. "It was becoming fun, as we got better playing together and improved our total sound."
Among those improvements was a "gift" for Roger.
New drums and a 1957 Plymouth station wagon
To help out, the three guitar players took a trip to Friesen's Music Store in Worthington and put down well over $200 -- with the help of a bank note co-signed by Wally's dad, multi-purpose farmer W.R. Bloch -- to pay for a nice Ludwig's pearl drum set, which Roger was eager to play.
"Jim and John paid my dad back and then Roger paid the twins back with his gig money," recalled Wally. "We sort of distributed the investment."
With the band's increasing popularity -- along with the bigger set of drums -- they needed a better way to transport everything.
W.R. came to the rescue again, buying a 1957 Plymouth station wagon, which The Vultures used for driving to their dances. They took out the middle seat and put all the equipment there, while two guys rode in the front and two sat in the rear seat, facing backwards.
"It was isolated and hot in that back seat," recalled Wally. "It wasn't the best."
But, the long wagon did the trick, getting The Vultures to places as far away as Lake Andes, S.D., and Dubuque, Iowa.
The longest trip the band ever took was in the summer of 1965, when it once played in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on a Friday night and did a gig at the Air Force Base in Minot, N.D., the next evening.
"We drove all night and all day," remembered John. "They were just building Interstate 94 then, so we got to take that for a little ways. Otherwise, it was two lanes of two-way traffic all the way."
While traveling throughout the upper Midwest in both 1965 and 1966, The Vultures also continued playing frequently at places like the Currie Hall and the Tracy Armory, along with some occasional Sunday afternoon performances on the beach at Talcot Lake, which was a popular teenager hangout.
Typically opening -- and closing -- with "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen, which became a signature song for The Vultures, the band continued to draw large crowds wherever they played.
"They had a great following," recalls Sharon Lintner Musegades, who was just a young teenager when The Vultures were popular. She really jumped on Bar None's bandwagon a decade later, having John, Jim, bass player Curt Arndt and drummer Denny Fulin play for her and Rick's wedding dance at the Westbrook Legion Hall in 1976. "Wherever Bar None was playing, we were going."
Sharon's uncle Ron was a '64 classmate of John, Jim and Wally and went to a number of Vultures' dances.
"They were young and they were good, very good," Ron remembers. "They sang so well together."
Harmonizing was certainly one of The Vultures' strengths. The vocals of each of them came through on most of their songs, including a well-done rendition of "Nowhere Man" by The Beatles, which they performed at the Iowa Great Lakes (IGL) Dance Jamboree in Spencer, Iowa, in late March of 1966.
"There were about 30 bands there, but we were the only ones to sing that one," Wally said. "We did a couple of others, but 'Nowhere Man' went over the best."
Cut dual-sided record; play with J. Frank Wilson; open for Everly Brothers, Mitch Ryder
By the summer of 1965, The Vultures were realizing a lot of success.
Both Roger and Wally had been going to school in Mankato and got to know Roger O'Day and Jim Ruud, who were DJs at KTOE Radio.
With their help, The Vultures recorded a two-sided record: "Baby, What You Want Me To Do" and "Good Lovin' (not the Rascals song) on the JRJ label, paying $275 to have 500 copies pressed.
According to Roger in "The Flip Side":
"We sold a few off the stage, put 50 copies in the local pharmacy, and sent the majority out as a promotion to radio stations. We sent some to KDWB in the Twin Cities, to WLS in Chicago and even as far away as KOMA in Oklahoma City.
"Later, while I was stationed on night duty in Fort Jackson, S.C., I heard it played once at 5 a.m."
After cutting the record -- which was played often on KDOM's "oldies" show (by DJ Dr. K) during the 1980s -- O'Day and Ruud really began promoting The Vultures.
While the band played frequently in the Mankato area in '65 and '66, they also performed at classic ballrooms like The Roof Garden in Arnolds Park, Iowa, the Hollyhock in Hatfield and the Showboat in Lake Benton.
They also cut another record -- this time at the IGL Studios in Milford -- with a couple of original songs written by Jim and John.
The two songs were "That's Why" (which had sort of a Beau Brummels sound to it) and "Mary Lou" (which included a dubbed in saxophone part by Wally).
In the summer of 1966, The Vultures had a trio of engagements with national recording artists.
At the Hollyhock, they opened for the legendary Everly Brothers -- who were very popular nationwide in the late '50s and early '60s.
"They sure had a nice, big bus," Jim remembered about Don and Phil. "We played the dance part of the night, before and after their show."
Later, The Vultures were back in Hatfield again, playing before and after the up-and-coming band Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
"That was a blast," recalled John. "They were impressive, and we had a real nice crowd."
The crowd wasn't so great when The Vultures played near Aberdeen, S.D.
In October of 1964, "Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers had reached No. 2 on Billboard's Top 40.
After practicing and playing with Wilson a couple of times in the Mankato area, The Vultures replaced the Cavaliers in the South Dakota gig -- which didn't go so good.
Roger put it this way in "The Flip Side":
"Our band was really cooking, but because it was such a remote club there were less than 20 people there. J. Frank still wanted us to travel with him, but none of us figured that was a good idea."
Military, marriages bring Vultures to an end
That long, non-money-making venture to northern South Dakota may have been the beginning of the end for The Vultures.
Between July of '65 and November of '66, all four married and their priorities changed.
Along with military obligations, family responsibilties and a change in rock 'n roll music, the guys were tired of traveling.
After the band broke up in the fall of '66, John, Wally and Roger played briefly with a six-member band called The Attractions.
A few years later, Jim began playing again and became the lead singer for Bar None, along with John, Curt and Denny.
Not long after that, Wally and Roger joined Dale and Curt Nelson, a pair of guitar-playing cousins from Walnut Grove and formed D.C. & Company.
"Dale and Curt were the D.C. and Roger and I were the company," said Wally, who only took about five or six years off during a span of 44 years.
For a decade during the late '70s and much of the '80s, Split Image -- with Jim, Wally, Roger and Dave Pederson (the twins' younger brother) -- was a popular area country-rock band.
Okabena's Tim "Spice" Spencer took over on drums when Roger moved north in '78. Dean Lichty replaced Wally for awhile on bass guitar and both Rod Schmidt and Max Elg played a bit with Split Image.
Then, in 1988, the three-piece band Loose Change -- with Jim on lead guitar, Wally on bass and Alan Salzwedel on drums -- began a 20-year run together, with all three sharing the vocals.
Vultures reunite in '91
After not having played together as a foursome, The Vultures did have a "Blast from the Past" type of reunion on Aug. 31, 1991, as they played for Jim's daughter Sherry's wedding dance in Westbrook.
"There was no pressure and it was a lot of fun," summed up Jim. "I didn't even have to pay the band."
"It was great having all four of us together again," concluded Wally. "We started out as just a raw garage band, but we really clicked and had a lot of fun times."
That was likely the bottom line. The Vultures -- they created fun for others and had fun themselves, too.