Column: Midwest bands and their shiny buses are chapter in our history
Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared May 20, 2006.
WORTHINGTON — Lately this column told of the Worthington brothers, Harold and Everett Leonard Edstrom — founders of the Hal Leonard Band — as they turned onto McMillan Street with their “large, gleamingwhite, sleeper bus” and parked in front of the family home to show the new bus to their parents.
It was a couple years earlier when Tiny Little rolled into Worthington with a new bus for his band. Sparkling silver and blue, custom-built at Chaska, the Tiny Little bus featured 12 bunks with springs and bedding, a compartment for band instruments, lamps and dome lights, a lavatory and “air brakes which cost Tiny nearly $200 extra.”
Band buses rolled our towns and along our highways for half of the 20th Century. Even if they never went to dances, most residents of the area came to know the names painted boldly on the sides of those distinctive, eye-catching buses — Six Fat Dutchmen and Whoopee John, Lee Baron and Jimmy Barnett, Lawrence Welk, Al Menke, Amby Meyer, Cliff Kyes, Jimmy Thomas, Jules Herman, Guy De Leo. Tompy Thomsen’s band booked out of Round Lake.
The press announcement of Tiny Little’s bus noted that the Little band was “prepared to roll from the Canadian border to northern Texas.” Another recent column recalled that Eddie Skeets took his band, among many places, to Abie in Butler County, Neb. A town pamphlet still boasts that “Eddie Skeets performed in the Abie school auditorium.”
Armella Fagerness recently introduced me to a rare book, “Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer,” by band leader Lee Barron. “Mid-Nite Flyer,” the story of our Midwest bands, is a great and unusual history. For one thing, it made me realize popular music and fame in the 20th century had a great deal to do with geography.
The names of some of the band leaders of the swing era became worldfamous: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Wayne King, Guy Lombardo.
What was the important difference between those bands and the bands whose buses we saw at Worthington and Arnolds Park week by week?
Ballrooms and hotels and night clubs of New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago needed bands, of course. They booked bands for long appearances — two weeks, maybe a month. Some had house bands. The east coast bands and the west coast bands played “under the noses” of reporters from the biggest newspapers, network radio people and people from the record industry. This is what made those bands famous. They traveled often on trains and played “train music”: “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Pennsylvania 65000,” “Take the A Train.”
The towns and cities of the Midwest — Worthington, Lismore, Kanaranzi, Yankton, Mankato — also needed/wanted music. They needed bands. Our Midwest towns, often towns with weekly newspapers and with no radio stations, booked musicians for one-night stands. Lawrence Welk might be at the Worthington Armory Saturday night. Sunday night the Welk band would play the Roof Garden or the Ritz Ballroom. People who signed recording contracts, the people who produced network radio shows, didn’t hear the Midwest bands — the Midwest nomads — who rolled in buses through all hours through all seasons and in all weather.
Their music? It was good music. Local bands were gleaning from the top musicians out of the schools and colleges of the Middle West. Many players mastered two or three instruments, and they sometimes sang as well. Lee Barron is frank that there sometimes were girls chasing bandsmen and bandsmen chasing women. Bandsmen could tell stories of both alcohol and marijuana.
The local bands rolled along the curving, two-lane concrete ribbons of our region, frequently in the early morning hours, to bring us entertainment. They often did not eat well, they often did not sleep well. They kept truckin’.
Barron barely speculates on what the future might have been. He reflects that the Japanese airplanes that attacked Pearl Harbor largely knocked out the local bands as well. Bandsmen became soldiers. Young men left the dance floors and girls sang, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.” Gas rationing and tire rationing stopped the big buses. Only a few bands were reorganized for the 1950s and 1960s.
Times changed, but the bands we knew wrote a huge history all their own.