The History of the Memory Bros.

 

HOW IT ALL STARTED

Grandma handed the fat kid a piece of paper and instructed him to give it to the lead singer of the band. It seemed like the length of a football field – that walk up to the bandstand.

The year was probably 1960. It was late in the afternoon sometime that summer, and all the windows were propped open at the pavilion at the Fayette County Fairgrounds in West Union, Iowa. It could have been a wedding dance or maybe an anniversary dance. It was hot in there – hot and humid; and it was wall-to-wall people. There were kids, grandpas and grandmas, teenagers, talkers, listeners, dancers and sitters.

The music was real good – four local guys. They called themselves the Knob Prairie Boys. You see that’s what the town of West Union used to be called, Knob Prairie. And that lead singer, he could really sing. He sang all those good old ’50s tunes – you know, Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino even some Jerry Lee Lewis. And he could really sing those country tunes too. Songs like; “Home Of The Blues,” “The Blackboard Of Your Heart,” “Mountain Dew” and “Ways Of A Woman In Love.”

The chubby kid was about 9 or 10 years old. His black hair was cropped close, a butch haircut–pretty much standard fare for young boys in the late ’50s and early ’60s. His grandmother’s favorite song was “The Anniversary Waltz.”  She’d jotted that request down and asked her grandson to take it up to the band.

Knob Prairie Boys (c. 1960)
Front: Larry Crandall, Scott Stahr
Back: Doug Stahr, Rodney Stahr and Tom Stahr

 It was with a mixture of fear and excitement that he carried that request across the old wooden dance floor. Self-consciously he plodded closer and closer to the stage. Way up there beneath the swirling red and blue lights stood the band, and there in the middle was that guy who sang so well.

Believe it or not, this youngster was actually quite a musician himself. He was a piano player. Having shown an aptitude for music at an unusually early age, his mother had started him on formal piano lessons at age 4.  Soon he was wowing his classmates by playing boogie-woogie and befuddling his piano teacher by playing excerpts of Handel’s Messiah by ear.  At age 9, he made the finals of a county-wide talent show – coming in second to a Dixieland band. He’d played “Waggashoe,” an old Johnny Maddox ragtime piano piece.

As the boy had been listening to the Knob Prairie Boys that afternoon, he would notice how good that band sounded—especially when that lead singer was singing. They sounded so . . . so professional!

So, here he was . . . finally. Standing in front of the band – right in front of that lead singer. As the kid lifted the folded napkin towards that guy in the spotlight, the kid began to say, “My grandm–.” The lead singer snatched the request briskly from the boy’s outstretched hand.

“Sorry kid, we don’t know this.”

Doug Koempel had just met Larry Crandall.

THE RUNAWAYS

Their paths wouldn’t cross again for another 5 years. Doug, a high school sophomore, had heard through the grapevine that the band was looking for a keyboard player. The band by now had shed its original name in favor of a more ’60s-oriented moniker, The Runaways.

Through the grapevine, Doug had heard that his name had been mentioned by one of the members of the group during one of their rehearsals. Lead guitarist, Tom Stahr, had heard Doug play some boogie-woogie a few years prior when Doug was still in elementary school.

By this time, 1965, the Beatles had a stranglehold on the charts; and any young musician who was worth his salt wanted to be in a band. So, seeing opportunity present itself at, of all places, the shower facilities at the West Union municipal swimming pool, Doug approached Larry and said, “I understand you’re looking for a keyboard player.” Larry, playing dumb, responded, “Oh, do you play keyboard?”

Shortly thereafter, Doug was invited to a practice session at Tom’s place. Having no transportable keyboard, Doug dug up a toy, electric organ that he’d received as a Christmas gift at age 3. The organ had about two octaves of kiddy-sized keys. It made a terrible wheezing sound, but the guys hooked a microphone up to it; and after having run through a couple of tunes, Larry excitedly proclaimed, “We sound better already!!”

FIRST GIG—The Cameo

Doug’s first appearance with the Runaways was at a rough and tumble place in Decorah called the Cameo. This place was below street level and smelled of smoke and stale beer. Adorning each wall was a series of garish, neon, beer signs. The night was September, 16, 1966; and with his mother and piano teacher sitting attentively at the first table in front of the band, 15-year-old Doug made his professional debut.

Doug soon graduated to a real combo organ, a Farfisa. This keyboard possessed the signature sound of the sixties. From the Ventures to the Buckinghams, the unmistakable sound of the Farfisa could be heard on dozens of hit records. And recording was what was next for the Runaways.

The Runaways (c. 1966)
Left to right: Mark Stahr, Tom Stahr, Doug Koempel
Larry Crandall and Don Eberhart

The Rubber Band (c. 1969)
Left to right: Doug Koempel, Tom Stahr
Larry Crandall and Don Eberhart
(Mark Stahr on drums hidden)

LEONARD MATTER, ballroom operator

In 1968 Leonard Matter, owner of Matter’s Ballroom in Decorah, Iowa, arranged for a recording session for the boys at Coulee Studios in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Leonard wanted the band to record the old standard, “Five-foot Two”; and the guys decided to place an original, “My Baby Left Me,” on the B-side.

Matter had garters made with little buttons attached imprinted with the group’s name and song titles for this single. And speaking of the group’s name—it was to be changed again as to not conflict with another popular, Iowa band called, “D.J. and the Runaways.” This band had just had a regional hit with “Peter Rabbit,” and Matter wanted to avoid any confusion or legal problems, so the “Runaways” officially became “The Rubber Band.”

Matter had envisioned a resurgence of the dance styles of an earlier era. He especially thought the time was ripe for a revival of the Charleston. So, he had some publicity photos taken of the band with a female dancer doing the Charleston on stage. Unfortunately, the record received limited airplay; and needless to say, it didn’t revive the Charleston. Nevertheless, it was a fun experience; and it marked the first time the band visited the recording studio.

The Rubber Band became the house band at Matters Ballroom and would play there every weekend from 1967 until 1970.  In 1969 Larry, on a whim, booked himself and Doug into a small club in Guttenberg, Iowa, the Pilot House. Situated on a bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi River, this venue was about the size of an average living room—quite a contrast to Matters Ballroom, where the guys had been playing to crowds in excess of a thousand each weekend. But this was part of the allure—a more intimate setting. What great feedback it was for Doug and Larry to have the audience within a few feet of them. And the sound – it was so different—just an acoustic guitar, an upright piano and those harmony vocals.  The guys were hooked, and so began the Memory Brothers.

Go-go dancer doing the Charleston with the Rubber Band (c. 1968)

 

THE EARLY DAYS OF “DOUG & LARRY”

At this time, the late ’60s / early ’70s, Larry was a full-time salesman for a food distributor; and Doug was a pre-med student at the University of Iowa. So, most of the playing was restricted to weekends. However, the duo soon began serious discussions regarding going into music full-time. Finally, in 1974 after Doug had graduated from the U of I, he and Larry hit the road. They played mostly in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It was a grueling schedule – sometimes they’d perform up to 40 nights in a row with no break. Back in those days there were many clubs that ran live music 6 and 7 days a week. This was before 65″ home TVs, smartphones and social media. People actually left their homes in the evening to dance and socialize!

GLADYS YOUNG—the beginnings of the Memory Brothers Club & Newsletter

During one of their first road trips to the Black Steer in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, they met Gladys Young. She and her daughter, Vicky, were music lovers who would faithfully attend the Memory Brothers’ engagements at the Black Steer. Gladys and her friends were great supporters of the boys, and soon Gladys formed the Memory Brothers Club.

Gladys would organize get-togethers, picnics and social events. She published a top-notch newsletter entitled the Memo Times, and kept track of all the club members. It wasn’t unusual for Gladys to bring a bunch of folks all the way from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Lake Okoboji in Iowa (540-mile round trip) for a Memory Brothers’ getaway!

The Club continued strong for some 30 years. And even though Gladys has long since retired as president, she set the high standards to which subsequent directors, Wayne & Thelma Goedicke (directors 1980-1987); Cheri Kothenbeutel (director 1987-1990); Linda Jorpeland & Vicki Davidson (directors 1990-1993) and Pam Stinogel (director 1993-2017,) faithfully aspired.

Next installment: Pam Stinogel–our fearless leader!

[Check back for a continuation of “The History of the Memory Brothers.”]