Master of the blues
HUMBOLDT — He bought his first drum kit for $15 at a Fort Dodge pawn shop with money he saved mowing yards.
He was 11 years old.
Now, after more than 50 years as a drummer with some of the biggest names in music, Ardie Strutzenberg is the newest member of the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame. The charismatic Humboldt native has played all over the world — Europe, Australia, South America, even Carnegie Hall in New York –but his love for his hometown roots remains as true as his drumbeat.
“I really feel like Humboldt is unique in the universe,” he said. “If you know the history of the town’s settlement, it was designed as a kind of intellectual Utopia, a place for learning and a free exchange of ideas. One of the first things they did was to build a college on the hill north of town. I think that ideal is in Humboldt’s DNA. When I was growing up it was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And a lot of times people don’t realize how good Humboldt is until they leave for awhile and then come back. I take a piece of Humboldt with me everywhere I go.”
The way he tells it, Ardie didn’t choose to be a drummer; drumming chose him.
“I really feel like I was born to be a drummer,”he said. “It’s in the genes, in the blood. When I was a kid I would sometimes hear my mom banging out a boogie-woogie on the piano, the only song she knew. I wasn’t attracted to the music, but the percussion, the vibration really got to me.”
One night when Ardie was 12, a family friend who had spent too much time at a downtown bar stopped by the Strutzenberg home and asked Ardie and his friend, guitarist Ed Lindsey, to play him a song. They did and the man gave them each $2. “Now you’re professionals,”he joked.
Ardie was so taken by the idea of being paid to play music that it wasn’t long before he and Lindsey teamed up with John Callahan and the late Mark Flanagan to form his first band, Blue Condition.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Ardie played throughout high school with Callahan, Flanagan, Jon Porter and Randy Berka as the Lazy River Band, and later with Callahan, Flanagan and John Brandsgard as Goo.
Depending on the personnel, they played everything from contemporary Top 40 to heavy album rock.
“We had two booking agents when we were still in high school and they had us playing a lot of gigs all over the state,”
Ardie recalled. “At first, none of us were old enough to have a driver’s license so our dads had to drive us to every gig. We were making really good money, more than some of my high school teachers were making, and that’s when I decided I wanted to play drums professionally. I’ve never worked in an office or a factory — I’ve always done my job with two wooden sticks in my hands.”
Ardie left Humboldt and played some high voltage rock in the Twin Cities, then some western swing and rhythm and blues in Kansas. He was learning to play all styles of music. But it wasn’t until he landed in Nashville that he had his blues epiphany.
“I was playing with a country act. We were on the road a lot and making really good money. I was living the high life — expensive cars and clothes — but playing that music was just killing my soul. Then I happened to sit in on a jam session with a blues guy named Chicago Charlie and that changed everything.”
“The guys that play the blues are authentic. They aren’t pretending to be something or someone they aren’t. Their music is honest. That really appealed to me.”
So Ardie joined up with Chicago Charlie, then later with another old blue artist named Homesick James, who had been part of the Chicago blues scene in the 1950s with legends like Howlin’ Wolf. James loved the way Ardie played drums and soon Ardie was playing prestigious gigs throughout the country. His blues career had taken off. Well, sort of.
“You don’t get paid much when you play the blues. I went from owning two sports cars to living in a van. I was broke as hell, but I was loving every minute of it.”
Ardie gained notoriety as a blues drummer and became a regular session man in Nashville studios. He estimates he’s appeared on at least a hundred, “maybe 200,” blues albums in his career. Then in 1999 he met and began playing with the man he calls his mentor — blues legend Taj Mahal, a 10-time nominated and three-time Grammy winner.
Ardie has been a regular drummer for Taj Mahal since then and produced his recent album “Labor Of Love.”
Ardie has been inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame and the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame. When he learned of his Iowa Blues Hall of Fame induction and that he would get to perform at the ceremony, Ardie needed to assemble a band. He had his pick of dozens of blues players he had worked with over the years, many of whom preceded him into the Hall of Fame. But his first call went to his former high school bandmates — Berka, Porter and Brandsgard — and they jumped on board in a heartbeat.
“There is a real brotherhood with these guys that goes back nearly 50 years. I would play with them over anybody. And they are good musicians. I’ve played with Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, and John Brandsgard is a better guitarist than those guys. They deserve to be in the Iowa Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and I hope one day we’ll all get there.”
Along with Callahan and Flanagan, Ardie and his bandmates have returned to Humboldt to play a number of reunion dates over the years and have donated the proceeds of their concerts to several Humboldt nonprofits. It’s the highlight of every Humboldt performance when Ardie stands up and plays his drums as he circles his drum kit, never missing a beat, a master showman at his best.
“I’ve played in front of 20,000 people in an old Roman amphitheater in the south of France, but nothing beats playing in Humboldt in front of my family and friends and classmates (Humboldt High School 1973).”
Today, much of Ardie’s time is devoted to the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit which, according to its website, was “founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time. Music Maker will give future generations access to their heritage through documentation and performance programs that build knowledge and appreciation of America’s musical traditions.”
“We come in and find these old blues artists who are down on their luck,” Ardie said. “We clean them up, pay their bills, and get them performing again. We have regular Music Master tours now and I am always in awe when I play with them.”
“These are the authentic master bluesmen, people who have gone to prison unjustly, gotten run out of town at sunset, beaten to within an inch of their lives. Riding the bus with the Music Maker Blues Revue is like taking boxing lessons from Ali, physics class from Einstein and music theory from Beethoven, all delivered as gospel. Our tours are about paying respect to these old-timers and carrying on theblues tradition to the next generation.”
As his band closed its set at the Hall of Fame induction, Ardie brought out his niece Courtney Flournoy to sing the final song, Freddy King’s “Same Old Blues.” Her beautiful, young voice captivated the crowd. Like Ardie said, carrying on the blues tradition to the next generation.