Thanks to Beatles, Fort Dodge became hotbed for garage bands

-Submitted photo
West Minist’r band in 1970: kneeling, Chuck Henderson; back row, from left: Kirk Kaufman, Dean Davis, Rusty Bell and Frank Wiewel.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!”

With those five words of introduction from Ed Sullivan, the Beatles – John, Paul, George and Ringo – took the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, and sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and four other hits to a live audience of screaming young people and 73 million CBS viewers nationwide.

Not only was that wintry Sunday night the liftoff of the most successful band in history, but also the birth of a musical phenomenon called garage rock – and Fort Dodge rode the crest of the new rock movement. If you’re in your 60s or 70s, chances are high that you danced to or listened to the music these young people played.

“On Feb. 10, the day after Ed Sullivan’s show, every kid started bugging his parents for a guitar,” said Keith “Howdy” Brown. “Dad, I want a guitar…dad, I want a guitar. Anyone who lived in the ’60s and ’70s knew what a garage band was after that night. There were three garage bands on every block. We’d practice in someone’s parents’ basement, play on Friday and Saturday night, then get together Sunday and decide on music for the next week.

“When you performed at the Laramar in Fort Dodge, there might be 2,000 people. When you’re standing on that stage and they’re happy with you, it was the greatest feeling in the world.”

-Submitted photo
The Rogues in basement of Dean Davis' home in 1965: from left, Brian Nelson, Robbi Dunn, Dean Davis and Doug (Luther) Thompson.

Fort Dodge quickly became a hotbed for garage rock – performed by teenagers who would form a band and rehearse in the family garage or basement or even a front lawn. According to one estimate, between 1964 and 1968 more than 180,000 bands formed in the United States.

“It should be called basement bands because we did more practicing in the basement than the garage,” recalled Dean Davis, of Fort Dodge. “When we practiced in my basement, the dishes would be rattling upstairs in the kitchen. We played for high school dances, parties, we even played for ladies aid – our first paying gig.”

Davis started playing the drums at the age of 12 when he was in sixth grade. He was an eighth grader when the Beatles emerged and he started a three-piece band called the Rogues that by high school had expanded to five – Doug Thompson on guitar, Brian Nelson on bass, Rob Dunn on lead guitar, Davis on drums, and Steve Henry as lead singer.

The Rogues broke up in their junior year at Fort Dodge Senior High and Davis joined a band called West Minist’r (the apostrophe was needed because the name “West Minister” would not fit on the bass drum). Davis played the drums; Rusty Bell, lead guitar and vocals; Frank Wiewel, bass and lead vocals; Kirk Kaufman, rhythm guitar and vocals; Terry Dillon, keyboard and vocals, and Chuck Henderson, keyboard and bass.

“We were performing in all the big ballrooms at the time,” he said.

When Bell and Davis left the band, Keith Brown and Arnie Bode joined it.

“We built a studio on Kirk’s dad’s farm,” recalled Wiewel, whose father and grandfather operated Wiewel Drug Store in Fort Dodge. “We first practiced in a chicken house. That’s where we learned to play as a band.”

Kaufman has owned the recording studio at his Otho farm called Junior’s Motel (no motel, just a “funky name”) since 1972. The studio has been used by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and SlipKnot (a heavy metal band from Des Moines) in the late 1990s.

“Leanne Quade made us jackets – a Nehru jacket, long paisley with a pattern, and white pants,” Davis said. “It really took off. In high school we played all over the Midwest and opened for a bunch of bigtime musicians – Sly and the Family Stone, Doc Severinsen, the Box Tops, the Buckinghams. In high school we were making 200 bucks apiece a week. We thought we were on our way.”

A song by West Minist’r, “Bright Lights, Windy City,” written by Henderson, was recorded in Omaha in 1969 and made it onto AM radio, Davis said.

Brown said it’s important to note how earlier Fort Dodge musicians adapted to the new “British Invasion.”

“Jack Yates and Larry Lind (The Pillars & Notorious Noblemen) really deserve recognition for how they helped and became leaders of some of the most successful Fort Dodge garage bands,” he said. “Prior to 1964, Dale & The DevonAires had a huge Fort Dodge following. Both Jack and Larry were in the DevonAires.”

Most garage bands stuck with singing the popular songs of the day. And had a great time doing so – getting together and “having a huge amount of fun,” Brown said. “We would also call them cover bands, playing anything on Top 40 radio. That’s what people wanted. Then you might work in one original song if you’re a really good band and find a recording studio.”

In the 1950s through at least the ’70s, Fort Dodge was fertile ground for the formation and development of local music groups, said Mark Mittelstadt, who in the early 1970s played with a lounge group called Sun.

“The original members – Kathy Wickwire, Cathy Davidson and Marcia Robson – were known around Fort Dodge for their acoustic style of folk music,” he said. “Wanting to tour, the girls expanded their repertoire and added me as a drummer and Courtright Hawley III on electric bass and vocals. (They wisely never gave me a microphone.)”

“As a relatively small city, Fort Dodge had a gritty, blue-collar culture conducive to local performance. Workers from the meatpacking plants, gypsum mills, railroads, area farming, the animal laboratories, other smaller industries always were looking for places to kick back, relax and have a beer (or several.) There were many opportunities for young musicians to train and gain experience — the junior highs and high schools, the Karl King Band, the Lancers – and plenty of places to play: ballrooms like the Laramar in Fort Dodge, nightclubs in Twin Lakes, Storm Lake and elsewhere, hotel bars, a dozen or more country western bars throughout northwest Iowa.”

There were many opportunities in those days for garage bands: wedding receptions, bars, high school and college homecoming and prom dances, private parties, DeMolay dances, community centers in surrounding towns, centennials, street dances in the summer, the State Fair, county fairs- and three venues that were among the creme de la creme: the Laramar in Fort Dodge, the Roof Garden at Lake Okoboji and the Surf in Clear Lake.

“There was a great ballroom circuit in the Midwest,” Wiewel said. “Bands would tour all around, from Brainerd, Minnesota, to the north, Omaha to the west, Kansas City to the south and Chicago and Champaign and Springfield, Ill., to the east.”

Garage bands in Fort Dodge and the surrounding area numbered as many as 75 to 100 but began fading away for a variety of reasons, including the emergence of disco, the trend for DJs to play records at venues to save money, and fewer places to play.

“There are hardly any garage bands anymore,” Brown said. “Now everyone can make music on their computer without holding a musical instrument. Guitars have faded somewhat from live music, there’s a lot of keyboard stuff.”

Brown noted that greater use of illegal drugs “got in the way of bands and the audience in the early 1970s. That was one of the reasons it was easy to leave a band and go to a studio.

“I believe lowering the drinking age (originally) to 18 really hurt the ballroom business. You could not mix kids with alcohol. And bars refused entrance to underage kids. I also believe politics and the Vietnam War hurt garage bands. Life started getting a lot more serious…the draft. And…entering adulthood cause some musicians to face the reality of providing a stable income.”

There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote – “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” – that applies to many who played decades ago in Fort Dodge garage bands. Now in their late 60s or early 70s, they’re still playing…in different ways.

At his Juniors Motel studio west of Otho, located on the family farm in the midst of 108 acres of cornfields, Kaufman is working with his son, Matt ,on creating a stage musical, tentatively titled, “Robin Hood and the Married Men.” He’s been working at it for 15 years – when he’s not doing recording work – “I’m trying to make it the love story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.” His son, who is a systems architect at the University of Iowa, is helping to write the script and Kaufman has written about 20 songs for it.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said, not ready to estimate when it will be completed.

Brown and his wife, FDSH classmate Julie (Jordison), operate a recording studio, Crystal Sound, in the lower level of their Urbandale home – moving there when their first Des Moines studio was lost in the 1993 floods. Crystal Sound gravitated away from recording groups to heavily focusing on corporate production with such clients as American Express, Disney, McDonald’s, Chevrolet and Wells Fargo, Brown said. Working with advertising agencies and their producers, often in the 23-40 age group, “is always a welcomed challenge to bring their ideas to reality through my original music. It is a team effort. At times, it does feel as if we are in a band. Every musical experience I had in my earlier bands helps me now when I turn on my recording gear each morning. It’s a never-ending process.”

Yates has added a new highlight to his career – along with the top three from his past: being asked to join Dale & The DevonAires, the induction of the DevonAires as one of the first four bands into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1997) and when his 4 On The Floor Band opened for the Beach Boys. But the audience for this highlight is much different.

Yates is playing guitar again in a group called The Bare-Bones Trio that performs at care center facilities such as Bickford Cottage, the Villa Care Center, the Marion Home and Fort Dodge Health & Rehab. His longtime friend Larry Lind is on bass and Eddie Simpson is their Elvis impersonator.

“There are a couple of places where a few people get up and dance and since we do mostly 40’s thru 60’s music we go over pretty well. Sometimes we will book other events like wineries and anniversaries.”

Davis, who is 70, performs in a seven-piece horn band, Lone Tree Revival, that features Sean Minikus, lead guitar and lead vocal; Jeremy Ober, lead guitar and lead singer; Alex Trevino, bass guitar; Dan Cassidy, trombone; Tim Miller, trumpet, and Steve Nelson, sax. COVID restrictions limited their engagements to eight in 2020 but they’ll resume performances in June and through the summer.

Davis has been teaching drummers since he was 19 and estimates he has taught as many as 1,000 to play the drums. One of them, now a physician practicing in Georgia, is writing songs and asked Davis to play drums for them; he sends his accompaniment work by MP3 file. He will soon begin rehearsals with an all-star band he was asked to join that will perform at the Roof Garden at Lake Okoboji on Memorial Day weekend.

“I just love to play,” Davis said. “It keeps me young and keeps me in shape – it takes a lot of energy and that’s a good thing.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today