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 was runner-up in a county-wide talent show - coming in second to a Dixieland band. He had 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.
Their paths wouldn't cross again for another 5 years. Doug, a high school sophomore, had heard through the grapevine that Larry's band was looking for a keyboard player. The band by now had shed its original name in favor of a more 60's-oriented name, The Runaways.
Doug had heard that his name had been mentioned by the members of the group during one of their rehearsals. One of the guys - 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 of the new, West Union municipal swimming pool, Doug approached Larry and said, "I understand you're looking for a keyboard player." Larry, in mock surprise, 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 he had 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 they hooked a microphone up to it; and after having run through a couple of tunes, Larry enthusiastically proclaimed,
"We sound better already!!"
the first gig at 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.
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. The guys decided to record the old standard, "Five-foot Two" and back it with an original, "My Baby Left Me." Matter had had garters made with little buttons attached imprinted with the name of the group and the 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" was now, "The Rubber Band."
Matter had envisioned a resurgence of the dance styles of an earlier era. He especially thought the time was ripe of a revival of the Charleston. So he had some publicity photos taken of the band with a dancer doing the Charleston (click here to view photo.) 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 of many recordings that Doug would be involved in.
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, was about the size of an average living room. This was 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.
the early days of "Doug & Larry"
At this time, the late 60's - early 70's, 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.
They played a grueling schedule - sometimes performing 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 home videos, computer games and the Internet. People actually left their homes in the evening to dance and socialize!
Gladys Young - the beginnings of the Memory Brothers Club
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 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 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 our most recent director, Pam Stinogel, faithfully aspired.
Next installment: Pam Stinogel--our fearless leader!
[Check back in the near future for a continuation of "The Story of the Memory Brothers."]