Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The MOB--Reunion weekend in South Dakota

First in a new 3-part series that chronicles the South Dakota Rock & Roll Music Association’s 2011 Induction Ceremony in Sioux Falls

Previously, readers learned how The MOB reunited, after 30 years, to be honored in the South Dakota Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” as the direct efforts of four strangers who came together to reunite the band in April 2011 for the induction ceremony.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? How hard could it be to alert seven men, who had been part of a legendary national show band, that they were being sought by, two, later four, then five, aficionados of their music who wanted to see them get an honor that was long overdue? The caveat was that most of those band members hadn’t even seen one another, nor had they all been together, in 30 years.

Until October, 2010, eight men who were surviving members of The MOB were blissfully oblivious to the world of music, simply going about their daily business lives without missing a beat. They had all “moved on,” as it were, with their lives. Three had entered the corporate and nonprofit sectors as businessmen. Two more had entered city services administration for major cities; one was working in an entertainment-related industry and only one was a fulltime performer, though you could safely assume others have had post-MOB music opportunities.

When the board of directors of the South Dakota Rock & Roll Music Association considered The MOB for induction into their Hall of Fame three years ago, no one knew where they were. They did not have an internet presence. Board member Terry Tausz says their name had been discussed from the outset as a group of interest, but “no one knew how to get hold of them.”

After Ana Lord and Alan Schrank had found them, Schrank next communicated with the South Dakota Rock & Roll Music Association by leaving a message on their web site ( message board. In the days that followed, board members were sufficiently impressed and reviewed the nomination package submitted by Schrank and Lord.

Quickly, the board had verified what they already knew, the impact of the music of The MOB and what it had meant to South Dakota natives all these years. It would be learned as well that memories of The MOB had a wonderful, lasting impression on many who had never even lived in South Dakota, but traveled from their homes 30, 50, and 80 miles away, often, to hear them perform there. Even though The MOB members were natives of Chicago, after 10+ years of 3-week stints performing at the famed Mocamba Club, The MOB might as well have been considered as, at least, South Dakota regulars.

But simply receiving and distributing a letter announcing the distinct honor was only part of how they all managed to wind up on stage at the Ramkota Exhibit Hall to a capacity crowd of 2,000+ fans that night. It was far from a done deal, because there were many factors to consider that might have brought about the induction of the band but NOT the full reunion and performance together, their first in 30 years. One South Dakotan whose dedication as a volunteer made a substantial impact on the reunion’s success is William Bertsch.

A musician himself, Willie Bertsch was well acquainted with The MOB, having been a vocalist booked, as part of local favorite band, The Apostles, as the opening group for The MOB many times at the Mocamba Club. Bertsch, a Sioux Falls resident, found himself in a vital role in making the reunion weekend a reality. But to hear him tell it, he was just one of many coming together to support a great cause. There’s more to that story.

Reunion Not a ‘Done Deal’ at First

The MOB’s reunion was not a fait accompli from the beginning—not by a long shot. First, most of the band members had closed the door on their musical pasts, with the exception of “Little Albert,” Albert Maligmat, who still performs in Hawaii as his primary career. Imagine the challenge for music pros, many of whom had not rehearsed or played, other than recreationally, to regain their professional chops again after such a long time away from the stage. It didn’t take long, though. Independently, these music pros went right back to their rudiments and woodshedded for over 4 months to get back on their games, once the decision was made. Because of the geographical distances that prevented in-person meetings, thanks to Jimmy Ford and James Holvay, the band members started reconnecting by phone and e-mail. That had to have been some set of conversations. Songwriting talent and premier saxophone/keyboardist Gary Beisbier was the only one of the surviving members who couldn’t make the date. MOBster Tony Nedza had passed away.

The Mocamba Club had been home to The MOB for years as it had been to The Apostles, something they had in common. Says Bertsch, “In the late 60s, early 70s, at the Mocamba Club, my band, the Apostles, would come on and play a couple of numbers. And, The MOB was the headlining act; that would come on about 10 pm or 11 pm. So, we opened for them on a couple of occasions, but I personally had not actually seen them in 40 years. I was also sure they would not remember me from Adam.”

The Mocamba, a beloved icon of great show bands, was the only place Bertsch ever saw them. “Back in those days, we were playing every weekend also.” Bertsch estimates that he had a chance to see The MOB 12–15 times there during their heyday. Those memories would prove sufficient fuel for Bertsch to get involved as a volunteer to do everything he could to make the reunion week/weekend spring to life and be joyful for the band.

“That was what was so neat about this thing. I knew from the first time that I’d talked to Al (Schrank) that The Mob hadn’t actually been together on stage in 35 years. And I know how tough that is. My band was inducted last year in the SD R&R H of Fame (The Apostles),” Bertsch explains.

It Don’t Come Easy; You Know It Don’t Come Easy

As the song goes, “You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.” For this R&B/soul/rock/horn band, to reunite the group was akin to launching a strategic operation.

For many reasons, The MOB had not reunited in 30 years. So, when the call came and they were made aware: “you’re going to be inducted, we’d like to have you come perform in April, 2011” and have it happen? Despite the honor, despite the advance time of six months to prepare, it still was not a fait accompli. Bertsch continued, “Several of the band members had ‘day jobs’ and responsibilities.” They were geographically separated from Hawaii to California to Chicago and parts in between, which didn’t make rehearsing easy.

And, let’s be frank, The MOB in days of old had a lifetime full of celebrations, partying and activities that go along with musical fame and legions of female fans. Several of the members had likely stayed away from the music also because their lifestyles had changed so drastically over the years. When some of them shut the door, they latched it and bolted it tight.

Bertsch explains one example of reluctance. Dynamic vocalist “Big Al” Herrera shared with Bertsch by phone an initial reluctance to jump back into the fray all over again for the reunion. Religion is a personal thing for most people, but when people of faith connect with others who have had similar experiences, eventually the conversation at some point turns to religion. It just does. And so it did with Bertsch and Herrera. When Big Al explained to Willie that one of his reservations, aside from being gone from his job as a city services manager in Elgin, Illinois to be in the music business again for a few days, was that he was not happy with several of his choices back in the day. His life had changed, drastically, for the better, and he was unsure he wanted he wanted to reopen the door.

Bertsch immediately understood, and shared his own faith, how the past decade had brought Bertsch a renewed interest in participating in church activities, especially in a praise band at First Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls. The Sioux Falls church also features an original Aeolian Skinner Organ, that has recently been updated, so that provides a clue about the rich history of tradition and structure inherent in their specific synod within the Lutheran faith.

Bertsch’s bandmate in The Apostles, Sam Hasegawa, had also had a lengthy break from performing when a chance to reunite their band for the 2010 South Dakota Music Association’s Hall of Fame Induction evening the previous year, so Bertsch, himself a lead vocalist, kept talking and Herrera soon found many reasons to consider the reunion weekend a positive opportunity once again. That night of the reunion on stage, Al would give thanks to “my Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, for the opportunity,” that he was in the middle of experiencing. It’s appropriate to say that Bertsch’s words were potentially helpful in Herrera’ decision-making process.

The next thing that Bertsch did was offer his and his wife Audrey’s home to some of the band members who had a large number of family members coming to the area for this night-of-nights. As South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association board president Don Fritz would be able to attest, the evening concert sold out of VIP tables as well as general admission as fast as anything they’d ever seen. And so, too, did the hotel rooms. So, with many of the band members having relatives “coming in from everywhere,” the Bertschs said, “Please come and stay with us,”and some of the MOB family and the Bertsch family became more ‘like family’ in an instant.

Bertsch credits his lovely wife, Audrey, with splendid hospitality and much tolerance for whatever Willie is volunteering her for. He is always sure of her agreement in his endeavors. Bertsch explains, “I was out running errands, picking up some folks around town, helping get people to rehearsal and here at our front door would be people that Audrey would greet who haven’t even met her yet.” Bertsch says it took about 5 minutes for everyone to start hugging and visiting in delight and anticipation of what was going to happen on Saturday night, April 16th.

Band members had planned to arrive on Wednesday, prior to the Saturday night performance. Willie Bertsch was the unofficial behind-the-scenes coordinator who helped facilitate a lot of things. He’d already been at work long before that. Bertsch talked with a good friend, Jay Hardy, who plays drums in the same church praise band where Bertsch plays.

“I said, ‘Jay I need a place for these guys to rehearse. The hotel doesn’t have any place large or quiet enough with privacy to accommodate them.’” Hardy knew who The MOB was and he said, “by all means.” Hardy’s generosity was exceptional. Bertsch explains, “he wouldn’t charge us a nickel; the band could use it anytime they wanted to, which made the show possible, it really did.”

Terry Tausz agrees, “Jay Hardy’s donation of time in his studio really helped” give privacy and recreated the band’s days of professional recording together. You have to remember also that these men, a band of brothers themselves, who hadn’t seen each other in 30 years, needed time to themselves to reconnect just all by themselves. Jimmy Ford shared with Bertsch that the first night, the band would meet alone and visit. Bertsch, as a musician, understood that need.

On Thursday, The MOB held their first run-through of the song set list, sitting around a conference table. Alan Schrank was on hand to take selected photos of the subsequent rehearsal with instruments and vocals in the recording studio. Bertsch and Tausz were there and also spent time (at a respectful distance) watching the magic come alive again during the first rehearsal.

Says Bertsch, “Those guys were so far above the fray 40 years ago with their showmanship, so far above the crowd. They were leaps ahead of us. They had not been together in so many years.”

“It’s a special deal you have to experience, to all be onstage together once again, I knew this was huge for these guys.” So, getting the chance to use Hardy’s recording studio was big, really big.

“It was just as much fun in the practice sessions in the recording studio as it was that night at the concert performance,” Willie explains. The camaraderie was what impressed him most.

It had to have been flashbacks during various notes or a particular song. Photos taken by Schrank capture their spirit and their joy. Bertsch agrees, “You can see so much of the joy—it was such a renewal. When you were around these guys, it was like you had not seen your best friend in 40 years,” he explains. “Just the vibes that were coming out were just incredible, really strong.”

Jimmy Ford explained the night of the induction ceremony that the audience “wasn’t seeing double, that there were 14 people on stage where they might have been expecting 7.” The reason for that, Ford said, was that the band wanted to bring the best possible horn sound the audience would be expecting. How did that happen?

Yes, it was Bertsch who reached out to musician Ken “Boneman” Hoyne, as the two had been longtime friends. Hoyne’s band had backed up Bertsch’s band, The Apostles, when they had been inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. Hoyne, a premier player, was noted for putting horn sections together for shows around South Dakota, so that was a fortuitous happenstance, and he was happy to do that for the evening.

As seen on the DVD of the evening’s performance, it is no small compliment that Jimmy Ford plays to the horn section when he noted the players individually and complimented them on their talents. You have to wonder if these next-generation horn players knew ‘who’ it was paying them a high compliment indeed. Egos were checked at the door, so it’s doubtful that the once-legendary status of Ford, McCabe, and Herrera on horns was even really discussed.

One More Thing – Sharing the Faith

Bertsch has shared that part of his becoming more involved in church again was a reprioritization of his personal and family faith life. He speaks so enthusiastically about the family of faith at First Lutheran Church, led by Pastor Dr. John Christopherson. So, after Bertsch and Herrera had spoken of their faith by phone, the discussion naturally progressed into faith at the open house/barbecue dinner that Willie and Audrey held on Thursday evening at their home. Their home address and phone number probably deserved the rank of “Most Shared” that week, as the phone rang as much as the doorbell, and the party was at The Bertsches! All week.

Audrey shared name tags with all their new guests. After about an hour’s time, those name tags were unnecessary because the vibe in the home was one of family. Bertsch explains there was a special spirit present throughout the home, a reverent spirit, one surely filled with joy. Willie shared that it was one of those nights he’d never forget. Several of the band members had multiple family members present for the special ceremony and that Thursday night, everyone it seems was at the Bertsch home.

We Are Family

By the time the band had their first day’s rehearsal behind them, it was the start to a great reunion week. Plans were set for all inductees to attend a special dinner for all the bands on Friday night before Saturday’s big activities. So, Thursday, it was BBQ with the Bertsches. As Alan Schrank photographed the activities of the days leading up to the reunion night, it’s easy to spot all of new friends becoming extended family, joy in sharing simple times, great memories, and good people knowing that other good people thought the world of what they’d done 30 years earlier.

And because the event was a complete sellout, it’s a good thing community members like the Bertsches offered their homes to some band members’ extended families, because many of the MOB’s band members come from very large families and there are only so many hotel rooms in Sioux Falls—a large community but this deal was bigger than anyone had ever anticipated. The day following the induction ceremony is one of sharing faith.

Sharing the Faith<

The more you know Willie Bertsch, the better you understand that faith is an important part of his life. It was actually one of Albert Maligmat’s sisters, who was in town for the event, who had earlier shared with Bertsch a YouTube link of Albert singing, “I Believe I Can Fly.” The video captured from by Albert’s nephew, Jason, captured a powerful voice, dynamic range, and perfect acoustic guitar accompaniment that silenced a chatty crowd in Hawaii with its elegance. A second example is Albert singing “Amazing Grace” with Eddie Ramirez on trumpet.

Albert’s vocal range on these songs of faith blew Bertsch away, and so he took a chance. Even though Bertsch didn’t know Maligmat well, he made the ask. “I belong to a big church in Sioux Falls, and play in our praise band and the day after the event is Palm Sunday. Could you possibly come to our church and sing those songs for us?” Bertsch asked.

Maligmat didn’t hesitate before accepting. “Absolutely,” he said. I’ll come any time the Lord asks me to sing. I will be there.” And the 5,000+ member congregation has an extensive and talented music ministry team. Everyone was on board with inviting the guests. Also answering the call to sing was Al Herrera, who was equally glad to praise God in song that Sunday morning.

Bertsch especially appreciated Pastor Christopherson’s and the entire music team’s trust in bringing in ‘famous R&B/soul entertainers to sing on Palm Sunday,’ because traditionally Lutheran churches, especially 100-year-old ones, have structure in liturgy and worship music for Palm Sunday set months in advance. Little Albert and Big Al had a glorious impact on the congregation, who is traditionally not given to public displays of approval. “After Albert Maligmat sang ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ the entire congregation rose to their feet and clapped,” Bertsch revealed. He continued, “I have never, ever seen that before in my lifetime in that church,” he explains.

“He was up in the stratosphere with his vocals,” Bertsch continued. He was equally as effusive about Herrera’s powerful vocals that morning. Just another example of the character of these special visitors that they would be reveling in the recognition of a lifetime, one they’d waited 30 years for but never expected to see. And as their Saturday night celebrations stretched into visiting and sharing until 3 or 4 am on Sunday morning, it didn’t matter. Maligmat and Herrera were happy to be singing in the 11 am Contemporary Praise service on Palm Sunday at Willie’s home church. It speaks volumes.

The MOB—History of Their Reunion in Sioux Falls

To read more of the plans and details leading up to Sioux Falls’s once-in-a-lifetime coup of having The MOB converge and take the stage once again, there’s a link to the site that about how four strangers, fans of the music of The MOB, connected to find the band members, follow this link to the six-part series,”The MOB—From Chicago, IL to Sioux Falls, SD in 30 years or less.” At the end of the first story, readers will find links to the other 5 sequential parts in the series. If you’d like to connect with other fans who like the band as much as you do, visit the Facebook fan page Alan Schrank created two years ago at The Mob’s official fan site.

This Reunion Weekend Story Continues

Next up, in The MOB—Reunion Weekend in South Dakota, Part 2, a visit with John Mogen, Board of Directors Member of the South Dakota Rock & Roll Music Association, who was the invited guest keyboardist with The MOB at their first reunion in 30 years on a night when music history was made in South Dakota.

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