Written by Mark Fode
Taken from www.pipestonestar.com
We’ll never really know, but we can assume that the advice Myron Lee received from his manager Jimmy Thomas early on was good advice.
“Myron,” Thomas said to the budding rock and roller, “you can’t go on as Myron Wachendorf.”
From that point on, Myron became Myron Lee. And since in those days everybody had to be “Somebody and the Somebodies,” (as Pipestone’s Don Spawn said in a Star interview several months ago) Myron Lee & The Caddies were born. In this case, Caddies was selected as the name not as a shortened version of “Cadillac,” but because several of the group members were caddies at a local golf club.
Has your appetite for — as Myron puts it — “the golden days of rock and roll” been whetted? You can read this and more in Myron’s recently completed book, “Myron Lee and the Caddies — Rockin’ and Rollin’ Out of the Midwest,” just released through regional bookstores.
Slap down $16 and you’ll undoubtedly take a spin down memory lane, and Pipestone area folks will get a bonus. Part of a chapter devoted to venerable old dance halls features the Hollyhock Ballroom in Hatfield.
“I bet we played 50 shows at the Hollyhock and drew people from 50 miles around,” Myron said recently from his home in Sioux Falls. “In my chapter on the favorite ballrooms, I wrote that Hatfield was the epitome. It was perfect. There was a lot of drinking, a lot of fights and a lot of dancing.”
He wrote of his recollections of Al Kirby, the owner of the joint. “It was one of the most popular dance halls in the area, and every time we appeared there, we packed the place,” Lee said. “It was raucous but enjoyable …”
Myron, now 62, estimates that his band played before fans numbering from 7,000 to 9,000 in the Hollyhock. “I remember you could walk into the bar area and if you were tall enough to get your hand over the bar, you could have just about anything you wanted” he said. “They had a big cop who worked there and when a fight broke out, he’d grab both guys under each arm and throw them out the door.” Despite the apparent raucous atmosphere, Myron remembered: “They never bothered the band.”
Ah, to be young in the 1950s, a time Myron says “was the best time to be alive. Those were times when the future was always better, next year you’d get a faster car or a bigger house. You could drive all night for 50 cents. I didn’t put more than a dollars worth of gas in my car at any time. We didn’t have a society like today where things seem to be shrinking.”
For 34 years, Myron and his band continuously roved the country doing jobs. The band finally called it quits in 1992 when rock and roll seemed in its dying throes after a comeback in the 1970s. Myron refused to adjust his style to the trends of the 1990s and has walked away without a regret.
But the memories linger … Started out as high school band
In Myron’s case, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His father, Bob Wachendorf, was a band man in the 1930s and 1940s, and Myron would tag along.
Myron Lee was a true ground breaker, when in 1958, he formed what is believed to be the first rock-and-roll band in South Dakota while still a junior piano player at Sioux Falls Washington High School. Originally he played with a small combo in high school, performing mainly at school events. But when rock and roll “got hotter,” as he puts it, “I knew where I had to be and I switched to the guitar.” He says he was influenced in this decision not only by Bill Haley and the Comets, but by singers like Elvis and Pat Boone.
That officially started the group “The Caddies.” Booking agent Thomas, who followed early manager Bob Helgeson, decided as Myron remembers, “that he wanted to talk to one guy.” So Myron Lee became the front man for Myron Lee and The Caddies.
Myron started out with Curt Powell of Garretson on lead guitar, Dick Robinson on drums, Barry Andrews on saxophone and Jerry Haacke on bass guitar. Myron played rhythm guitar and handled lead vocals. Over the years, Myron estimates that he employed 50 different musicians, some long term. He said the original band members recently met for a reunion in Sioux Falls, minus only Curt Powell, who died of cancer recently.
According to his book, the group played at the Stardust Club in east Sioux Falls, but had to have notes from their parents because of liquor laws and curfews. The group later played their first out of town job at Tyndall. Myron Lee and The Caddies were an immediate hit, such a hit that Myron had to drop out of school because of the demand for his band. It kept him on the road seven days a week, singing Elvis and other rock and roll songs.
“We patterned ourselves mainly after Buddy Holly,” Myron said. “We did a lot of Elvis songs. The only way to make a living in those days was to do the popular songs. What we did was listen to Pipestone’s radio station, KLOH, which had a very popular Saturday afternoon regional call in program that was very popular. We also listened to the top 40 on KIHO to make sure we were playing those tunes.”
Often, he said, the band would arrive early at the locale being played that evening and practice for several hours before the teen hop was supposed to start.
Those were the great years, Myron says. In 1959, Myron Lee and the Caddies came out with “Rona Baby,” a terrific regional hit that made it all the way to number 10 on the top 40 area charts. The group had 13 other singles, including Peter Rabbitt, a song later taken into the top 40 by D.J. and the Runaways.
After “Rona Baby,” Myron Lee and the Caddies toured Canada as a band for Buddy Knox (“Party Doll”) and also traveled with Bobby Vee. “We did a show with Buddy Knox and he hired us to do his live shows,” Myron said. “Then other stars like Bobby Vee heard us. We did his live tours in 1963 and 1964, and were with Dick Clark for his live shows in 1963 and 1964, with the top names of the day. We were backed up.”
Then, Myron says, came the “British Invasion.” It signaled the end of the good times, Myron said, because business “changed vastly.” Suddenly as Myron remembers those days, “It was hard for American bands to find work.” At about the same time television came out. “The 1960s changed everything and it was never the same,” Myron said.
Myron said the band went from performing before 20,000 fans in New York City, to 300 in a dance hall in South Dakota. “Those English groups ruined rock and roll,” Myron said. “They weren’t better. The British Invasion changed the sound and other things came around, like drugs and psychedelic stuff.”
Myron Lee and the Caddies found themselves doing weddings, learning different styles, including polkas and country music. The band made another comeback in the mid-1970s during a resurgence of the then oldies style, but the 1990s brought in other changing trends that Myron was unwilling to follow.
Myron remembers that 1989, surprisingly was one of the band’s best years. “But in 1990 things dropped,” he said. “One of the biggest things was South Dakota’s video lottery. People became more health conscious. They didn’t drink as much and there was a clamp down on clubs.” In the golden years, he remembered people would go out to dance and would stay late at places like the Hollyhock, often because it was one of the only games in town.
Myron readily admits: “We had a tough time adapting …it’s a tough business. When we were going strong we were working on the Canadian tour with Buddy Knox for three and a half months and were with Dick Clark for three to six months. We saw the best of times. After 1990, I knew music was probably ready for another dip. I retired. I didn’t want to go through that valley again.”
Today, married for the last 41 years to a woman who understood the music business, Myron works a few hours a day opening a Sioux Falls casino and also has a disk jockey business that keeps him busy some weekends. He does mainly weddings, and notices that the older 50s and 60s style tunes are still the ones on most tune lists.
“The old songs are the basis for everything,” he says. “Everyone, I think, feels the time period they grow up in is the best period. But talk to any band leader and he’ll tell you we had the best music of the last 100 years. You still hear those songs every day.”
He insists he doesn’t miss the rigors of the road. “It was great, great experience and the best education I ever had” he said. “But there are no good jobs left. The conventions don’t hire bands anymore because of the liability. I did my steady 34 years without a break and I’ve had enough. It was a wonderful life and great times, but not anymore. And the good days won’t come back.”
There is only a bit of “what if” wistfulness. What, he wonders, would it have been like to strike it big like his friend, Bobby Vee? “He had a regional hit, but Liberty Records picked it up and he was on his way. I was close to it but I never got things going. If I had a big hit like Bobby, and a worldwide following, I could see myself doing that. But I don’t have any big hits.”
Just a lot of crazed fifty and sixty-somethings who still remember the good old “golden” days. Thankfully, the music still lives.