Band members recall the Purple Onion
OAKLAND, Neb. (AP) — Back in the mid-1960s, the Purple Onion was the place to go.
At least in Oakland.
It wasn’t a bar or night club. It was actually a building on the Burt County fairgrounds.
But on Tuesday nights in the summer, it was gathering place for hundreds of area teens who came to hear homegrown bands like The Touracos, The Lip and The Fenmen.
Dancing to popular songs from The Beatles, The Temptations and The Young Rascals, teens who came to the Purple Onion did more than have fun with their pals.
They made long-lasting memories and friends.
The Fremont Tribune reports that decades later, some of the musicians who performed in the Purple Onion will return to play when the town celebrates its 150th anniversary.
Set from May 25-28, the celebration will include a host of activities — including concerts, a parade and fireworks — to commemorate the founding of this small community in 1868.
On May 25, The Lip will return to play music from 8 p.m. to midnight in the beer garden at the Oakland-Craig football field in the park. The public is invited. Admission is free.
Those who attend can hear familiar tunes and learn more about the Purple Onion and the bands that played there.
The popular hangout got its start after Barry Johnson and his brother, Galen, Clay Friis, all of Oakland, and Joe Liang formed a rock ‘n’ roll band in the early 1960s. Barry Johnson, along with Friis and Liang, were students at Wayne State College.
“We started a band and my dad, Dwain Johnson, booked our band around the area,” Barry Johnson said. “We started playing rock ‘n’ roll, Beatles songs, the British stuff that was going on at that time.”
Johnson recalls the Beatles craze.
“I remember exactly where I was when The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan (TV) Show,” Johnson said. “I was picking up a date at Pile Hall at Wayne State College and I just sat there with my mouth open and looking at these guys and listening to them.”
Band members would play Beatles music with Barry on drums, Galen, bass, Friis, lead guitar, organ and piano, and Liang, lead vocals.
Liang was the son of a Presbyterian minister from Bancroft whose family came from China.
“He didn’t even know a cuss word when he joined our band,” Johnson said of Joe, adding, “He was a girl-magnet and the little groupies just gathered around him like crazy.”
The band got its name, “The Touracos, from a South American bird. Band members also obtained defective, talking parrot toys, which they mounted on their equipment and gave away to fans.
Band members were practicing in the Johnson home when neighbors started complaining about the noise.
So after obtaining permission, the band started practicing in a building on the Burt County Fairgrounds.
“Kids would come by and listen and pretty soon, they started dancing,” Johnson said. “My dad said, ‘If they’re going to dance, we’re going to charge them.’”
So the band made a deal with the fair board and with help from their fraternity brothers painted a larger building as a rent payment.
By then, the band was playing at area high school proms and other dances. They’d make deals with prom organizers. Band members would take down the decorations if they could have them.
They ended up with lots of crepe paper and other items which they used to decorate the inside of the fairgrounds building. Friis also said he had a napkin from a California bar called “The Purple Onion.”
Band members adopted that name for the building and even made a sign for it. Friis said the band opted to play on Tuesdays since other towns had public or teen dances on Saturday nights.
“We started playing and we booked in other bands on Tuesday nights from about 8 o’clock until midnight,” Johnson said. “We brought in some of the bigger bands.”
That included The Rumbles, one of the most popular rock ‘n’ roll bands of the Midwest.
In the meantime, The Touracos had inspired other young musicians.
Tim Anderson of Lincoln said two things defined his high school years in Oakland — being in a band called The Fenmen and working at the town’s newspaper.
Anderson, whose mom was a church organist, remembers when The Touracos began making music.
“It started this frenzy in Oakland of every guy wanting to be in a band,” Anderson said.
A band called, The Others, formed. The Fenmen, who were younger than the Touracos, consisted of Anderson on keyboards; Bryce Darling on drums; Kent Richards, lead singer and rhythm guitar player; Bill Elmquist, lead guitar player; and Randy Johnson, bass.
The Touracos, The Others and The Fenmen played at homecoming and street dances and proms.
“There were lots and lots of dances,” Anderson said. “It’s about the only thing you did in northeast Nebraska for fun.”
Anderson remembers when The Touracos opened the Purple Onion and built a stage inside.
“The Touracos’ girlfriends ran a concession stand,” Anderson said.
He remembers what fun the teens had.
“It was blast,” he said. “They’d sell the place out every Tuesday night. It was probably about dollar to get in and we just had a great time — and being on the fairgrounds, the sound of the music didn’t bother anybody.”
Anderson said the band members’ parents even stopped by to hear The Fenmen play.
“And they’d travel with us,” Anderson said. “We started playing when we were 15 so we couldn’t even drive. So my dad bought us a van. Usually one of the dads would drive it or, occasionally, my dad would hire an upperclassman to drive. My mom would bring a station wagon full of all of our girlfriends.”
Reynold Peterson, a member of The Lip (which began as The Dead Lip), recalls how he and a friend cleaned the Purple Onion building for spare change on Wednesday mornings and dreamed about playing there.
They would get their chance.
Band members included: Peterson, drums and singer; Noel Rennerfeldt, keyboards and bass; Barry Erickson, guitar; Dan Worth, keyboards; Tim Jensen, bass; Sid Lindstrom, rhythm guitar. Jensen and Lindstrom have since died. Laurie Richards is a new member.
Peterson has many good memories.
“It was just a hoot,” Peterson said. “There wasn’t anything else to do in the summer. There was the pool . You could get a job working on a farm or go swimming or go golfing. This was one of the options and this was more fun. We got paid for having fun and it was great.”
Anderson also recalled, however, all the work that went into learning the music and lyrics in those days.
“Now with the Internet, any song you want learn you can look up and find the lyrics and the chords and you can probably find a YouTube video of how to do every part it,” Anderson said. “Back in those days, none of that existed so you would just sit and listen to a record over and over again, writing down the lyrics, figuring out what chords they were playing and then you would try to make it sound as much like the record as you could.”
After a few years, music tastes were changing and as the students got older their band days came to an end.
Anderson would become a journalist after getting his start at the Oakland Independent, where he went from emptying trash and melting lead to taking sports photos and writing stories.
He worked for several newspapers, the last nine years of which he was at the New York Times. There, he was in charge of the news design department. People who worked for him, laid out pages of the paper.
In 2005, Anderson moved to Lincoln and taught journalism for 11 years at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
Barry Johnson worked in the Gambles store in Oakland with his parents, then later became a schoolteacher. Johnson said his brother is a retired school administrator and retired army lieutenant colonel, Liang is a retired pharmaceutical salesman and Friis lives on area acreage and has livestock.
In 1995, area bands gathered for a Purple Onion reunion in Oakland, which Friis said was well-attended.
Former band members and fans look forward to the event later this month.
“All of our high school friends, who are now in their 60s will show up, and for three hours feel like teenagers again,” Anderson said. “They won’t look like teenagers, but they’ll act like teenagers.”
And members of The Lip are getting ready to take the stage.
We’re practicing now,” Peterson said. “We’ve got to make sure we learn the songs that we’re supposed to know. It will be a hoot.”
Information from: Fremont Tribune, http://www.fremontneb.com