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Wisconsin garage band going strong after more than 50 years

May 19, 2018

In this Saturday, April 14, 2018 photo, Rick Pfeifer, right, a founding member of the veteran garage band Mourning Dayze, plays guitar and sings during a performance in the bar at Creekview Par Three, a small golf course in the town of Albion, Wis. Wayne Skau, on guitar at left, has been with the band off and on since the mid-1980s and on a regular basis since 1998. The garage band got its start in 1965 in Whitewater, Wis. (Barry Adams/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The hearse and trailer used to haul amps, guitars and drum kits have been replaced with a Honda Pilot and a 2002 Chevy S-10 pickup with over 180,000 miles on the odometer.

The lone roadie is a 73-year-old former truck driver who married the keyboard player, while the lead singer has been a member of the band since its inception in 1965, in what some consider the most revolutionary year in music history.

Mourning Dayze may be the oldest garage band in Wisconsin, but its members don’t play to fill arenas, travel the world or make hit records, The Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Instead, its venues include the Anchor Inn in Newville, Island Bar in Fort Atkinson and, on this night, a packed house in the bar at Creekview Par Three, a small golf course between Edgerton and Stoughton just west of Interstate 39-90. The four members, each of whom earned about $100 for the four-hour show, covered tunes by Van Morrison, Bob Marley, Bruno Mars, Adele, Crosby, Stills & Nash and many more.

The crowd, fueled with Busch Light, Corona Light and a few cans of Old Style, sang along and danced on a floor that would have barely fit two pool tables. The Golf Channel played on a television above, NASCAR posters on the walls provided more color and a portrait of local golfing legend Steve Stricker oversaw the whole affair in this southeastern corner of Dane County.

“The story just relates to so many people on so many different levels,” said Rick Pfeifer, the band’s lone remaining founding member. “It relates to the people that always wanted to be in a band, never were in a band, or kids that maybe played two weeks in a band. It’s a way of connecting with them.”

The story of the band is documented in a book written by Pfeifer but with significant input by former and current members, family and friends. “Mourning Dayze: A Wisconsin Garage Band” is a 307-page autobiography that has been in the works for more than 12 years but is helping to shed new light on the band that was formed before the first man walked on the moon and just a few months before Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr would lead the Green Bay Packers to their sixth NFL Championship.

Mourning Dayze, a name that reflects the band’s early morning drives home from gigs, traveled the country in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s and from 1972 to 2000 was the house band in the Fairview Lounge at Alpine Valley Resort. The gig introduced the members to some of the biggest names in music, once the resort’s outdoor amphitheater was constructed in 1977 into a hillside near East Troy.

Now, Mourning Dayze, its members all eligible to receive Social Security, play once or twice a week, usually on a weekend and the travel is limited to a 100-mile radius of Whitewater.

But for Pfeifer and Doug Henry, an original member who left the band in 1970, a tour of a different sort has been underway since late last year. The longtime friends and former bandmates have been promoting the book and telling stories. In February, Pfeifer appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time,” and a month later Pfeifer and Henry were on “After Hours with Rick Kogan” on WGN-AM (720) in Chicago.

They also have been making presentations at Wisconsin libraries and on June 5 will give a talk at Marathon County Public Library in Wausau, and on June 19 will give a small performance along with a talk at the Whitewater Public Library. They’re scheduled to appear on July 17 at the Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, and on July 19 will speak at the public library in South Milwaukee, Henry’s hometown.

The band got its start when Pfeifer, who was still in high school, Ron Wolfe and Ralph Wells were rehearsing in a second-floor violin repair shop owned by Wells’ father in Whitewater. They thought their playing could attract girls. Instead, they were heard by Henry, an accomplished guitar player, who was just starting his freshman year at the college. Henry wandered up, liked what he saw and heard and had Wolfe drive him to his dorm to pick up his guitar and amp. When Henry returned, they played and were quickly impressed with his skills.

“Ron, Ralph and I looked at each other and we didn’t have to say a word,” Pfeifer wrote in the book’s third chapter. “Doug sounded just like the guys on the records we were listening to.”

Steve Ellmann, who grew up in Oconto, rounded out the band a short time later as a lead singer and they became “The Coachmen.” Their first gig was at Nora’s Store on Highway 12-18 east of Cottage Grove, followed by a performance at the Hawk Bowl in Whitewater where they each were paid $15. That led to playing at teen bars where only beer was served, high school dances, county fairs and an appearance on “Pandora’s Box,” a television show in Chicago that was similar to Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

The band changed its name in about 1966 to Mourning Dayze and a year later had a regional hit, “Fly My Paper Airplane.” Travel increased and their shows were at places like Mike’s Teen Bar in Baraboo, the Owl’s Club in Fort Atkinson, the White Elephant in Monroe and countless frat parties on Langdon Street in Madison. Among the more unique venues were Kincheloe Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Rudy’s Surfside in Clearwater, Florida, and, in 1968, a performance for inmates at the Walworth County Pre-Release Center in Elkhorn. They saturated the Fox Valley and played just about every university and college in the state.

But life happened and all but Pfeifer left the band in 1970. For Henry, he was off to teach social studies and English at Brodhead High School. He would later get into the hotel and restaurant industry, including jobs at the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville and managing Best Western, Super 8 and Day’s Inn hotels in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make because I loved what I was doing but I had responsibility,” Henry said. “The money part wasn’t the problem. It was being on the road. We were on the road all of the time.”

The new members included Pfeifer’s sister, Rise (pronounced ree-see), who now plays keyboards, and Bob Jensen, who has logged more than 45 years with the band as a bass player but is also a longtime barber in Edgerton. Wayne Skau, 66, an Edgerton native, has been with the band off and on since the mid-1980s and on a regular basis since 1998. The foursome continues to rehearse in the same garage (owned by Pfeifer’s parents) that it began using in the 1960s in Whitewater.

“We just like to play music,” said Jensen, 71, who has no imminent plans to hang it up. “We’re not getting rich doing it, but we like to play. It’s just a good time.”

When the band was formed in 1965, it was when the Beatles released “Yesterday,” the Rolling Stones had hits like “Satisfaction,” and Bob Dylan, five years removed from dropping out of the University of Minnesota, unveiled “Like a Rolling Stone,” a classic among classics in rock music.

Pfeifer, 68, and his sister, Rise, 65, credit their parents for their love of music. Their mother, a waitress, played the Hawaiian guitar, while their father worked at a Whitewater service station where the radio was tuned to country and western, pop and, on Saturday nights, the WGN “Barn Dance.”

Rise, who is married to Jerry Hebebrand, the self-proclaimed “oldest roadie in the world,” remembers wanting to be a singer when she was in the fourth grade.

“I didn’t sing the way most girls did back then,” Rise said in the book. “I was not real sweet and pretty but loud and soulful.”

Rick, who has had a long career as a social worker, began playing guitar at age 5 and later would take lessons at Waukesha Music Center where Rise, who now cleans houses and helps elderly people stay in their homes, took organ lessons. Today, the brother and sister also play shows as a duo and occasionally perform during services at First English Lutheran Church in Whitewater.

“We’re still making people happy, we’re sharing what we love with other people and we’re doing what we like,” Rick Pfeifer said. “It’s a lot of work, but we’re glad we can do it.”

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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