Four Generations: Where Did It All Begin?
(As remembered by Chuck)
The Late 50’s
The history of the Jolly Ramblers goes back to the early 1960’s with Albert Thiel as the father of it all. (For a brief time in the late 50’s the band was known as the Merry Makers.) Al played drums, concertina, button accordion, trumpet and harmonica… all self-taught… although I never did get to hear him play trumpet. He couldn’t read a note of music, but he would practice a song on concertina or button accordion until he had it figured out. He also made the music stands and some of the cases the band still uses today, and he could fix anything.
Al worked with many of the area polka bands during this time and into the 60’s and also owned a meat market/locker plant/grocery store with his wife and my mother Erna in what is now Longhorns Burger House in Lester Prairie. That’s why our performances there are so important to me. My first bedroom was in the back corner of the building.
I will always remember Dad practicing concertina or button box throughout the house or on the patio many evenings. Somewhere along the line, he bought me a kazoo. That sound can be really grating, but I had a pretty good voice. I’d sit close by as he practiced, and I don’t remember that ever told me to put the kazoo away. He had that kind of patience, and I learned a lot about polka music by “playing” along. He so loved his music.
Al continued to work with area bands, and in 1962 I was allowed to join him on area dates… rarely more that 20-25 miles from home. I would get to play drums for a few songs each night, and if there was a piano onstage, I would chord along to much of the music. Heck, no one could hear the piano anyway, but I sure had fun, and I also learned chord progressions.
In the mid-60’s the Jolly Ramblers were a trio consisting of Al on drums, Merle Zuehl on accordion and Otto Kuntz on banjo. If a four-piece group was required, a tuba would most likely be added. It was during these years that I’d still get to play drums a little, and Merle and I sang a number of songs together… just another step toward becoming a Jolly Rambler.
I’ll never forget our Saturday night rides to music gigs and listening to old-time music on the radio. Bernie Roberts was on the radio so many of those nights.
Of course, The Beatles were on the scene by this time, so I decided I needed to learn to play guitar. This didn’t go well, so one day I picked up Dad’s concertina and found sheet music for “Du Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen.” (Al had concertina music, but never used it. I have no idea where he got it or why he did.) When I told him I wanted to quit guitar lessons, he said I had two choices – concertina or guitar. That was somewhere in the mid-60’s. The rest, as they say, is history.
At some point in the summer of 1968 I played my first date on concertina. Merle had married and was moving out of state, so the time was right. In early 1969 we were playing many two- and three-piece jobs. I quit the high school basketball team when playing time diminished. Heck, I got paid to play music… up to $15 a night. We even had a 6-piece and a 7-piece gig late in the year. I have no idea who all joined us, but I’ll bet it was interesting with no music and one amplifier.
Man, were we busy in the early-70’s! Ken Schmidt, who is still with me today, joined the Jolly Ramblers in 1971. Other musicians who worked with us those years were Ken’s brother Gary Schmidt, “Uncle Ralphie” Littfin, Elmer Kuntz, Myron Muehlbauer and Dale Klaustermeier.
We recorded “A Barrel of Polkas” in 1974 at Little Crow recordings with Wally Pikal and Lester Schuft, located in the Hutchinson Fire Station. Featured on our first recording were Al, Chuck, Ken, Dale and Gary.
The Jolly Ramblers became a five-piece group on a pretty consistent basis. Dale Klaustermeier left the group and Bill Schultz stepped in. What was amazing about Bill was that he’d lost his right arm just below the elbow in a work accident. Elmer Kuntz designed a system where Bill could once again play saxophone by shifting his right shoulder to transfer a slide system to cover righthand notes.
Transition played a role in the early 1980’s. Myron Muehlbauer was working more with the band, Ken took a brief hiatus, and Al handed the drumsticks to grandson Matt Mohwinkel.
We recorded “Our Kind of Music” in 1984 and dedicated it to my dad Al: “Without the years of work he put into the establishing of the group, this venture would not be possible.” Featured on the album were Chuck, Ken, Bill, Gary and Matt.
A major change took place shortly after. Due to health issues, Bill Schultz left the band. (It’s hard to believe that was 30+ years ago.) Hilary Haag, who earlier played for Ivan Kahle and spent many years with Earl Schmidt and Jerry Schuft was looking for work closer to home. The fit was perfect! Hilary was a very talented tuba and saxophone player, could write music in the back seat of the car, and was a really great addition to the Jolly Ramblers. It gave us many options because Gary Schmidt could play trumpet besides bass guitar.
In 1986 we recorded “Minnesota’s Top Polka Secret,” and it put us on the map for extended work. Chuck, Ken, Gary, Matt and Hilary are featured on the recording.
In the late 80’s we were on the road quite a lot. Chas Cogley became our drummer after Matt’s first year at St. Olaf. In 1989 Jason started traveling with the band and doing a little singing and drumming.
“A Polka Toast… with Minnesota Flavor” was released in 1988 with Chuck, Ken, Gary, Chas and Hilary featured.
This decade began on a very sad note. After five great years with the band, Hilary Haag died in August from cancer. His wife Bonnie called me to visit just a few hours before his death. When she told him that I was at his bedside, Hilary opened his eyes and asked me how I was doing. A couple of hours later Bonnie called that Hilary had passed away. The band was booked to play at Kube’s that evening. It was so tough to tell the guys. I will never forget that day… wadoo… wadoo… the only words Hilary ever sang during the Blossom Waltz.
Jerry Kahle had replaced Hilary in the very late 1980’s when Hilary became ill and was a member of the Jolly Ramblers until he left the group in 2008.
We recorded “Minnesota Polka Harmony” in 1990… dedicated to Hilary. Featured on the album were Chuck, Ken, Gary, Chas, Jerry, and Bob Schroeder (tuba). Jason made his debut singing “I Am Yours” and drumming for the “Oklahoma Waltz.”
1992 took us to the Silverstein Festhaus at the Mall of America for some “grinders,” shows that you’re on and offstage for 30 minutes at a time. We also became seriously involved in polka services/masses, which would create a whole new venue for our music.
1992 was also the year of our first CD, “For Old Times Sake.” Featured on this CD are Chuck, Ken, Gary, Chas, Jerry and the little guy in the sailor hat (Jason).
In the mid-90’s the Jolly Ramblers briefly took on more of a German ethnic look… complete with lederhosen and Ein Prosit. “You’re Something Special” featuring Chuck, Ken, Gary, Chas, Jerry and Jason reflected that with the backdrop of the CD at the Silverstein Festhaus.
Bookings increased drastically in 1994. It was also the year Chas left the band and Jason became the full-time drummer for a relatively quiet 1995.
1996 brought two new CD’s, “That Polka Feeling” and our very first gospel CD “Share Christ with Your Neighbor,” which has sold over 5500 copies… not bad for a polka band. Chuck, Ken, Gary, Jerry and Jason are featured on both recordings.
1998 resulted in two more CD’s with the same group intact: “Old Fashioned Polkas with Altitude” and “The Love of Christ Proclaim.”
My daughter Jamie made her vocal debut on our one and only Christmas CD. This one was a lot of work because it was the only time we ever played a number of the songs on the recording. Jamie sang “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Musicians were once again the same group.
Teacher’s retirement in 1999 gave me even more time for music. From 2002-2012 I did nearly 1500 hospice visits. I also had more time for assisted living and nursing home sites. To this day, that is some of my most cherished work.
2002 brought two more recordings with Chuck, Ken, Gary, Jerry and Jason featured on both recordings… “The Message of Salvation” and “I Love to Polka.”
Gary Schmidt left the band after 30+ years in 2005, which was also the release date of “The Tradition Continues.” Seven musicians were a part of this recording: Chuck, Ken, Gary, Jason, Jerry, Myron Muehlbauer and Gary Baggenstoss. With the transition, Jason shifted from drums to keyboard and David Kroells, a longtime member of the Schmidt/Schuft band became the drummer. Jason is a fantastic drummer, and he made a very smooth transition to keyboard. Having played next to Gary for many years, he knew the “licks” Gary used. If you listen to our recordings during the transition, you won’t know if it’s Gary or Jason doing the bass work. I would have been in big trouble to keep our sound had he not been willing to change instruments.
“I Am the Vine” was also released in 2005 with Chuck, Ken, Gary, Jerry and Jason a part of our fourth gospel CD. Jamie was a part of her second CD with “Pass It On.”
With Jerry Kahle’s 2008 departure, Leon Haefner, who has worked with many bands, became a “full-time” Jolly Rambler. Before he left, Jerry was a part of the recording “Something Old… Something New” with Chuck, Ken, Jason and David. Once again, transition was in order.
The Jolly Ramblers have survived, but the venues have certainly changed. For many years we sponsored a Christmas Party/Dinner/Dance at the Pla-Mor Ballroom in Glencoe. Since my son Jeremy’s diagnosis of cancer and his eventual death in 2016, my approach has changed.
We did release two more CDs in 2012… “Beautiful, My Savior Be” and “Good Old Polka Rhythm.” Chuck, Ken, Jason, David and Leon were part of both recordings. Myron joined us for GOPR.
Jim Bartusek, a veteran drummer with Ivan Kahle, Wee Willie and many others for many years became a full-time member in 2015 when David left the band.
Our music has transitioned, and we are continuing to make changes. Much of our audience grew up in the 50’s, and we’re bringing back some of the things we did before Jason was even born.
As we begin a new decade, we’re still busy with polka services/masses, but the number of dates for the five-piece band have clearly decreased. We still do play some great venues, but much of our work is now combos of three or four musicians. My thoughts are that this will be the final decade of the Jolly Ramblers as we know them. 60 years and four generations of entertaining… not bad. We’ve done something right.
We have hopes of doing just one more recording this year, which would be #20, but so far nothing has materialized.
Jason’s sons Jacob, Noah and Benjamin are taking a definite interest in music, and Jacob (born in 2008) is already an excellent drummer. Noah (2010) isn’t far behind, and Benjamin (2012) is an awesome “roadie.” What’s next? Time and change will dictate that… but I do have a few dreams before I pack it all up… just one more time.
It’s time to say thank you to our families for sacrificing and allowing us to entertain for these many years. If I could do it all over, would I change anything? I don’t think so. When my dad made me the front man for the band when I was still young and stupid (no comments, please), I had all the answers, and I made some mistakes, but I learned… and I am still learning. It’s a tough life, and it’s very challenging. Musicians who make it also sacrifice so much to make others happy.
Have I been blessed? Looking back on my 50th year, I can only shake my head at the memories and times shared. I think I can safely say, “Been there… done that.”
Through the years the Jolly Ramblers have been blessed with many talented musicians and very little transition turnover. As music tastes changed, we were able to adapt and survive. Obviously, our church work and gospel CD’s played a huge role in keeping us busy.
The guys in our present group – Ken, Jason, Leon and Jimbo – are just good people. Ken, Leon, Jim (and Myron and Gary B) are so patient when the grandsons join us. They are encouraging and such excellent role models for the boys. Thank you.
As the industry has changed, so have the venues. The glory days with packed ballrooms for polka fests… Gibbon and Ellsworth were so much fun… are history. So many of our favorite venues no longer exist.
Many of our dancing friends are no longer with us, or I’m entertaining them in nursing homes… memories.
Many churches have been on our schedule for 20+ years, and we look forward to our annual visits.
Many of our favorite people no longer book entertainment. For whatever reason, some of the folks who have booked us through the years no longer have an interest. Time certainly has a way of changing things.
Very importantly, is the faith and trust many of you have had to book us for all of these years. Of course, we couldn’t have done any of this without the friends who have celebrated with us… many of them who are no longer with us.
Change is coming. “Leader of the Band” by John Fogelberg has always been a favorite song and so much reminded me of my dad who started this mess. Before I get too tired, I want to enjoy some music memories with generations three and four of the Jolly Ramblers. What could be better than that?