Friday, January 15, 2010

Mike and Fran

Mike Dunn and Frank Rolla interviewed November 2009.

A few years ago, while Mike Dunn was working at the Colorado College-based radio station KRCC, a co-worker, holding an album of folk songs from the mid 1960s, approached him. He showed him the cover.

“Is this you?”

When Mike Dunn was in the ninth grade, he first heard folk music. “My father’s brothers brought over some Clancy Brothers and I thought the music was fun – it really made an impression on me.” A year later the Wasson High School sophomore would again encounter the music – at a Halloween dance. “This St. Mary’s High junior brought a banjo and sang some songs and he had everybody in rapture.”

“I heard him doing this song that really stuck with me. It was about a guy who murdered his girlfriend, and the mother wanted to know why he was so bloody, and he said he had a bloody nose,” Mike Dunn said.

I started back to Knoxville, got there about midnight,
My Mother she was worried and woke up in a fright,
Saying "Dear son, what have you done to bloody your clothes so?
I told my anxious Mother, I was bleeding at my nose.

It would take him four years to find out the name of the song.

“Then one day I’m at Southern Colorado State College, in Pueblo, and I see the guy who played it at the dance - Frank Rolla." Rolla solved mystery, admitting that the song he sang that night was "Knoxville Girl." With a common interest in folk music, the two became friends.

“I was playing banjo at the time and listening to a lot of music,” Frank Rolla said. "I was doing a lot of music and hanging out with everybody involved in the Colorado folk scene at the time.”

“Pueblo had a big folk music scene back then,” said Mike Dunn. “Guys like Steven Fromholz and Dan McCrimmon were playing there. But while we were getting exposure, at places like The Irish Pub, Midtown Lounge, and pizza halls, we were only getting paid in free beer. We had to travel outside of Pueblo to make real money.”

While Dunn was going to school at SCSC, he became part of a group, the New Mobile Strugglers. “This was 1966, and I was one of three banjo players in Pueblo – one being Frank Rolla and the other Frances Love.” Love, who was married to SCSC professor, Dr. Alan Love, was one of the few women folk singers in Pueblo. “Frances played ethnic folk, and knew lots of people in the music business,” Dunn said.

“One day Frances asked if I would play the guitar for her, because her usual guitar player wasn’t available. So I did the show with her, and then before too long I became her regular guitar player.”

Mike and Fran took their act on the road, playing the Winfield Folk Festival, on the same bill with Doc and Merle Watson. When they returned, Fran proposed that they make an album. Feeling that their sound needed a second banjo player, Mike looked up his friend, Frank Rolla.

The trio recorded the LP in the summer of 1967, with the help of producer Bill Cook, a Los Angeles based engineer, who had worked with Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby. Cook had recently relocated to Colorado Springs, where he had just purchased KRYT and later KKCS.

“The record took three days to make,” said Dunn. “Fran financed it, and we did it at Cook Recording in The Springs. They put two mics in the room and everyone sang and played at once.” The album features a variety of public domain folk songs, with the exception of “Summer Love,” written by Frances Love.

The album was entitled When First Unto This Country. The title song was originally discovered by John and Alan Lomax some 30 years earlier, when the audio archivists taped another duo, Foy and Maggie Gant, singing it in their Austin, Texas home.

The front cover of the LP was shot in Pueblo City Park, off of Goodnight Avenue. An estimated 500 copies were pressed.

“The session also resulted in several songs not included on the LP, including ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ which we originally heard John Deutschendorf do when we were playing in Arizona.”

While jamming with several fellow musicians on a concert tour stop, the duo met up with the singer, who was known professionally as John Denver, and who had just replaced Chad Mitchell in the Chad Mitchell Trio.

Chad Mitchell Trio

“In those days we didn’t know many killer guitar players like Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell," Dunn said. "Then there was this John Deutschendorf who came on the scene. We heard him play that song and said, ‘We can do that.’ So we did.”

Mike and Fran traveled until 1971, when Fran, who had since divorced, met a sailor at a stop in Kodiak, Alaska, fell in love, and decided to stay.

“And that was that,” Dunn said.

Dunn stayed on the road for about ten years. He went on to host a Sunday morning radio program on KRCC, and then hooked up with a number of Colorado Springs bands, including New Dimension, Boogie, and the Colorado Swings Band. He worked for Colorado College as a gardener, a position that he held for 13 years. Most recently he plays with Tube Radio Orchestra and the Jazz Beau’s Rent Party. He plans to release a CD of jazz and swing compositions, with the help of local Springs musicians, entitled Lowering Standards.

He has lost touch with Fran.

Mike Dunn

"This was the first record I ever appeared on," said Dunn. "When Fran asked me to be her guitar player back then she literally opened up the world to me. Meeting people like Doc and Merle and many other great folk musicians - it was a valuable experience."

Frank Rolla returned to school in New Mexico, where he studied sculpture. After teaching robotics for several years, he currently designs and builds instruments and performs experimental music. “I’m busy making software and hardware that can process music and sound.”

Most recently he performs in The Transducers - a group of five composers who utilize a variety of laptops, custom software, sound sculptures, circuit bending and custom electronics, to produce music.

COMING NEXT POST: Fred Bergin - King of Skateland

Friday, January 1, 2010

Frankie Bregar and His Polka Kings of the West

Interview with Frank Bregar, Jr. and Chuck Spurlock conducted November, 2009.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Colorado Fuel and Iron Company sent agents throughout the United States to recruit workers for its new plant, in Pueblo, Colorado. From this trip thousands of Slovenians, Slovaks, Germans and Italians signed up, and made their way to southern Colorado for employment – among the new arrivals were Frank and Caroline Bregar.

On April 28, 1918, the couple became the proud parents of a son – Frank. Born in Pueblo, young Frank would learn to speak Slovene, the Bregar's native language, and by the age of seven the Edison Elementary School student was playing his father’s accordion.

“At age 12, my father started his own five-piece band, and began playing at parties, weddings and bars,” Frank’s son, Frank Bregar, Jr. said. “His band continued to play for various functions all through his days at Central High School.”

By the start of World War II, Frank took at job as a clerk at CF&I steel. That same year he joined the military and was stationed at Fort Logan, in Denver, where he continued to perform.

“He married my mother, Connie, and they moved to Cañon City,” Frank Jr. said. “After the service he went to work for his brothers-in-law, in a local coal mine, in Florence.”

While in Cañon City, Frank and Connie started a duo playing at a local bar, the Fawn Hollow Tavern. Before too long he added Fred Breedlove on bass, and Lou DelPizzo on banjo and guitar. They would go on to play at the Mellow Moon – a club the band would call home for four years. On Saturday afternoons Bregar could be heard on his radio show, on KFEL.

Soon it became apparent that Cañon City offered limited venues for his music. In 1953 he left the coal mine, and moved his family back to Pueblo, where he was rehired at CF&I – and became a regular on the Pueblo music scene.

“He started another band and played at the Veterans Bar and Dance Hall. He did that for eight years,” said his son Frank. For the next 40 years Bregar’s band played numerous other venues, and radio shows, including The Slovenian Radio Hour, and Hank Krasovic’s Polka Show, which aired on KDZA and KGHF.

Pictured front to back: Frank Bregar, Bob Farley,
Connie Bregar, and Bob DeGrasse
(photo courtesy of Frank Bregar, Jr.)

Frank Bregar’s popularity was not just limited to Colorado. It was during this time that he and his band performed throughout the mountain states – and caught the ear of “America’s Polka King” – Frank Yankovic.

“In the late 1950’s, my dad traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and met Frank Yankovic,” said Frank’s son. “This meeting began a true friendship between both musicians that lasted up until Yankovic’s death.”

Whenever Yankovic performed in Colorado, Bregar sat in with the band. When Pueblo was on the tour stop, Yankovic would stay with the Bregar family. “After a Yankovic dance, the whole band would reconvene at our home for jamming, drinks and an early breakfast,” said Frank Bregar, Jr.

Frank Yankovic (far right), performing with Frank Bregar
(second from right), and Dick Contino (far left).
(Photo courtesy of Frank Bregar, Jr.)

At the urging of Yankovic, Bregar started a recording company, Pikes Peak Records. The label’s first single, released in 1957, was “Frankie and Connie’s Polka."

The flipside, “The Petticoat Waltz," featured Frank Hren on vocals. Both songs were recorded at local Pueblo radio station KCSJ. Pikes Peak Records sold and distributed almost 900 of the singles.

Listen to "The Petticoat Waltz."

Bregar recorded a second single, also recorded at KCSJ, “Mountain Climbers Polka," and the b-side, “Bessemer Rock Polka.” The records were sold all over Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, Ohio, and California. It’s estimated that Pikes Peak Records produced 500 of the singles.

Frank Bregar and His Polka Kings of the West
Pictured left to right: Jim Turner, Frank Bregar, Connie Bregar,
Katherine Hren, Frank Hren, and Larry Marneau.
(photo courtesy of Frank Bregar, Jr.)

In 1959, Bregar became friends with a fellow CF&I co-worker, Chuck Spurlock – who would go on to front his own successful polka band.

“We both lived in ‘Bojon Town’ in Pueblo - that’s was where most Slovenians lived. We used to eat lunch together, and would play cards during our lunch hour.”

“Our polka styles were similar – we styled our music after our mutual friend, Frank Yankovic. It was a Cleveland polka style. On occasion when one of us couldn’t accept an engagement we would refer the prospective customer to the other. So we helped each other out. Back then there were plenty of playing jobs to go around,” Spurlock said.

“I married in 1961 and hired the Bregar band for my wedding reception for four hours and my new father-in-law hired them for another four hours so they put in a full shift. We estimated approximately 600 people at the wedding,” said Spurlock.

In 1980, Frank Bregar was inducted into the Colorado Polkathon Hall of Fame, for “Outstanding achievement in promoting polka music throughout Colorado and bordering states.”

Frank and Connie’s last professional jobs were with their son, Frank Jr., at the Elks Club in Grand Junction and the American Legion in Paonia, Colorado. Up until his last stroke in 2000, Frank played for residents in his nursing home, Family Health West in Fruita, Colorado.

He passed away September 5, 2001 and was buried at St. Theresa Church in Pueblo on September 11, 2001.

Frank Bregar Jr. would go on to follow in his father’s musical footsteps - playing the saxophone and clarinet with the Pete Dunda and Joe Gable polka bands.

“Dad was very tenacious about taking music lessons and practicing every day,” Frank Bregar, Jr. said. “I used to think it was a real chore, especially when it interrupted playtime with my friends, but I’m thankful that he made me do woodshedding [practicing]– and I wouldn’t be the accomplished musician I am today, if it hadn’t been for my dad pushing me.”

His interest in music goes beyond his father’s genre. He not only fronts a 10-piece big band, The Men of Music, but also a five-piece variety band, Sentimental Swing, and has started an eight-piece “baby boomers” rock band, Hit Squad 8.

The Pete Dunda Band.

Mike and Fran