Thursday, March 08, 2007

Wayfarers' trip lasts decades

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Hollywood couldn't have scripted it better.

Three music students hear about an opening for a house band, rehearse for a few hours, drive to the audition and get the gig. They play together for two decades and even tape a long-playing record album.

But, that's exactly what happened to a trio of students from Northern Michigan University's music department.

The story begins in 1972 when percussionist and sax player Larry Henry heard that a supper club in Munising was looking for a house band to play dinner and dance music. Quickly assembling a band, the Detroit native contacted Keith Polkinghorne of Laurium who had enrolled in 1970 as a vocal music major. They completed the trio with Bill VanEffen of Escanaba known for his abilities on the Hammond organ and trumpet.

"We spent one afternoon rehearsing a bunch of tunes, drove down to Munising and got the job," recalled Polkinghorne, who started playing guitar at 13. The offer of employment came from a supper club called The Red Cedar. "We were so new we didn't even have a name. The bar in The Red Cedar was called Wayfarer Lounge, so we took our name from that."

The newly christened Wayfarers were a hit. "We played a number of years in Munising, sometimes just the summer months, sometimes all year long," said Polkinghorne, who played Fender bass and sang lead vocals. "Keith was the star of our show," VanEffen said.

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VanEffen still got his share of the limelight, my friend Dan Lee and I observed when we traveled to Munising to see an early Wayfarers show. To the delight of the crowd, VanEffen occasionally played keyboards and the trumpet at the same time. It was an impressive musical feat by the young man I'd had known since 2nd grade.

By early 1974, the Wayfarers made an LP, unusual for a local band, "by popular demand," according to the liner notes. The disc was titled "The Wayfarers...Live," but that wasn't quite accurate. According to VanEffen, the band "tried for real live recordings, but there was way too much background noise." Consequently, the tracks were laid down in the NMU bandroom. "There's not a 'live' track on the album," Polkinghorne noted.

In choosing songs for the disc, VanEffen said they "tried for a sample of very diversified styles of music that represented what we actually played." The LP's tracks include covers of hits of the era such as Santana's "Evil Ways," Bread's "Make It With You," and a pair of horn-driven Chicago hits, "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World." Amongst other tunes was a medley of oldies by Bill Haley, Danny and the Juniors, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins titled "Rock Show."

The record, which features a cover photo of the trio on the Black Rocks of Presque Isle in Marquette taken by William Ryde, was sold at their gigs and in local stores.

As they became more well-known, the Wayfarers also served as the winter house band at Marquette's Holiday Inn. "We actually did a live recording there, but it was never produced," VanEffen, the group's manager, remembered.

True to their name, the Wayfarers did lots of traveling. Besides Munising and Marquette, the band performed often at the Dells Supper Club and a golf course in Escanaba. In addition, they played regularly in Manistique, Newberry and Sault Ste. Marie.

All three members of the Wayfarers graduated from NMU and became music teachers. Polkinghorne has been teaching music for the Hurley School District since 1985, while VanEffen retired in 2003 as director of bands for the Tahquamenon Area Schools in Newberry after 22 years. Henry, meanwhile, was last in Lake Geneva, Wis., teaching middle school band and choir.

"The Wayfarers continued to play with various members over a period of 20 years. Always with Bill VanEffen as the glue holding it together," Polkinghorne said.

"The band actually kept going until the early 90's. We became a private party/wedding band at the end. The main reason I gave it up was because my two boys were of age to start hunting and fishing and it was a choice between the band or spending weekends with them. I chose the latter," VanEffen explained.

VanEffen, who started taking music lessons at 6, owns a piano tuning and repair business and is also a commercial pilot. A part-time church organist, he also plays piano for Hopeful Gospel Quintet. VanEffen and his wife Deb spend their summers fishing and each fall at their camp in Rock where they are avid bowhunters. They plan to move closer to the Bay de Noc area when she retires from Newberry Hospital.

Since his college days, Polkinghorne has also been involved in other groups including The Fantastics, Top Notch, The Naturals, Silver Express, and Sessions. With his wife Patti, Polkinghorne will be moving back to Marquette when he retires from teaching in the spring of 2009. They've already purchased their retirement home, just a block from Lake Superior.

What will he be doing when he joins VanEffen in retirement? "Hey, maybe we'll put the old Wayfarers back together," Polkinghorne mused.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is the truth.