Billy Rose: How Old were you when you first started playing guitar?
Ken Clarke: My first guitar. I was twelve or thirteen, I think.
I can’t remember to be honest with ya.
Billy Rose: Is guitar the first instrument you tried?
Ken Clarke: I plucked on the piano a little. Singing, I like singing. I sang in the church choir. I just overall had a love for music. Oh you know what I was thirteen when I got my first guitar. Because I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I thought if those cats can do it, I can do it (laughs).
Billy Rose: That’s exactly what Dave Schneider said.
Ken Clarke: Did he really? It makes you wonder just how many millions of kids did that.(laughs). Guitar sales really went up that week (laughs).
Billy Rose: So were you involved with music in school? Band or choir.
Ken Clarke: Nope! As soon as I saw The Beatles it was over to my buddies house learning all The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Animals basically all the English groups (laughs). One of our favorite groups were the Shadows of Night out of Chicago. ‘Cause they were doing that Blues stuff and we kinda dug the Blues. But my first experience with Rock ‘N’ Roll though goes way back. I was at a buddies house that lived down the street…the Cooley’s and Tom Cooley’s brother had a record of Elvis Presley doing Hound Dog. I was all of five years old (laughs) and I was sittin’ there on the front steps and they say hey ya wanna come in and listen to this. This is that new stuff. I was born in ’52 and it came out in like ’56 or ’57. Man he put that Hound Dog on and I was changed right then and there. Because before that all I ever heard was Vic Damone , Tony Bennett and Glen Miller that my folks were listening to. It was like pretty paltry compared to that Rock ‘n’ Roll stuff. Five years old and I jumped out of my skin. I thought this is for me (laughs). I like that Rock ‘N’ Roll man that’s good stuff.
Billy Rose: So did you start listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll then at the age of five.
Ken Clarke: No, no, no. I heard it on the radio once in a while. My folks wouldn’t let me listen to it. I heard it on car radios of kids driving by or at friends houses who had older brothers or sisters. But we didn’t get any Rock ‘n’ Roll in my house and I’ll tell you it was kinda rough too ‘cause my dad was against that ya know. He called it the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah music, with the long hair and stuff (laughs). A lot of parents were like that and now they have that music themselves. My parents have The Beatles greatest hits (laughs).
Billy Rose: So what was the first band you played in?
Ken Clarke: Oh wow. I don’t even know if we had a name. Yeah, I think we did have a name. There were three guys. My buddy Danny Bloomberg played the drums, Jim Farr lived down the street from me. I had this little Gretsch guitar and a Silvertone amp and Jimmy had Ampeg Portaflex…very collectible right now…cool sounding bass. We sat in my garage and played Satisfaction until our fingers were raw (laughs)…we played it all afternoon…that’s the only song we knew (laughs)…the kids in the neighborhood would come by and think we were cool. Later we added a couple guys and had a band called the Brick Layers Arms, ‘cause that was a club were The Rolling Stones used to play, we read it in some biography or something. So we called ourselves that. From there it just kinda progressed. We had a band called The Jack Daniels Band when we were in high school. That’s where I really caught it ‘cause that’s when everything started sounding good. Before that it was pretty pathetic.
Billy Rose: Did you take guitar lessons or did you learn it yourself?
Ken Clarke: For a year I took lessons from a guy named Maurice Byers he lived up on Pershing. He was an older guy and he was teaching me scales and all of the rudiments and stuff like that, I was getting pretty frustrated man. I said hey I want to play some of that Rock ‘n’ Roll man. You gotta teach me what I’m listening too. So he pulls out a book and starts playing Pipeline by The Ventures (laughs) and I said that’s enough for me, I can’t handle this. So then I started teaching myself. He gave me enough to get started ya know. But I really learned watching other guys on TV and going to see bands and stuff like that. I would watch how their hand would move up and down the fret and I would just experiment. I don’t want to over simplify it, but it’s pretty simple if you’re good at mathematics ‘Cause there’s only so many scales and so many things you can do. It took a while to teach myself. These kids today man they got the videos and all this other instruction. You get a guitar when you’re seven years old and you’re a professional when you’re fourteen (laughs). I was barely able to play ten chords when I was fourteen (laughs).
Billy Rose: So the first band. Were you in High School or Junior High?
Ken Clarke: Junior High. It was Gateway Junior High School. Yeah I remember now. We got this fourth guy in the band and my buddy calls me and says Clark you gotta come down and hear this guy has an amp and he’s got this thing called reverb on it and it sounds like he’s playing far away. I jumped on my bike and went right down there. And here’s this short chubby little guy with greasy long hair named Mike Ashby and he was wailing away on a little Fender Mustang…I’ll never forget it…a Princeton Reverb, just krank it up and he could play. This guy had been taking lessons for a couple years. He was a year older than us. We didn’t really do anything serious we did a couple little parties and stuff like that. When we got into high school we had a couple years of playing under our belt and we had a couple new members. This guy named Bruce McCabe played guitar and we had to many guitar players so I talked him out of it and he started playing piano, ‘cause he said he was a good piano player. So we started playing music by The Band and all kinds of piano type music. Leon Russell and Joe Cocker stuff like that because we had a piano in the lineup. Danny Bloomberg played Bass, Mark Rollins on the drums, he turned out to be a pretty talented musician he played drums, guitar and wrote songs. We had two singers out front. We had Tim Drevyanko and Bill Bobek. I think Bruce and me both sang. We had backup harmony and played all kinds of stuff. Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Beatles and all the popular stuff that was going on then. We just had a blast. We started playing out of town and school dances. As soon as we got out of high school we went straight to the taverns, we just wanted to play. We loved doing it. We traveled awhile, went to Canada then we kinda split off and went our own directions. Bruce is up in Minneapolis and still playing. There was a time in high school when we wanted to get a farm…maybe it was Woodstock or something (laughs)…we were gonna go out and farm and make a living playing music (laughs). But school, parents things like that got in the way (laughs). But we had a blast playing.
Billy Rose: Were you doing any original material or just covers?
Ken Clarke: We did a few original songs. One called There’s Been A Change, written by Dan Bloomberg, Ken Clark and Bruce McCabe.
Billy Rose: So Bruce McCabe started out playing guitar, but you talked him into switching to piano is that right?
Ken Clarke: It didn’t take too much. He was kind of a folky guitar player and he was a heck of a talented guy. He loved Bob Dylan and Crosby, Still, Nash and Young type music. He taught us all a lot and taught me a lot. We were sitting around one day and I said if we had a piano we could play this and all the guys were in on it. Why don’t we try it. He said sure. So we went to his house and he had a piano in the living room. We set up some stuff and (snaps fingers) that was it. It sounded great. Bruce had years of classical training and he honed his skills in that band. He caught on fire and he got really excited about it. And he took off and never stopped.
Billy Rose: So what happened after high school?
Ken Clarke: After high school I joined up with Dave Schneider and Mark Haferbier and his brother Terry. We had a band called the Ric Pike Band. We played about ten years in Clinton. Played taverns, dance halls and weddings, and had a blast, but like everything it has to come to an end. That band splintered off and guys went different directions. I hooked up with Jack Schmalfeldt, I always loved the Blues and so did he. We just started hanging out and weren’t too serious about it, but he went to Milwaukee and got real serious. I got to play up there with him a couple times. Then he moved back to Clinton and he wanted to get a band together. He got Dave Schneider and few of others formed the Unidynes. They did a real nice job. JC Monroe who is playing with us now has been in a bunch of local bands and me and (Dave) Schneider and Bingo (Dave Layton) have been in a few different variations of different bands, Unidynes, Ric Pike Band and others. When Jack came along he raised us all up to a whole new level I think. He got us writing our own music and that kind of stuff. Jack got us up and that’s what keeps us going today. Jack was a real creative guy. More so than any of us realized. You know that old phrase “You don’t miss the water, ‘til the well runs dry” With Jack gone now we all sure miss him. And here we are at our age still getting up and playing. We just love doing it. And to think it all started back in ’57 with Hound Dog. (laughs).
Tags: Bill Bobek, Brick Layers Arms, Bruce McCabe, Dan Bloomberg, Dave Layton, Dave Schneider, Jack Schmalfeldt, JC Monroe, Ken Clarke, Mark Haferbier, Mark Rollins, Maurice Byers, Mike Ashby, Ric Pike Band, The Barn Rockers, The Jack Daniels Band, The Unidynes, There's Been A Change, Tim Drevyanko