The XLs Rock On
By Connie Brown
of the Advocate News
New York and Los Angeles can have their rock band reunions. We don't care; members of the Wilton-Durant community will welcome back six of their favorite musicians Friday, Aug. 22 when the XLs, a well-known 1960s band composed of local young men who are now retirement age, will perform from 8 to 10 p.m. in downtown Wilton.
The answers were varied when the band members, Joe McClean, Bob Guy, Les Thede, Gary Martin, Mike Heinrich and Craig Ziegenhorn, explained, via telephone and e-mail, their motivation to perform together for the first time-except for a Memorial Day rehearsal-since 1969.
McClean, who began to gather a group of his fellow members of the Wilton High School band in 1962, said, "Well, almost everyone else is retired, and all I can say is idle hands are the devil's workshop," while Ziegenhorn gave credit to Guy for the reunion. "I think Bobby Guy just talked us into it," he said.
Thede, who lives is Ohio now and is the only Durant High School grad in the group, agreed that Guy made the first call.
"We all seemed enthusiastic, but we were committed to doing it well or not at all. The practice over Memorial Day indicated that we could still play (even though a bit rusty), so we made a commitment to do the Founders Day event," Thede said.
Heinrich, whose mother Marian still lives in Wilton, said, "We have been talking about getting together again off and on over the past few years. Les and Craig retired this year, making it easier to get together. We think we were pretty good back in the day. Since Gary is in Arizona, Les in Ohio, Joe and Craig in Missouri, Bob in Iowa and I was all over the country, this is the first time we have collectively been in the same place since 1969."
He and his wife, the former Cheryl Martin, will have more than a reunion to celebrate that weekend because they will observe their 40th anniversary on Aug. 23. He said, "All three of my kids will be there and will finally get to hear what Dad and Mom have been telling stories about."
Martin said it was the "love and yearning for the good old days" that brought the group together again. "I think all of us would agree that those 60s years, where everywhere we played had packed crowds, was one of the best times in our lives. It was a challenge to see if we could still ‘rock the house' if we got together again after 40 years."
"For a number of years we talked about a reunion, but everyone was so involved in their careers and we lived so far apart that it wasn't feasible. Now it's a little easier," Guy said.
"We got together over Memorial Day and practiced for six hours. We were really pooped but we really enjoyed it," Guy said. "I hadn't even seen some of them for 30 years."
McClean, whose sense of humor is well-known to anyone who has met him, said it was really "vanity and ego" that inspired the event.
"We want to let our kids see what we did when we were ‘almost somebody.' Also, we had this strange urge to empty the nursing homes in eastern Iowa for just one evening," he added.
Even long-time fans may not know how the group originally got together. Heinrich said the credit for that goes to one of McClean's many sisters, Jane Smith, who now resides in Maquoketa (sisters Lucy Daufeldt, Amy Woodhouse, Mary Hansen, Judy Hemmen and Sue Norton still live in the area).
"She asked Joe to get a bunch of guys together to play at the Bloomington Grange Hall, probably in 1962," Heinrich explalined. "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to play in a band. Originally, we called ourselves the Swingin' Shepherds; I still have the sign painted by Kermit Christiansen, who also was a barber in Wilton Junction."
"But when Gary joined the group, and we started playing more rock ‘n' roll, the name had to be changed," Heinrich said.
McClean said when the group switched its emphasis from jazz to rock, he suggested the XLs because Ford had a model called the Galaxie 500 XL at that time, and he liked the double meaning. "XL, fast car, also sounds like excel," he said.
"We were pre-Beatles," he said. The WHS band members concentrated on their horns: McClean on trumpet, Guy on trombone and Heinrich with his saxophone. "The only drummer I knew was Chuck Daut, but he was too busy," McClean explained. "My niece in Durant said that Les Thede was a good drummer, and he was available and interested." A band was born.
"Then I found out Mike had this Fender electric guitar he was teaching himself to play, and Bob Guy was playing his parents' organ, so I taught myself to play bass and we kind of morphed into a rock ‘n' roll band. Gary Martin joined the group, and he had money, so then we could buy a PA system," McClean said.
Thede said, "I remember, in the early days, traveling to virtually every high school within 100 miles to play proms, homecomings, holiday dances. Gary had a ‘well-used' station wagon that pulled a trailer, which was built for us by Mike's Dad, Gus Heinrich, and we used to freeze in the winter and roast in the summer. But, boy did we have fun!"
As the group grew more popular, their venues and fan base grew correspondingly. All of the band members remember fondly the Tuesday night "Good Guy A Go-Go" events at the Coliseum Ballroom in Davenport when they were the house band. Sponsored by KSTT radio station, the dances drew huge crowds of screaming fans, and a half hour of it was broadcast live, according to Guy. Heinrich said he thought they performed there for three years and called it the band's most popular event.
Guy said, "There were hundreds of kids there. We played Top 40 songs; there were four go-go girls and lights. I had the worst headaches."
"I understand we still hold the highest attendance record at the Coliseum," Guy reminisced of a summer night in 1966 (according to the group's best recollection of the date). "I remember that night well. They were packed in like sardines and people were not getting enough air, so they were passing people across the crowd."
Heinrich recalled, "When big name performers came to the area, we opened their shows, including Herman's Hermits, Lovin' Spoonful, Yardbirds, ? and the Mysterions, The New Vaudeville Band, the Byrds, Mamas and Papas, and Paul Revere and the Raiders."
"Probably my most embarrassing moment was at one of these events," Heinrich explained. "The Vogues were a singing group, most famous for the song ‘Five O'Clock World,' and they required a band that could read music scores to back them up. We got the assignment. I borrowed a guitar to play the intro for ‘Five O'Clock World,' so I could get just the right sound. We were onstage, waiting with all our instruments turned down, as Bob Henry, DJ from KSTT, introduced the group: ‘Here they are, from (somewhere in Pennsylvania), The Vogues.
"I turned on my guitar; the connection was broken, and I loudly sent static noise out to about 3,000 people at the Masonic Temple in Davenport, with the Vogues waiting behind the curtains, glaring. I had to switch guitars, take a deep breath, and start all over again."
Ziegenhorn recounted one of their riskier journeys: "There was the trip home from playing at the Hi-Way Gardens in Stanwood in the middle of the night. The throttle linkage on the old school bus we used had broken, and we drove back down Iowa 38 from Stanwood to the Cove restaurant with the hood up, Gary lying on the fender operating the throttle at the carburetor and me steering the bus with my head out the little window. Let's just say we wouldn't have been arrested for driving too slow. It probably would have been scarier if I could have seen through all the tears created by the wind in my eyes."
The group's appearance in a movie was the top of everyone's list of highlights of that period. Vox Musical Instruments flew the group to Hollywood in 1967 to appear in MGM's "A Time To Sing" after the XLs won a contest. Bob Guy had written "Summer Love in the Sand," and they sang the original song in the movie.
"Obviously, having a small part in a movie was a pretty big deal for us-the trip to Hollywood, meeting the stars of the movie, Hank Williams Jr. and Shelly Fabares, and then seeing ourselves on the big screen after the movie was released," McClean said.
"That was almost as cool as cruising down River Drive in Davenport, and hearing our music playing on KSTT radio!" he added.
Martin shared more memories: "Every bit of it was an experience that you only see in the movies. The whole experience, culminating in the movie, was a living dream that any aspiring musician would love to experience."
"There is something about seeing a dance floor of people all moving to your sound that is an incredible rush," Martin went on. "Hi-Way Gardens in Stanwood and the Col in Davenport were probably my favorite places to play. The long trips in the band bus, playing dance halls, private clubs, homecomings, proms, were a treat. Joe McClean's wit and Mike Heinrich's puns were never ending. It was sad when the Vietnam War started tearing apart the band."
Guy, Heinrich and Ziegenhorn were drafted in the late 60s. Guy said he was lucky, thanks to his dad, Robert (who still lives in Wilton with his wife Doris), who gave him some good advice.
"Dad told me to join the Army band," he said. "My best friend there had played with Stan Kenton; I sat by him and he taught me a lot about playing trombone." Therefore, after training in Virginia, he was stationed in Germany instead of Southeast Asia.
Bob Guy plays keyboard and trombone and lives in Muscatine. Retired from Bandag where he was a service engineer and instructor, he now sells tires part-time. Guy, 62, is a 1964 Wilton High School graduate and has five children and four grandchildren.
He has probably played the most-trombone and keyboard-since the group broke up because he played in other groups until about 15 years ago. He recently joined the band "Deliverance" led by his friend Darryl Gilbert, whose place they used for the group's May rehearsal.
Mike Heinrich, 61, plays guitar and tenor sax and was a 1965 WHS grad and a 1969 University of Iowa graduate. He and his wife Cheryl (also a WHS grad) moved to the Lake of the Ozarks in 2000 after his retirement from IBM where he worked for more than 30 years. He served in the U.S. Army and is a Vietnam veteran.
They have three children and five grandchildren.
Gary Martin and his wife of 36 years, Linda, have three children and four grandchildren and live in Arizona, where he is retired but still active "in a counselor mode" in the family business that he founded.
Martin, 64, graduated from WHS in 1962 and became a Doctor of Wellness Science (DSc) and Doctor of Nutritional Philosophy (PhD). After running a wellness clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. for 20 years, he started a nutritional products company. His son manages Healthy Habits (https://www.healthyhabits.com), where Martin helps out "where I can."
Martin played tenor sax, bass and organ previously but said, "For this gig, it will be all that I can muster to sound halfway decent on the sax. I haven't touched it for 40 years. Yikes!"
He said, "I have always thought of myself as the least musically talented in the group, but my love of music and business skills allowed me to do a halfway decent job of promoting the XLs to the position of being one of the most sought-after Midwest bands of the 60s."
Joe McClean is the only member of the group still working full-time. He works in animal health sales to veterinarians as district manager for Merial, LTD and is responsible for sales representatives in Kansas and Oklahoma.
He and his wife, the former Pam Potthoff of Muscatine, live in Kansas City, Mo. and have three grown children.
McClean, 62, also is a member of the class of 1964 at WHS and plays bass, trumpet, guitar and harmonica. He said his musical activities in recent years have been limited to occasionally sitting in with Al Collins' groups.
Les Thede also is married to a former area resident, Diane nee Ahrens, who attended high school in Wilton for three years and graduated from Tipton. They have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren.
Thede, 60, is a Durant High School alumnus and a University of Iowa graduate who also got his master's degree in electrical engineering there. After working in his field for several years, he completed a doctorate and taught at Ohio Northern University (ONU) for many years. He retired from ONU last year after being chair of the electrical and computer engineering departments and writing two engineering textbooks.
Thede said, "Currently I'm pursuing a career as a fine furniture designer/builder. (Shameless plug: I have a website at EverLasting Furniture.com).
"I took up woodworking during some of the stressful times at ONU and found that I could make all the design/build decisions on my own-not requiring any committee actions!"
He said, "ONU, enrollment 3,600, is in Ada, Ohio, a town not much larger than Durant or Wilton. We loved getting to work in five minutes."
Thede plays drums, "or for the more elite crowd, I'm the percussionist! Actually, I believe Joe had the habit of introducing the group as four musicians and a drummer," he said.
"I have played as part of a small group at ONU who performed for the Christmas party each year. Other than that, it was just drumming on the steering wheel or the restaurant table," Thede added.
Craig Ziegenhorn, 61, hails from Muscatine and met McClean at Muscatine Community College. He signed on with the band to drive the bus and run the lights and PA system, but before long he was drafted to play bass during the songs when McClean took up his trumpet. He now plays bass and guitar.
He says, "The most memorable thing I've taken away from the XLs is my wife, Mary. She is Gary Martin's sister and Mike Heinrich's sister-in-law. Thanks to Joe McClean who got me involved in the band, so I could meet her." They have lived in Kansas City for 35 years and have two adult daughters.
A graduate of Muscatine High School and the University of Iowa, Ziegenhorn worked for the Social Security Administration for 33 years before he retired recently. He said his brother Lee still lives in Muscatine.
Ziegenhorn has also kept his musical skills honed the past seven years in a group called Carbon Copy, playing and leading worship each Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church of Lee's Summit, Mo.
Hurrah for hometowns
Heinrich said, "I am one of those who still say I am from Wilton Junction. I think a big salute needs to go out to the Wilton Junction High School band teacher, Marlyn Bausman. Four of us in the band are his students; he was the original Music Man for us."
All of the band members speak with affection about practicing in the Heinrich family's garage every week.
Ziegenhorn said, "Marian Heinrich always made us feel at home when we had practice at her place. She still does whenever we visit."
McClean said, "When I was young and sophisticated, I didn't think too frequently about Wilton Junction, but with age and travel I've come to appreciate the old hometown a lot more. Mostly, I recall the people who were more kind to me than I had any reason to expect. For example, when the XLs would practice in the Heinrichs' garage, their neighbors, Pete and Loretto Hansen, would, instead of complaining about the noise, sometimes bring us sandwiches, cookies and pop and thank us for the entertainment! Wow!"
"Also," McClean said, "Wally Hilgenberg, when visiting his parents, who lived across the alley from Mike's garage, would drop in and listen to us and shoot the bull. Again, wow!"
"There were some great people around Wilton Junction. For example, Buck Wacker Jr., who taught us a lot about being in a band. There was Jake Davies, the only person to ever get away with calling my mom ‘Josie,' who always had a smile on his face," McClean said. "Who can forget Wilton Junction's one-person PR squad, Thelma Nopoulos? Probably the most unforgettable individual was a teacher, Buck Hilton. He taught me that a rough and tough he-man type could appreciate the arts."
Thede said, "I remember growing up in the Durant/Wilton area was great-a much slower pace than in today's society. I think it would be great for every kid in America to grow up in that same environment. I was involved in 4-H, sports and music, but, by far, the XLs have given me the most lasting memories. I really didn't realize what adventure and excitement were provided to me by the band experience. It's just too bad that I didn't realize you could play music continuously through your 60s and make a living. (Look at the Rolling Stones!) However, I wouldn't trade the life I've led for any other."
Martin recalled, "The kindness and support of everyone in Wilton is something that I still remember today. The Sand Dances held at my parents' restaurant, The Cove, were particularly memorable."
He added, "It is really a blast to be playing together again."
Thede echoed comments from fellow band members when he said, "I just look forward to seeing lots of friends at Founders Day!" Fans would no doubt say the feeling is mutual.