Of all the great rock ‘n’ roll groups playing around the Twin Cities in the mid-sixties, the one that really broke out into the Big Time was the Trashmen. Of course, national fame came based on the silly novelty tune “Surfin’ Bird,” but keep playing their eponymous LP and you’ll hear some of the best surf music ever recorded!
There are many books, magazines, and websites around that will tell the story of the T-Men, including their page at minniepaulmusic.com so this page won’t go into the all the details, but here are a few tidbits:
MIKE JANN TELLS IT FROM THE BEGINNING
On October 8, 2017, lead guitar player Tony Andreason was given the second annual Bill Diehl Award. His childhood friend and official Trashmen historian, Mike Jann, delivered these words at the ceremony:
Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words on behalf of my friend, Tony — whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing now for over some 60 years! I was introduced to Tony back in about 1955 when the nuns at the grade school Tony and I attended (and I had graduated from) heard that we both played guitars. They put the word out that we should get together and meet up — with our instruments.
Now there were not nearly as many guitar players back in ’55 as now-a-days. So the first time I heard Tony play at the school’s Talent Show, his picking nearly “knocked my socks off” — to quote an old saying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! So I called him and we got together for our first guitar picking jam. …And when I learned that he, like me, enjoyed country music — that was an instant bond — that would last through the years.
Case in point: One Saturday night we were parked in my ’48 Plymouth on a hill overlooking Crystal Lake in Robbinsdale — with the car radio on. A while later, a police officer came up and asked, “What are you boys doing in there?” One of us replied: “We’re listening to the Grand Ole Opry — from Nashville — on the radio! …The reception is better up here by the lake. …Less interference.” The cop said something like: “Well, maybe, O.K., fellas…” and left — probably scratching his head. …There was no beer in that car.
We would get together for regular jam sessions as often as possible — usually in his parents’ basement in North Minneapolis. After a while, word got out what we had been up to — and we were invited to perform at a few Sunday evening church suppers in the area. Hey, they paid us maybe $10.00 for the two-some! We were happy to get the gigs!
By then, I was brave enough to sing some Johnny Cash songs — while Tony would play the lead guitar parts, just like Luther Perkins did for Johnny! Our little musical interlude would have Tony usually playing at least one instrumental tune — like the “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” or some variation while I played rhythm guitar for him. Don’t think I got nervous up front — cause I knew he was there behind me — and could pick out an instrumental on his guitar at any time (…to save my ‘vocal ship’ from sinking)!
In about 1957, someone asked us if we would like to be in a Knights of Columbus Talent Contest in downtown Minneapolis. We decided to give it a try! Tony was recalling that the Grand Prize was maybe $50.00 and a recording session for the winning act. Tony led off picking his instrumental arrangement of the “Guitar Boogie Shuffle.” Then we hit the judges with me vocalizing a Homer & Jethro parody version of the old classic “On Top of Old Smokey” — and somehow we won the Grand Prize! We beat out the accordion player that probably played “Lady of Spain” — and maybe a couple of classical piano players, etc..
The Grand Prize took us down to Kay Bank Recording Studio on Nicollet Ave. South, Minneapolis. We recorded two songs — one a song I had “written” and the other was Tony playing an instrumental medley on his guitar. We received a couple of acetate copies of “our session” to take back home.
In about 1959, Tony started playing out at the Crystal Coliseum for teen dances on Friday nights with various rock bands, including Jim Thaxter and the Travelers. As I listened to his talented guitar playing, I knew there was ‘a change a coming.’ …That our little two-some was about to change direction completely for Tony, as local rock bands started calling him to play lead guitar for teen dances.
And little did ANY of us know then that Tony would return to Kay Bank six years later in 1963 — with three other bandmates by the names of Steve Wahrer, Dal Winslow and Bob Reed — better known as the Trashmen — to record a hit song that would put Kay Bank and Minneapolis back on the pop music charts! Reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart was just part of “Surfin’ Bird” history!
In the Fall of 1963, I vividly recall the night when the “Surfin’ Bird” 45 single record was first played on the radio — the Wednesday evening’s “Pick to Click”(-??) listener call-in program on Wonderful “Wee-Gee”, WDGY! Tony, myself and Larry LaPole were working on recording some demos.
Tony asked me for my car keys so he could go out and turn on the car radio to monitor what was happening on WDGY. Some time passed while the girls were singing — and all of a sudden, Tony came running back in and excitedly announced: “They played our record! He watched the recording in progress for a while — and then went back out to the car. After another few minutes, he came back in again to tell us that they had played “Surfin’ Bird” again! If I recall, he made a third trip into our makeshift recording room to announce that the “Bird” had been played a third time — due to listeners calling in to make the Trashmen’s record the winner for night — the most requested “Pick to Click” favorite record.
That would dramatically change the direction for the future of the 4-piece Trashmen band!
However ironic, the record had to be taken off of radio airplay for the next few days while records were quickly pressed up and shipped to local record stores — to make supply meet up with teen demand for what we were referring to as an ‘overnight hit’!
Reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in early 1964 was just part of the “Surfin’ Bird” history! Well on its way to No. 1, the chart action was ‘rudely interrupted’ by a 4-piece group hailing from England.
Over time, Tony became very proficient in the recording studio — many times calling upon what he had learned in his High School Orchestra days at Patrick Henry High School and later at McPhail School of Music in Minneapolis.
In 1966-1967, we started a record label — or two — to help promote some of David Anthony’s bands that he was booking. Tony was willing and able to offer help with what he had learned ‘the hard way’ in the recording studio. Amongst other projects, he worked with and produced the South 40 “Live at Someplace Else” album on Metrobeat. He was always willing to share his musical knowledge and guitar tricks or secrets with most anyone who asked him for advice. …Whether that be in the studio or after a Trashmen gig — while signing autographs out in front of the stage.
In 1989, Steve Wahrer, the voice of “Surfin’ Bird,” passed away. Since Tony always had a very good ear for hearing and imitating voices, it fell upon him to teach himself to “sing” ‘the Bird.’ After all, he had heard it …how many thousands of times coming from behind him on stage when Steve would sing “the Bird” — while playing his drums.
…After the frequency of the Trashmen’s gigs in the U.S. lessened, it came as NO SURPRISE to me that Tony joined a bluegrass band — “The Platte Valley Boys.” Because back in our earlier jam session days, Tony might start the conversation by saying something like, “Mike, you gotta hear this!! I just got this brand-new Jimmy Martin album, or this one by the Stanley Brothers” — or maybe a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs song. And there was always a catchy bluegrass harmony part that Tony would try to get me to sing along with him. …But I just ‘fell flat’ trying to hit those harmony parts!
Finally, The Platte Valley Boys provided that ‘harmonious’ platform and Tony could add his part to those tight, clean bluegrass harmonies that he loved so much. Yes, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ ‘rocking’ to “Be True to Your School” might come close — but Tony really got his bluegrass “chops” and guitar licks in with his 15-plus years performing with The Platte Valley Boys!
But Tony, as a member of “The Trashmen” — never foresaw that decades later, they would play to sold-out crowds in Europe. …Tours to countries all over — Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, England, Sweden, Denmark, etc.
In conclusion, I wish to thank Bob Reed, Dal Winslow, Steve Wahrer — and especially my friend through it all, Tony — for allowing me to tag along “on the ride” all these many years!
Like fine wine, Tony’s instrumental and vocal talents have only improved with age. I am proud of Tony’s musical accomplishments — and even more proud to call him my friend!
Random Notes on the Trashmen:
The band first appeared at the Prom Ballroom as simply “Dal Winslow, New Sensation.” Dal explains that the name “The Trashmen” seemed too “out there” for the ballroom, so he was chosen as the front man in an era of teenage idols.
It appears that their next show at the Prom was under their own name, on January 19, 1963. Again they were described as a “New Sensation.”
Other Fun Facts:
- Despite their landlocked situation, three of the four band members actually did go to California, where they absorbed the Dick Dale sound and rode the waves.
- The famous album cover in front of the trash truck was taken at Wally McCarthy’s Lindahl Olds at 494 and Penn Ave. Tony remembers it was about 30 degrees that day, so they were anxious to get the shot done quickly! Scenes from “Fargo” were later shot at the same location. It’s now Best Buy headquarters.
- “Surfin’ Bird” entered the Billboard Charts on December 7, 1963, and stayed there for 13 weeks, peaking at #4 on January 25, 1964.
- The song was originally to be called “Surfer Bird,” but Bill Diehl suggested that “Surfin'” leant a little more action to it.
- Reaction to the song was mixed; in January 1964 Will Jones reported that one Texas listener offered a radio station there “any amount of money” to take it off the air. “The station told him to send his money to the March of Dimes, and smashed its copy of the record….Meanwhile the Minneapolis record company that created the hit is lining up extra pressing plants in Michigan and California to keep up with the demand for the disk.”
- The B-side of “Surfin’ Bird” was “King of the Surf,” the best surfin’ song of all time, bar none! The sudden success of “Surfin’ Bird” required that a flip side be written quickly, and Larry LaPole was enlisted to write it. Larry had never been to California, but fellow Minneapolis Tribune writer Mike Jann gave Larry a column that Will Jones had done on July 28, 1963, with definitions of surf terms. The column, “Avast, Gremmies–Surfing Tide is Rolling In,” has virtually all the terms Larry used in the song.
- On December 8, 1963, Irv Letofsky wrote a two-page feature on the Trashmen for the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune – “Trashmen ‘Have the Beat Kids Love.'” Although Tribune music critic Dan Sullivan “applied the rare superlative ‘It’s the worst song I’ve ever heard,’ It matters not. The beat’s the thing. (Surfin music’s the thing, too, although surfing style of dancing hasn’t really reached the Midwest, informants say. It’s coming from the West Coast.)”
- George Garrett noted that the name the Trashmen might have come from a record about a trash man that was out about three years ago. [Probably “Trashmen’s Blues” by Tony Kai-Ray] “But we like what the disc jockeys do with the name… like ‘Back up and get a load of this.'”
- On January 12, 1964, a party at Kay Bank Studio celebrated 500,000 in sales for “Surfin’ Bird.” Will Jones reported it as “one of the more remarkable parties of the season,” hosted by officials from SOMA, distributor; Garrett Records, producer; and Kay Bank, where the record was made. It was also a launch party for “Bird Dance Beat” and the “Surfin’ Bird” LP. “The party was attended by disk jockeys, record peddlers, and a few young persons whose function was to dance The Bird.”
- “Bird Dance Beat” (b/w “A-Bone”) charted on February 8, 1964 and stayed for seven weeks, peaking at #30 on March 7, 1964.
- The “Surfin’ Bird” album, on Soma Records, hit the Billboard Chart on February 15, 1964, and stayed there for 15 weeks, peaking at #48. It was available at Record Lane and Musicland for $2.88. 2013 eBay prices range from $120 to $1,000 for a copy autographed by all four members. And where were the Trashmen on the day their big album hit the charts? Southtown!
- A third single release, “Bad News” b/w “On the Move” hit the Billboard Bubbling Under charts on May 16, 1964, but by then the Beatles had hit and surf was over.
- In late 1964 the group went on a tour of South America. A planned tour of the UK in 1965 had to be postponed because of the British Invasion but they finally made it in 2010.
- Another gem from Will Jones was a rumor that the Beatles and the Trashmen were going to team up to form a new group. The name of the new band? The Litterbugs!
SURFIN’ BIRD ON BANDSTAND
On January 4, 1964, the Trashmen were featured on “American Bandstand” – only the show was too cheap to fly out the entire band, so Steve Wahrer (the drummer and singer) was sent out there alone. To the day 59 years later, Tony Andreason remembered that Steve was given no prep time, no instructions, and no expectations. Worse, being the drummer, Steve was not used to performing in that way. On the spot, he invented the Bird, and did a creditable job. Afterwards he talked to Clark, but he was out of breath! Tony stresses that Steve was an excellent rock drummer and an excellent rock singer, and that performance did not show off his many talents.