Blue Horizon is proud to announce that they have been nominated for induction to the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame. The decision to officially induct Blue Horizon will come from the Rock and Roll Association Board of Directors in January 2017.
Click on the link to the left to sign a petition in support of Blue Horizon being in the Hall of Fame.
Blue Horizon Quick Facts
The core of Blue Horizon started in 1972 when Mike Vargason and Kelly Murphy were in 8th grade at Sacred Heart School in Oelwein, Iowa. Those two played a school variety show and later added a bass player and started playing live at local venues. That band ended when the bass player’s family moved out of town.
Within a year, Vargason called Murphy and said he had teamed up with some neighbors of his to play country music and needed a lead guitar player. Murphy joined bassist Rob Tatro, guitarist John Chapman and drummer Mike Vargason and they started playing throughout northeast Iowa.
They soon switched to rock music and changed their name to Blue Horizon. They added veteran drummer Tom Kammer who had played in bands since the age of seven. Chapman decided to leave the band and was replaced by Terry Wheeler from Independence. This was the lineup that made its mark on the Northeast Iowa rock music scene. However, during the later years, Blue Horizon added multi-percussionist Charlie Hallberg of Oelwein.
From 1974 to 1978 Blue Horizon performed nearly every Friday and Saturday night at hundreds of dances, showcases and concerts in ballrooms, county fairs, and high schools throughout the Midwest. A significant number of their gigs were for High School proms and homecoming dances, holiday parties, wedding dances, community celebrations and class reunions.
During the spring of 1977, Blue Horizon played 18 high school proms. Due to the band’s popularity, schools needed to book Blue Horizon as their prom band a year ahead and many schools changed their prom date to accommodate the band’s availability. They played songs that people could dance to and sing along with and had a wide range of music types for all ages to enjoy. As teenagers, they spent countless hours learning the music that their fans wanted to hear on a Saturday night. Their music selection and stage presence made them one of the most versatile and sought after bands in Iowa.
The band featured strong vocal harmonies, two lead guitar players, and an electric violin that allowed them to play both original music and all the current hits of the day. Blue Horizon also distinguished themselves by performing deep album tracks by Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Elvin Bishop, Steely Dan, The Beatles, Charlie Daniels Band, George Benson and Stevie Wonder. Blue Horizon was also one of the first regional bands that featured a talkbox when covering Peter Frampton music and the band also featured violin for 2 beat county fiddle tunes. and in songs by Kansas and Charlie Daniels.
Blue Horizon appeared in concert with multiple Midwest bands including the Minnesota band Judd and future IRRHOF bands Headstone and Dahcotah.
After Blue Horizon disbanded in 1978, the musical careers of each individual member continued in new bands based out of Iowa, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Indiana.
Blue Horizon got back together for three standing-room-only reunion concerts in 1991, 2001 and 2015.
The Beginning of Blue Horizon
Blue Horizon started out playing country music. Even though it was not “cool” music and the crowd they were playing to were at least double their age, they learned much. They learned how to play at a volume level that would not blow out the room. They also learned basic song structure such as verse\verse\chorus\verse\bridge\lead\chorus\out. They also learned how to sing vocal harmonies as close as possible to the original recording. But more than all that, they played a lot, made decent money, and learned how to please a crowd.
The band gains a drummer and loses a guitar player
Around this time, Vargason and Murphy had transferred to Oelwein public school because of Sacred Heart closing it’s doors after their eighth grade year. This meant moving to a school that had four times as many kids in their grade. It was about this time that they began to realize that it would be nice to hire a full time drummer so that Vargason could leave the drums and come out front and sing. Along with those all those new kids they met at Oelwein Junior High, was a drummer who was the same age as them and currently playing in a country band.
The drummer’s name was Tom Kammer. He was known to Vargason and Murphy by them seeing him play at Berger’s tap in the band Johnny Clendennen and the Impalas. Berger’s was a bar in Oelwein that had the stage in the front window. You could stand on the street and see the back of the band and the dance floor. You could not really hear the band very well, but everytime the door opened you could then hear the details. Vargason and Murphy watched many bands at Bergers via the front window. The memorable thing about the Impalas was that, in Vargason’s and Murphy’s view, they had a little kid (actually their age) as a drummer.
It soon became clear to the band, that they had more fun playing rock music than country music. Instead of playing songs that appealed to an age group of their parents, they wanted to play current music heard on the radio. Additionally, if a band was playing current popular music, it brought in an age group much closer to their own. Of course, an age group of their peers also included girls their own age.
The idea of moving from country to rock music was a little turbulent. All the band’s existing and repeating jobs wanted the band to play the country music they had been known for. Because of this, their regular venues that featured all country music, had a hard time when the band changed to rock. The band would compromise by mixing in a little rock now and then. But eventually, the band had to switch their focus away from the clubs they had been playing and book clubs that were rock and roll clubs.
We are not exactly sure on the facts surrounding the leaving of John Chapman. He did an excellent job playing rhythm guitar and playing some lead parts in the standard country music the band was originally doing, but when the band started moving more toward rock, he did not exactly embrace that direction. Another factor was that he just got married and got a full time job, so he did not have as much time for the band as in the past. He now owns a bowling alley in Manchester, Iowa.
One of the first photo sessions after Chapman left the band. This was taken at Winter Photography in Oelwein.Here are the total set of proofs from the session to the right.
The band was becoming more and more popular in northeast Iowa. One of their strengths was that they could work at country bars, rock and roll clubs, wedding dances and high school dances. They also were good players and sounded and looked good on stage. The band eventually caught the attention of a guy from West Union who was close friends with a band called B.B. Soul and Manhasset. This guy’s name was Allen Enyart and he was persuaded by his buddy, B.B. Soul, that the real money in the local music business was in booking bands. Enyart started a booking agency (called The Agency) and Blue Horizon was one of the first bands he signed. After the band established themselves by getting good reviews from his booked jobs, they were one of his most popular bands. The Agency put them on the front cover of their advertising brochure. This brochure was sent out to nearly a thousand high schools, colleges and other entertainment buyers. See the entire brochure for the year 1975-76 here.
Due to the band’s versatility and also due to the fact that Vargason and Murphy were students at Sacred Heart, the band was booked to do a Youth Mass. Most of the music was from Jesus Christ Superstar, with a couple of tunes from Godspell. Click on the article to the left to see details.
Around this time Murphy took an accounting class at school and learned how to use double-entry accounting to create ledgers for businesses. Using this newly learned skill, he kept the books for Blue Horizon for two entire years. Every gig they played and every penny they spent was recorded in this ledger. It is quite interesting to see how much (how little) they made and what things cost back in 1975 and 1976.
Contained in the ledger above are payments for their new PA. This PA was a Kustom brand complete with an amped mixing board and two speakers. The main volume knob on the board was probably 5 inches wide. Not high tech by today’s standards, but to the band at this time, they now had a professional quality PA.
The band picks up an additional guitar player
Blue Horizon happened to be playing a dance at Independence High School in 1975 and a person from the audience mentioned that he knew a friend who was an excellent guitar player. He said his friend had never played in a band, but knew a lot of songs. They were not really looking for another guitar player, but knew that they were limited in the types of songs they could play live with only one guitar player. They got the name of the guitar player and invited him to come up to Oelwein to attend a band practice at Tom Kammer’s house. He brought with him an electric guitar (a restrung right handed guitar since he was a lefty) and a speaker hooked up to a small home stereo amp. When we say he brought a speaker, we mean a high-frequency horn like the type used at football fields for announcements. He had this bare-wired to his stereo. Not a real guitar amp, but the band could hear him.
The band discussed a couple of tunes to see if he knew any of the tunes they did. They agreed on China Grove by the Doobie Brothers. He seemed to know his parts. There is a middle part of the tune where the two guitars play in harmony. The first time it came up, Murphy and him played the same part. When it came up again later in the song, this new guitar player switched to the harmony part to Murphy’s part. It was at this point, the band knew he was good. His name was Terry Wheeler and after a quick band vote, he was now a member of Blue Horizon.
The band soon got a new picture taken at Montgomery Wards. They had this shoot at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning after a gig on Friday night that resulted in just a couple of hours sleep before the shoot. Check out the glam-rock outfits. They had these clothes hand-made.
The picture to the left is the one they chose for their official picture. To the right is the color version from the Montgomery Ward shoot that they did not decided not to use. Apparently, there were not enough smiles.. probably due to the lack of sleep the night before. You can see the color of the clothes better in this shot.
Although the band had taken several promotional photographs at this time, they needed a short description of the band. To the right is one of their first attempts. Interesting that they felt the need to brag about how much they spent on their gear. Also note that the band mentions a list of places they have performed. One of the places mentioned is Mr. B’s Club in Ames, Iowa. This was a “Gentlemen’s Club” that featured exotic dancers. The band would do 40 minute sets and then the dancer would do 20 minutes and this would repeat throughout the night. One other important note: the band and the dancers shared the same dressing room. The age of the band at this time was approximately 17 years old and the Mr. B’s jobs were a VERY memorable gig for these guys.
ln addition to using The Agency for booking jobs the band also used several other booking agents. One of them was Performer’s Agency out of Waterloo. For a young band like Blue Horizon, Performer’s Agency was really big time. To the left is a copy of the poster that advertised “Rockin Into Summer” at Sacred Heart. It was a huge gig for Blue Horizon to be on the same bill as Judd, Headstone, Dahcotah and Shatter. Another big gig for the Performers Agency is to the right at the Gayla Ballroom in Independence and featured the Headstone Band and Circus.
Here is a copy of an info sheet that the band sent out to an booking agency in Colorado. Not sure if any jobs resulted from this, but the information contained gives a good snapshot of the band at this time.
One of the bands favorite gigs was a ballroom in Oelwein called the Wildwood. They used to pack the place. Cars would fill the parking lot, the entrance drive, and park on the sides of Highway 150. For about a year, the band had an agreement with the owner, Bob McNamara, to use his ballroom as a rehearsal space. So the band would be setup all week for rehearsals and then either play the Wildwood on the weekend or pack up their stuff and travel to their other gigs. Click on the picture on the right to see more pictures of Blue Horizon live on stage at the Wildwood in 1976
Couple of informal band shots from 1977. Picture to the right includes percussionist Chuck Hallberg and the band’s soundman, Robby Russell
In 1978 the band traveled to Austin Minnesota. They had met a band from Austin that invited them to come stay at their farm in Austin and play a gig there with them. Blue Horizon later had the band come to Oelwein, stay at their farm and play a gig with them here. See a selection of polaroids from the Austin trip by clicking on the photo of Wheels and Murphy hamming it up.
Newspaper ad for the Valentine’s Ball in Oelwein in 1976. A highlight of this gig was that the band did an hour version of “Color My World” (Chicago) while the 64 area beauties were introduced.
An additional highlight of this gig was that the winner of the Valentine’s Ball Beauty Contest was Candy Hoeger, Mike Vargason’s girlfriend!
What kind of music did the band play?
Below is a very rare set of handwritten set lists and song lists. The dates of these lists span mostly the later years of the band, but there are some early lists. These song and and set lists show the depth and breath of their musical influences. Artists they covered included Eagles, Lynyrd Skynryd, Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Charlie Daniels Band, Peter Frampton, ZZ Top, Led Zepplin, REO Speedwagon, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Black Oak Arkansas, Beatles, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, Elvin Bishop, Kansas, Gentle Giant, Aerosmith, and many others.
Blue Horizon had established themselves as an excellent cover band. They took pride in playing songs as close as possible to the original. Many bands were trying to do original music and were marginally successful. Blue Horizon was a band that people could depend on hearing popular songs performed accurately. A couple of the unique aspects of the band, is that Vargason would bring out his fiddle and play “Boil That Cabbage” and Murphy would play his “Talkbox” on Peter Frampton songs. Additionally, with both Wheeler and Murphy playing lead guitar, they were able to perform harmonized guitar leads in songs by Allman Brothers and Steely Dan.
They packed bars, ballrooms, colleges and high schools by playing songs that people recognized and loved. Click here to see these handwritten set and song lists rarities. (Note: some of these are barely legible and were used as draft lists while building other lists. But if you look closely, you can see through the scribbles and see the songs underneath)
Here are a couple of ballrooms that Blue Horizon in played in 1976 with their friends, the Shatter Band.
Sometime during this time period, the band rented out a rehearsal place in the basement of a downtown business called Malloy’s Piano Factory. This business was owned by the choir teacher from Oelwein High School, Dan Malloy and his brother Mike. The band spent numerous hours practicing there and hauling their equipment up and down narrow stairs at the back of the store.
A memorable gig during the this time period was playing in Pocahantas, Iowa. Due to a mistake in in the bands calendar and a general lack of attention to details, the band traveled all the way across Iowa (4 hour drive) to play a gig on a Friday night but discovered the gig was actually on a Saturday night. After arriving at the gig and discovering the mistake, the band could not stay the night because of a Saturday afternoon wedding dance scheduled back in Oelwein. So they had to travel back home on Friday night and play the afternoon gig on Saturday and then drive back to Pocahantas to play the Saturday night gig. Also during this weekend, their truck broke down because of the lug nuts snapped off the back wheel and they had to be towed back home by Kammer’s father
One place where the band played over 30 times, was Luigi’s restaurant in Oelwein. To the left is a newspaper ad for a New Year’s Eve gig.
In 1976, Blue Horizon played at Matter’s Ballroom in Decorah Iowa. The backstage dressing room had various band graffiti written on the walls. Vargason took this opportunity to display his artistic talents. Interesting note: this graffiti was all but forgotten until 10 years later when Murphy played Matters with his new band. The picture he took of the 10 year old artwork is to the right:
In 1976 the band rented a farm house on the east side of Oelwein. Several members lived there and the band used it as a rehearsal place. To the left is a band shot from 1976 taken at the farm house that later became the band’s promo picture. . The band at that time included Chuck Hallberg on congas and percussion.See other pictures taken at the farmhouse here
At some time in 1977, the band moved from the Oelwein farm house to a house on the southwest side of Fairbank. Once again this served as a home for several members (and hanger-ons) and a rehearsal place.
Some of the band’s stage crew at this time were Kevin Lamphier, Mickey Brady, Robby Russell (RoastBeef), and Kevin Roberts. Other close friends of the band around this time period included Bill Wolfgram, Darrell Mathews, Fay Luck, Tim Lemkuhle and Richard Minee (Mange)
And the band cannot forget Steve Zummak. He served as special escort for Kelly Murphy during Murphy’s high school basketball and football career. Zummak would pick up Murphy after his game and speed him across Iowa to get him to his gig.
Immediate left is the last official promo-shot of the band. To the right is the promo card insert from this same time period.
Here is another brochure produced by The Agency. Once again, Blue Horizon was featured as the first band listed.
The end of the band
The last years of the band resulted in some members wanting to increase the gigs performed and other members were wanting to slow down the gigs because of looking at college, getting married or working at full-time jobs outside of music.
The final decision was that the band would break up and a final performance was scheduled.
After the band broke up in 1978, for the most part, the band members went their separate ways.
Vargason moved to Denver Colorado and played in a band called Stickman. He also has established his own graphics arts company called Vargavisions. Vargason also has a couple of pages on MySpace:MySpace One. and MySpace Two. See a more complete history of Vargason here.
Murphy stayed in Oelwein for about a year and sold advertising at the Oelwein Daily Register. While there, he played weekends with the Butch Gage Band. He later moved to Waterloo to attend University of Northern Iowa and played with Waterloo “Super-Group” Tennyson and “Hip Pocket” featuring Iowa R&R Hall of Fame Member Mike Cuttsforth. He later moved to Indianapolis and eventually moved to Bloomington, Indiana to attend Graduate School at Indiana University. The past 30 years were spent in Indiana playing in bands and working in the technology industry. He presently lives south of Chicago in Crown Point, Indiana. See a more complete history of Murphy here.
Kammer took some time off and eventually returned to music by playing with Shatter. See a more complete history of Kammer here.
Tatro ended up playing with Kammer again in the band called Shatter but later had a varied musical career. See a more complete history of Tatro here.
Wheeler played in a band from Independence called Rewired. He eventually moved to Austin Texas and later to Phoenix Arizona. For the last 30 years he has always been in a band or playing solo gigs wherever he lived. His current band is called “Poor Kids Without Cable” This band was recently featured on a local Arizona TV station. See their performance here. See a more complete history of Wheeler here.
The first reunion in 1991:
Eventually, in 1991, the band got back together for a reunion gig. Wheeler was not able to make it, but rest of the band played two nights in Oelwein. Friday night at the Eagles Club and Saturday at the Knights of Columbus Hall. To the left is a poster for the event. To the right is the set list for the two nights.
The second reunion in 2001:
In order to be able to play a reunion gig when the original members were spread across the country, each member had to review their parts by themselves and then have a quick practice as the band the day before the reunion. Wheels sent Murphy the songs he was playing as a solo act in Austin. Using Wheels’ songs and the old Blue Horizon set lists, a tentative list of songs were generated to play for the weekend. Below are the inside band notes of copies of possible songs that were distributed to band members prior to the gig. Once the songs were narrowed down, Murphy put together several cassette tapes for the band to rehearse for the gig and sent them (via US Mail..before email was common) to each member. Also included are the rehearsal notes from the day before the gig. Click here to see these inside band notes. The band arrived in Oelwein on Thursday before the gig and rehearsed for a couple of hours and then performed two one-nighters as if they had never took a break.
Blue Horizon Reunion 2015
Blue Horizon was an unannounced band that appeared at the Tom Kammer benefit, KAMMERSTOCK, in Oelwein on December 12, 2015. Four members of Blue Horizon (Terry Wheeler, Tom Kammer, Rob Tatro and Kelly Murphy) played a short, unplugged and unrehearsed, 3 song set after Terry’s acoustic set and immediately before BlueShatter.
Blue Horizon Music
Apparently, since you have gotten to the bottom of this page, you are interested in Blue Horizon. Below are some tunes that came from a long lost vault of a couple of live performances by the band. The quality of these tracks very greatly. They were copied from low quality cassette tape (that was copied from a copy from a live microphone in the audience). So even though they are not “studio quality” and did not come from the mixing board, you can get a sense of some of their music. Remember, these were 16-18 year old kids that were making a living by playing live music.
Recently added (January 2016) cassette tapes provided by Seth Vargason. Recorded at Knights of Columbus Hall in Oelwein, Iowa in 1975.
- Ain’t No Half Steppin’ – Heat Wave
- Traveling Shoes – Elvin Bishop
- Look Away – Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- Wouldn’t Want to Be like You – The Allen Parsons Project
- Who Do You Think You Are? – Gentle Giant
- Whatcha Gonna Do? – Pablo Cruise
- Struttin My Stuff – Elvin Bishop
Songs below were transferred from cassettes that had some serious technical issues. Many of the tracks are distorted but you are welcome to listen….