Donnie Stohr made his mark in Oelwein music history as the guitar player in the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee,The Blue Flames.The Flames were based out of Oelwein and played throughout northeast Iowa for 30 years. The band played the Hotel Winneshiek Tap (Decorah) every Tuesday night and the Melody Lounge in West Union Iowa every Wednesday for many years. This along with supper clubs, shows, weddings, anniversaries and fireman dances allowed them to average 16 to 20 nights a month for many years.
The band played 50’s and 60’s rock, old and new country. With a half dozen or so off the charts at all times. Over the years the band worked up over 1000 songs. They always featured three way harmony from day one until the end.
The combination of Bill Reints (bass), Don Stohr (guitar), and Steve Westpfahl (drums) worked together for the final 25 years of the bands 30 year life. Read their story here.
Article below, “In Don’s Own Words”, was generated from interviews with Don Stohr during May and June 2016.
Early years and teachers
I started learning how to play guitar when I was about 11 by listening and learning from other players. So I guess you can say I started out learning by ear. So overall, I took a lot of little tips I learned from many guitar players and included them in the way that I play. It wasn’t until later that I started learning some theory that showed me why everything went together.
- My first teacher was Laraine Chase. He played with the Fontana Playboys. When I teach beginner guitar to a new player, one thing I learned from Laraine Chase, he taught me all the basic chords and barre chords and how they fit together. This allowed a new player to make music, make a sound and play a song. That kept you interested because you were actually making music.
- My second guitar teacher was Milt Campbell from the Country Buddies. He taught me several guitar instrumentals such as Wildwood Flower and Under the Double Eagle. Additionally, in later years I learned fiddle from Milt. Mike Vargason was learning fiddle from Milt at the same time.
- Started playing in a band when I was 12.
- I studied with Johnny Clendenon and learned some old rock & Roll and blues riffs and patterns from him. He also taught me some general band stuff like how to “play off the cuff” and how to “roll with the punches”
- When I got older, I studied music theory and worked on harmony stuff with PeeWee Cherrier. I learned a lot of chord theory from PeeWee. I remember noticing his use of transition chords. Many players might play a seventh chord to move to the next chord, but he would use a 6th or a 9th as transition chords. For example, when I was taking lessons from PeeWee, I would be playing some section of a song and PeeWee would say something like, “You can’t play that.” I would say, “why not?”, and PeeWee would say, “It’s not theoretically correct. Don’t play it unless it is theoretically correct” But I would say that it is the sound I want. But PeeWee would say no, and then give me tips on how to make it correct. It was extremely valuable to me as a beginning player to have PeeWee give me guidance on music theory.
- Steve Bachman also showed me some steel licks and some rock and roll stuff. Another thing I picked up from Steve was how his playing style emphasized a LOT of string bending. Of course I already had a little technique in string bending, but after working with Steve, I considered him a master string bender. When I watched him play, he was constantly pulling, pushing and bending those strings.
- I even learned how to play steel licks on guitar from listening to Craig Davidson play steel. Being able to play a couple steel riffs here and there was very valuable when I played country tunes. But when I played live with steel players like Lefty Schragge or Craig, I had to rethink my parts and let them play the steel parts and I had to play at lower registers and do more guitar picking stuff instead of my “go to” string bending steel riffs.
The first time I played on stage was a benefit at the Hazelton School for Todd Brewington who had open heart surgery. The song I did was Detroit City by Bobby Bare. The chorus of that song goes “I wanna go home.” Well since this was my first gig and I was only 11 years old, I was scared to death. So when I sang that chorus, I REALLY wanted to go home! A couple of years ago, I got a chance to talk to Bobby Bare on one of his breaks when he was playing in Decorah. I told him that story and he thought it was funny.
When I was taking lessons from Laraine in the Country Playboys, I got up on stage for a song or two with them.
One of my most memorable times on stage was when I sat in for a set with the Bobby Hankins Band at the Coliseum. Actually, Bobby Hankins was my school bus driver when I was in 1st grade in Hazelton.
When I played with Bobby, I noticed that there were marks on the stage to tell you where to stand. They were big “X’s” made with tape. This came from Andy Doll’s band to make sure the musicians were spaced evenly and knew where to stand. I remember they told me, “You stand here.” So I was right next to Barb and Lefty Schragge. Many years after that, I went into the Coliseum when Kempkers ran a furniture store there and I asked if I could go up to the stage. She laughed and said, “You used to play here, right?” I said Yep! So I went up there and the X’s were still there, including mine.
Donnie and Tom Kammer at Berger’s
The first time I played a full night was with Tom Kammer at Berger’s Tap. Tom was playing with Johnny Clendenen at the time. It was just the two of us and we played for tips. We put a jar on the stage for people to throw coins in. At the end of the night we noticed that there were two $10 bills in there. We thought we made the big time! We later learned that it was our dads that put the 2 ten dollar bills in there.
Speaking of Tom Kammer, he told me the story that when he was with Johnny, they put his drum set on the pool table. Tom was probably only 8 or 9 years old at the time. Well he was playing along and one of the legs of his drum throne fell into one of the pool pockets and Tom fell backwards off the stage and completely disappeared. I think of that story every time I see him.
The Blue Country Men
Then I started playing with The Blue Country Men with Steve Westphal and Craig Davidson for about a year around 1971. Bill Fender also played guitar in that band for a short while when we were getting started but he moved out of town before we played a gig and I have since lost track of where he is now.
CD Country Sound
Then I went with CD Country Sound with Carl Dempster, Denny Nelson, Darrel Lentz and Vanita May, out of Manchester. I got connected with them through Craig Davidson who played with them at one time. Actually, I played both bass and guitar at different times with them. When Jimmy Hankins (no relation to Bobby) from Manchester came in to play bass, I switched back to guitar.
Jodeen Fitz and the Country Edition
Next I went with Jodeen Fitz and the Country Edition. That was Jodeen and Frankie Fitz, her brother John Fitz, and Don Vargason for a while.
When I played with Jodeen, I used to kid around with her a lot. I used to haul the PA speakers in the back seat of my Chevy and I also hauled my amp and hers. So we were going down the road one night and we started talking about changing the oil in cars and how important it was to do it regularly. So as we were driving, I noticed that my speedometer had rolled up to all zeros. So I said to Jodeen, “Look there, it’s time to change my oil.” So I backed off the throttle and started slowing down and pulled off to the shoulder. She said, “What are you doing?” So I said, “Well I got some oil with me and I have to take care of my car, so I have to change the oil.” So Jodeen says “How long is this going to take? We have to be in Waterloo soon and we are already running late!” So then I just laughed and told her I was just kidding and put it in gear and took off. But I really got that poor girl nervous.
Then another night we got all of our stuff loaded up and we took off and started heading into town and I noticed that my left rear tire had come off and I watched it roll right past the car. So we watched that tire go down the road and I noticed ahead that there was a blue house with its garage door open. So we watched that tire go into that garage and it turned a couple of circles in that empty garage and laid down right in the middle without touching any of the walls. So I went running down and picked up the tire and got back to my car and jacked it up and everything looked OK. So then I had to go back to the highway to try to find the lugnuts. I found all the nuts and put the tire back on the car and we went on our way to the gig.
The “New” Danny and the Juniors
Actually between all that I was with Danny and the Juniors. This was an all fifties band put together by the high school choir teacher Dan Malloy and featured singers and players who were juniors from high school.
Several years ago we got back together to play the class of 75 class reunion. Another reunion gig was when played a street dance on main street in Oelwein. A funny story from that gig was that somebody in the crowd apparently posted some live clips of us performing “At the Hop” on YouTube. Well one of the ORIGINAL members of the Danny and the Juniors was living in Florida and saw the clips and threatened to sue us for using his band’s name. He knew all of our names and was going to sue individually, sue the Oelwein bank who put it on, and sue the town of Oelwein.
So we could not use that name anymore. I think that Dan Malloy soon changed the name of the band to “The NEW Danny and the Juniors” but the guy did not even like that. So we went with the “All-Star Review” and he did not like that either. Ultimately, after it was taken off of YouTube, he did not bother us anymore. But for a while, we were all, especially Steve Holland and myself, scared to death.
I tried to get a copy of that video so that I could have it as a memory, but by the time I could figure out how to get there with a computer it had been taken down.
EDITOR NOTE: Here are some rare clips of the OCHS Alum performing on Main Street in Oelwein
Teenagers in Love
Silhouettes on the Shade
Whole Lotta Shakin (partial)
Rock Around the Clock (Partial)
Before I started with the Flames I used to fill in for Gage County featuring Butch Gage. All the music we did live was “off the cuff”. Playing in that band was a lot of fun because we all were just enjoying playing and not worried about making mistakes.
The Blue Flames
In 1975 PeeWee had his heart attack and that is when I started with the Blue Flames.
They had gigs booked and coming up soon so when I joined so we had very little time to prepare. It seems like we spent almost every waking moment to rehearse and get my guitar parts and vocals ready to play out.
Some of my first memories were how Bill and Steve worked out the rearranged harmonies to cover PeeWee’s parts. For example: Bill would sing lead on a song, but when the chorus would come up, he would have Steve or I sing the lead part, which was usually easier to sing, and he would jump up and sing the harmony. And in other songs, I might sing lead in verses and Bill would take the lead in the chorus and I would jump to the harmony. So I guess it varied on what song we were doing.
I did not know how to sing harmony at that time. Bill and Steve taught me how to sing harmony.
Steve was especially good at singing that 3rd below harmony. Bill used to call those the “stinker” harmonies because they were so difficult for singers to hit. Steve was actually “automatic” on those stinker harmonies and I did not know how he ever heard that… I could never hear those . The 3rd below was a harmony I could not do, but a third high, I could do those all the time. For example I would take the 3rd high and if it was in low enough key, Steve would take the second. And for songs that were keyed higher, I would take the second above and Steve would do the 3rd below stinker. My voice never came down until the Flames ended because I always sang the third high.
When PeeWee got a little better, he played with us maybe 4-5 times after I joined the band. For example he sat in with us at bigger places like the Riviera Ballroom in Janesville or Matters in Decorah a couple of times. During those times, he and I would play around with twin guitars during the songs. We would do instrumentals and PeeWee would play the second and I would play the main. We also used to do a lot of kicking the turn arounds back and forth. That used to drive Bill crazy. Bill was very particular about keeping the arrangements of songs the same. He did not want anything changed playing live that was not in the original version that was rehearsed. Well PeeWee and I would start doing some “free-form” twin lead sections and then have to cue Bill when we were done so that he could come in with vocals. This use to make Bill nervous because he wanted the songs very exact and consistent every night. I guess he got that from his days with Andy Doll.
Playing with the Flames
The bottom line about playing with the Flames is that we played a lot! We played 5 nights a week all the time and sometimes 6.
- We played Monday night at Postville
- Tuesday night at Decorah
- Wednesday night at West Union
- Thursday night at either at Postville or Elgin
- Friday and Saturday wherever…
One of my favorite places was the County Manor in Garnavillo because you were really appreciated there. You played quieter and there was not a lot of crowd noise. A lot of the places we played at had really noisy crowds and you worked your butt off and it made you wonder if they were even listening. The crowd there seemed to appreciate the hard work you put in on your vocal harmonies and your arrangements. Of all the places we played, I think that was one place that we went over the best. The crowd at the Country Manor knew the difference between “throw-together” bands and well-rehearsed bands.
In my humble opinion, the Blue Flames were special because we concentrated on the details. For example the vocal harmonies, the intros, and the endings were all worked out until they were smooth. We played our songs in sets of three. For example, three 50’s in a row, three waltzes in a row, three 2-beat dance, two or three slow ones. We played a lot of wedding dances and anniversary dances because we played tunes for everybody young and old.
We covered songs from bands that featured 3-4 part vocal harmonies. For example Statler Bros, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, etc. It was a lot of fun to work out those harmonies
Funny thing about PeeWee and Alabama tunes. He struggled with those because in his mind they were not theoretically correct. He thought that their vocal harmonies did not fit together as a chord.
One of the cool things about PeeWee and Bill Reints is that when they were in the Andy Doll Band, they backed up a ton of country stars. Back then a lot of big names would tour without their band. They would depend on local musicians to play their hits and they would stand up front and sing them. So both Bill and PeeWee were very accomplished musicians that were able to back up artists such as Johnny Cash, Roy Clark and many others live on stage without any rehearsal.
I was never lucky enough to experience that. There was one time that Jerry Reed was playing somewhere around here and they got rained out so I had a chance to just sit there with him and have a long and friendly conversation. But that was about it with my experience meeting famous people.
I played some guitar parts exactly like they were on the original recording, but other parts I did my own version. For example, the intro to Pretty Woman had to be played just like the original, but for some other parts like a middle lead in a song, I would just capture the essence of it and they play it my own way. I remember when I played with Craig Davidson I would watch him wear out vinyl records by playing and replaying parts until he figured out tricky leads or riffs. He and Lefty were excellent at learning the details.
Another reason I tended to change some parts to my own was because we were only a 3 piece band. If I would play a middle lead or little leads during the verse or chorus exactly like the record, it would leave a big hole in the song because it was missing the rhythm guitar. So in order to keep the band full sounding, I had to pick and choose what parts to cover since we had no other rhythm players to keep it full.
Whenever I go see a band play live and they start doing some good guitar parts and good vocal harmony parts, I have to stop dancing because my mind starts concentrating on listening to all those harmonies because I love it so much. So all my friends are asking are you going to dance and party with us or just listen to the band like some idiot?
My first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang that I bought at Samar. I borrowed the money from Don Buenneke at the Hazleton bank on a signature note. He loaned me $300 and I only signed my name. My parents could not believe that I got that money with only my signature. Banks don’t work that way anymore.
Next I played a black Telecaster for many years and was playing that Tele when I started with the Flames. Then the Tele started having some internal electrical problems that nobody could figure out.
So I traded the Tele for a Gibson 345 Stereo. I really liked that guitar. Most of the early recordings of the Flames I used the 345. I ended up trading that for the Gretch Super Axe. In hind sight, I wish I would have kept the 345, but at the time trading it made more sense. I still have the Gretch.
My favorite guitar is still my Gretch Super Axe. They did not make very many of those. It is not the heavy and big wide one like the Country Gentleman… it is about half that width. It has a phaser and compressor built in.
With your steady playing with the Flames, did you have a day time job?
Well when I first started playing in 1975-76, I was still in high school. Later I worked at Merle & Tony’s and then at Montgomery Wards. When Wards went out of business, I bought a truck and did local deliveries in the area. Later I worked at the elevator outside of town.
But it was hard. You would get home late after playing in the band, grab a nap, and then get up and go to work. And then after work, you would get home, grab a bite to eat and then get in the van and go play music again. For many years, it seemed like I never really slept.
There was a time of about 3-6 months that I took time off from the band because I happened to be going through a divorce and I just needed to get out of the area. I owned a semi and decided to take a break and do some cross country trucking. During the time I took off Al Richio took my place. There was also a guy named Randy from West Union who filled in for me.
There were also times when the band happened to be not playing on the weekdays that I would take my semi across country to places like Texas or Florida and be back for the Thursday – Sunday jobs.
And after the Blue Flames retired, I went back to trucking all 48. And I also farm about 700 acres of corn and beans outside of Oelwein.
After the Blue Flames
After the Blue Flames retired, I played in a band called Wichita which was Lefty Schragge and his three sons. Two of his boys used to switch out as drummers and the other son was a bass player. Once I got going with that band, they wanted to get really serious and do recording. But since I had a job driving my semi, I could not devote the time that was needed for that band. So I had to quit. They ended up hooking up with another guitar player and about a year later they sent me a beautiful CD and they sounded really great.
So after I quit them, I played a benefit with Butch Gage, Lowell Lamphier, and Robin Ohrt on drums. It was for a lady from Fayette who had cancer.
SIDE NOTE: Butch Gage and Duane Lamphier (brother of Lowell) from the Country Squires joined together to become Gage Country. Dave Rehlander, myself, and Kelly Murphy also played with them off and on. Lowell and Duane Lamphier were brothers from Wadena and their Uncle Don Lamphier played in the Oelwein band led by Ray Alto
I played a couple more gigs with those guys, but the last time I played was for Butch Gage’s birthday party around 2012. It was at that gig that my left hand started hurting real bad and it ended up I had Carpal Tunnel and needed surgery. So I still played a little bit at home, but never played out anymore.
What music do you listen to now?
I listen to 90’s country. I really don’t listen to local radio stations. I have XM in my semi and listen to “Prime Country” which is 80’s and 90’s country. Artists like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, and others. Then XM has another station called Y2 Country which is newer stuff. But most of the time I am on Prime Country. Another station I listen to is “Willie’s Roadhouse” which is the older stuff.
Do you have advice for people who want to have a career in music?
My advice to people wanting to make a living playing music is that you make up your mind what you want to play. For example, if you are going to play for everybody (wide variety of music styles) or pick one kind of music and stick with it.
Playing for everybody is a delicate task. There will be some audience members who are happy and there will be others who are just waiting for their song. That is how the Blue Flames did it. We were a variety band.
But there were some bands that for example played only country, or only played rock. But that is all they would play, they would not deviate from that one style. So when people came to listen to them, they knew would they would get.
But when people came to hear the Blue Flames we might be playing “In The Mood” or “Alley Cat”. But then we might throw in “Smokin’ In the Boys Room” or “Takin’ Care of Business” and then follow that up with “Chattahoochie” . That is a big stretch. That is why the Flames went over so well with anniversary or wedding dances. People could bring their whole family and during the night there was something that would appeal to each family member – young or old.
Also, you have to be well rehearsed. Know the intro, the arrangement, the verse/chorus, the ending, etc. You need to get “in it” and “out of it” clean. I know that there are and will be many bands that “play off the cuff” and are a kind of “Jam Band”. There is a lot to be said for those types of bands. But many times their quality varies from night to night and sometimes “surprises” in the middle of a song comes off as un-professional. All in all, Bill Reints was right. He wanted his bands well-rehearsed and the songs performed as they were practiced. NO SURPRISES!
Another thing that separates amateur musicians from professional musicians is that you have to be dependable. Little things like arriving at the job on time are very important. So when we say that we have to leave for a job by 6, that does not mean 6:15, that means on the road by 6! Additionally bands need to act professional and look professional when you are at a job. The Blue Flames always had stage clothes. So we would arrive at a job in our blue jeans and T shirts to set everything up. One we got everything up and tested, we would go get cleaned up and change into our stage clothes. Same thing after the gig. Once we got done, we changed out of our stage clothes and back into our street clothes and then started packing everything up.
Added note: The Flames are rehearsing again to get ready for the Coliseum Benefit and the IRRMA Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. Even though we only have to do about a 30 minute set, we want to be sure that we are prepared. But even though we haven’t played for 20 years, it is funny how the parts seem to come together when we do those old songs. One thing that we are trying to do is to keep up our tradition of being well rehearsed. So we are working out all the details just like we did in the old days.