By Deb Neyens
Doug Koempel wants to make sure no one forgets Tommy Stahr and his contributions to Iowa’s rock and roll legacy. Tommy, the long-time lead guitarist for the Rubber Band, a 2010 Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, lost a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in September 2012. After Tommy’s death, Doug wanted to find a fitting way to pay tribute to his friend and former band mate.
The idea for a memorial sculpture first came to the former Rubber Band keyboardist one day last fall along the walking path at West Union Recreation Park in his and Tommy’s hometown of West Union, Iowa.
“There is a small lake in the park and I ride my bike around the lake every day,” Doug said. “I noticed there are a couple of bronze sculptures along the path and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have a sculpture of a guitar with a plaque at the base to commemorate Tommy.”
Doug contacted park authorities, who gave the go-ahead for the project. Now he needs to raise the estimated $5,000-$10,000 that the memorial will cost. He hopes a good portion will be funded with the proceeds of a benefit concert at Decorah’s Nob Hill Ballroom on April 27 featuring Doug’s current band, the Memory Brothers, playing the songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
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It was those early rock and roll songs that first brought Doug and Tommy together nearly 50 years ago.
Tommy and his brothers, along with some other West Union boys, started playing music together in 1961. First called the Knob Prairie Boys after West Union’s original town name, they later changed their name to something that evoked more of a 1960s rock and roll vibe: The Runaways.
Doug became the keyboard player for the Runaways in 1966 when he was just 15 years old. Shortly thereafter, Leonard Matter signed on the boys to be the house band at Matter’s Ballroom in Decorah.
In 1960s-era small town Iowa, dancing was a main form of entertainment, and it seemed like everybody headed to the local ballroom on the weekends. While the older folks enjoyed the sounds of the big bands, the younger generation preferred to dance to the syncopated backbeats of rock and roll.
“We played Matter’s every Friday and Saturday night while I was still in high school,” Doug said. “We played the pop tunes that the younger people liked in the lower level while the old time bands played in the large ballroom upstairs.”
In 1968, the band changed its name one more time so as not to be confused with Dee Jay & the Runaways, an Iowa-based band that had a hit single, “Peter Rabbit.” Thus, the Rubber Band was born.
In 1970, Doug and lead singer Larry Crandall left the Rubber Band to form the Memory Brothers and take their duo on the road. Tommy also continued playing music and, over the next four decades, the former band mates’ paths would cross from time to time, including a 1996 Rubber Band farewell performance at Matter’s Ballroom.
One night in 2009, Tommy and another former band mate stopped in to see the Memory Brothers perform at their long-standing Tuesday night gig at the Nob Hill Ballroom. As they talked that night, Doug invited them to sit in on a future performance.
“And then I got to thinking, let’s bill this as a Rubber Band reunion,” Doug said.
The idea gained momentum, and a reunited Rubber Band played to a record crowd at the Nob Hill Ballroom in October 2009. The performance received some attention from the press, including a piece by Dave Rasdal in his Ramblin’ column for the Gazette. According to Doug, that coverage was a life-changer.
“One single article by Dave Rasdal on the Rubber Band’s reunion had a profound impact on our lives. It led directly to us being inducted into the [Iowa Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame,” Doug said. “Two of the board members read his article on the same day and contacted each other, and that set the wheels in motion.”
The Rubber Band was inducted on Sept. 5, 2010. It was one of the highlights of Tommy’s life. Two years later, on Sept. 7, 2012, he passed away.
“Tommy was such an unassuming, understated and humble guy,” he said. “On stage, he kept a low profile and always stayed out of the limelight. But his distinctive guitar playing was a key element to the success of all the bands he played in. It’s time to shine a spotlight on him.”
Not only will the “Remembering Tommy” memorial benefit pay tribute to the life and musical talent of Tommy Stahr, it also will offer a rare opportunity to see all members of the Memory Brothers perform together on one stage.
When Larry Crandall stopped touring to spend more time with his family in the late 1970s, Doug stayed on the road using a rotating roster of musicians depending on the location of the gig. In all, there are nine musicians who combine to form the Memory Brothers, with Doug being the one constant. All nine will come together for the “Remembering Tommy” benefit on April 27.
There will be at least one other opportunity to see the Memory Brothers “Large Band” perform this year. The Memory Brothers will be inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame over Labor Day weekend, and all nine members will be on hand to perform at the induction ceremony in Arnolds Park, Iowa.