Monday, February 1, 2010

Early Days of the Skywave Rider


(c) 1995, Berg Borthers Publishing

"Behind the Scenes with the Multi-Faceted Ken Mills"

By Jim Olsberg (used with permission of the author)

In January of 1965 Ken Mills formed Ken Musical Enterprises. His business covered two different areas: one was booking and management, the other, dance promotions. The booking part lasted from January '65, until February of '68, while his dance promotions went into 1969. Mills managed Sioux Falls, South Dakota's best rock bands during the mid-'60s and constantly encouraged them to look beyond the city limits. He took several of them to Minneapolis, Minnesota to cut records, hoping that one would break the national charts. None of them did, although it wasn't for lack of effort on Mills end.

"I was 16-years old when I started the venture in an upstairs bedroom of my parent's house," said Ken Mills. "I didn't play music, but wanted to be involved somehow. Brian Epstein was definitely my biggest influence. I liked the whole idea of taking the music, packaging it, and getting it out to the public. I guess the business side came naturally to me because my dad had been a band leader and had also booked his own group back in the 1930s and 1940s. I had heard stories about my father's experiences."

"My parents were terrified about what I was undertaking, and loved it at the same time. They had a vicarious thrill from the whole thing and on the other hand, were scared to death that we'd drive off the road somewhere in the middle of the night, or get in too far over our heads in some business deal. They were probably all valid fears, but somehow we all came through it safe."

"The reason that I went from Ken Musical Enterprises to just Ken Enterprises was because I got a letter once from a school that was looking for a band for a prom and they addressed the letter to Ken Musical. Opening the letter I saw the greeting was 'Dear Mr. Musical.' I took so much abuse from that I just decided to shorten the business title. "

My company logo 1965

"The first time I ever saw Dale Gregory & the Shouters was during Christmas vacation, late 1964, at a Battle of the Bands. I was friends with Greg Blomberg and Gary Tabbert - this was when they were just starting out as a fourpiece group. I asked Greg if I could book some gigs for them. He said 'Yeah,' they were really having a difficult time on their own. The first show I booked was at the YWCA Gym in January, '65. Pat O'Brien joined the first week of February.

Dale Gregory and the Shouters
Sioux Falls YWCA Gym, January, 1965
(left to right: Greg Blomberg, Ted Christy, Dale Gregory Yost, Gary Tabbert)

"The first out-of-town job for them was at the Richmond Lake Ballroom in Aberdeen, SD. I still remember that day because I sat in my booking office, in a chair by the phone, just staring at it, afraid to dial. I was scared of being turned down. Finally I got up the nerve to pick up the phone, dial it, and asked for the manager of the ballroom. He actually said yes! I booked the job. The YWCA gig had been a friends-type thing. The Richmond Lake Ballroom was my first official booking - I was thrilled. It was for $125, or 60% of the door, and I'm really glad we got the guarantee because only about 75 people showed up that night. From here on I worked on a standard 15% cut for the bands I booked."

"In late 1965 Dale Gregory & the Shouters had a lot of success and momentum going for them. I booked a Job for them with Steve Ellis & the Starfires (from Pipestone, MN Ruskin Park, located near the town of Forestburg, SD. Ruskin Park had no rules. If you were old enough to see over counter, you were old enough to buy 3.2 beer. A mother's nightmare, Ruskin Park was kid heaven. I think the Shouters did as well as the Starfires that night. They also gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence because Steve Ellis was the premier entertainer in our area at the time."

"At the start of 1965, to the fall, I had the Shouters only as clients. At that point I started managing the Dynamic Hursmen. Shortly after the Hursmen I picked up the Trippers and, in the fall of '66, Those Of Us.

There were probably a half-dozen other bands that I booked, but on a more sporatic basis. There were times, like at prom time, where there'd be a tremendous demand for musicians. At my peak I had 15 bands working on a particular Saturday. At 15% each, I wasn't doing too bad for a kid!"

"One of the groups that I remember liking was the Continental Co-ets out of Fulda, MN. I always wanted an a girl group, or at least a female lead, but never found one to become involved with. If I would have found the Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, or Chrissie Hynde back in those days.

I think I'd still be involved in the rock & roll business. Marlys Roe & the Talismen were roaming through our area at the time but I thought she was a little too square. You have to remember there was 'before the Beatles' and 'after.' You definitely wanted to be 'after' in 1966."

"I had my groups playing throughout North and South Dakota, Iowa, southern Minnesota and even down to Lawrence. Kansas. But probably the toughest place to play, in my opinion, was the Rainbow Ballroom in Lane, SD. The ballroom was run by the two Deneke brothers who were at least 6' 9" tall each. They were huge! It was always a tough gig because it was five-hours; 9 pm to 2 am. And it was one of those set-up clubs where there was a bar next door to the premises. There was always a tremendous amount of alcohol involved at those dances."

"I showed up at almost every show I ever booked. If two or more bands were playing at the same time, I'd alternate who I would travel with. I didn't promote a lot of national acts through the area, however. Probably the biggest was when I promoted the Turtles in 1967. We paid $5,000 for the group and made a fortune off the show.

"In the roughly four years I was putting on gigs I only lost money once. At the time I didn't really think about it - I just took it for granted. It's amazing the success we had. The only one I ever lost on was when I booked the Fabulous Flippers into Yankton, SD, at the same time the University Of South Dakota was having their graduation ceremonies. We thought we'd be able to get a lot of people into Yankton to see the Flippers. Everybody showed up at the graduation, nobody at ours. We definitely lost money that night."

"One of my most interesting memories is when I had Dale Gregory & the Shouters open for the Hollies. Graham Nash and company were literally fresh off the boat, so to speak. I think this was their third stop in the United States. All our American customs, music, etc.. were new and exciting to them. I recall playing the record 'California Dreamin', by the Mamas & the Papas, repeatedly for Nash and he loved it.

Tony Hicks of The Hollies and Ken Mills
After concert pool party, February 1966

Right off the start Ken Mills had the bands he booked go into the recording studio in the attempt to create that elusive "hit." "The decisions on recording choices were really made on the merit of what we thought would get radio airplay," stated Mills. "It was not unheard of for a band to become a one-hit wonder. Bands like the Swinging Medallions, ? & the Mysterians and the Count Five were just like us, but they happened upon the right song in the right set of circumstances."

"There was really one primary reason for choosing Dove Recording Studio; the Minneapolis scene. I really felt that Sioux Falls was a disjointed suburb of Minneapolis. There was a lot of going back and forth between the two cities. We were very aware of what was going on in the Twin Cities and I'm sure we heard about the recording facility through other bands or musicians."

"The first band that I went into the studio with was Dale Gregory & the Shouters, followed in succession by the Dynamic Hursmen, and the Trippers.

The Dynamic Hursmen, Sioux Falls Coliseum, April 1966
(left to right in back: Leo Flynn, Pete Early, Jim Peters, Dale Westendorf; front: Jeff Kahler, Bob Magnuson; Dan Jensen and Mike Rothenbuler, not pictured, were in a second version of the Hursmen)

The Fabulous Trippers, Roof Garden Ballroom, Arnold's Park, Iowa, July 1967
(left to right: Mark Henjum, Mark Griffin, Mike Ward, Gordy Haugan, Terry Park, Chris Harper)

I acted somewhat as a producer at those sessions, picking the songs and generally giving input as to what the arrangements would be, how the mixes would eventually sound. But in terms of really being a producer, that was left up to Rod Eaton, Dove's recording engineer."

"After a few false starts, the Shouters hit upon 'Did Ya Need To Know,' which hit #1 (and the B-side. 'I Remember,' #2) back home in Sioux Falls even before we got the records back from Dove. It was big locally, but never did what it was supposed to outside the area."

"The one part of the industry that we didn't really know anything about was distribution. We knew enough about getting our songs played on the radio, locally, but didn't know how to get them into large distribution chains. Most of our sales came either out of the back of our cars, or by directly going into smaller stores and consigning a couple copies. No recording band that I was ever involved with sold over 1,000 copies."

"In December of '67 the Trippers and I were at Dove, recording 'Conquistador' and 'Kaleidoscope.' Peter Steinberg, co-owner of the studio, teamed us up with the writing team of Gary Paulak and Barry Goldberg, who had written the popish 'Have You Ever.' The Trippers sang the song, but only their guitarist and drummer actually played on it. The other musicians were made up of Dove personnel. We wanted to have a hit so much that we just ate that kind of stuff up. Steinberg and I formed Milltown Records for the release, which didn't sell well, but received the most airplay. 'Have You Ever' got played on about a dozen stations in the upper midwest. It had a good commercial sound but never went beyond mid-chart."

"I'm surprised that the bands I worked with didn't release more records because we recorded enough times. Dale Gregory and Those Of Us took naturally to the studio and were extremely creative while there. Part of the problem was that recording was fairly expensive for us because we paid by the hour. I think If we would have had the opportunity to have an open recording-type arrangement (like the T.C. Atlantic or Underbeats did), we would have taken full advantage of it."

"A lot of it too was the Beatles' influence. By the mid-'60s, George Martin and the Fab Four were doing very creative studio things - playing with the audio, different things with the mix, etc. When you booked studio time by the hour you didn't have that luxury afforded you."

"Those Of Us was the first 'designer' band that I actually assembled. John Everist, Mike Connor and Gary Johnson were all talented musicians. singers and songwriters from the X-Men. Pat O'Brien and Ted Christy. from Dale Gregory & the Shouters, were equally so. During the summer of '66 there was a lot of changes going on, music-wise, in Sioux Falls. In July I put on a show in Pipestone, Minneosta, that I called the 'Battle of the Sioux Falls Bands.' We had the Hursmen, X-Men and the Shouters perform. I got to thinking that night what a powerful group it would be if I got the right musicians together. It went from an idea, to a concept. to a band in about two-to-three weeks. Their first gig was September 1, 1966. but even before that I had them record 'Without You' at IGL Recording Studio in Milford, Iowa. Looking back, I wish I would have had Those Of Us record more - they had some great original songs!"

Those of Us, September 1966
(left to right: Pat O'Brien, John Everist, Gary Johnson, Ted Christy, Mike Connor)

"In 1967 1 started booking a very good soul act, the Handy Brothers Chessmen Show. They weren't together very long, but were quite popular.

I started working as a disc jockey at KISD radio in Sioux Falls in October 1967. My biggest influence in radio was Ray Ford, who was acting Program Director at KISD. That man was a one-man cultural landslide. I learned more from him than any other single individual in the business. He had a perspective on the industry that was uncanny."

Ken Mills, on the air at KISD, Sioux Falls, Summer 1969
(Booking agent Chris Buren looks on)

"My booking agency went until February, 1968. 1 found that going to college full-time, working at KISD radio full-time, booking bands and dance promotions were more than I could handle. So I dropped the booking agency to concentrate on promotions. In partnership with Ray Ford, we promoted dances and shows in a 100-mile radius of Sioux Falls. The Stillroven, Underbeats. Rumbles, Red Dogs and the Mob all attracted huge audiences. The last shows I promoted were with Crow in August, 1969.

"I've kept in touch with many of those who were in the bands. In 1974, Greg Blomberg and I went into the advertising business together. Together, with a couple of radio friends, we opened Media One Advertising and Marketing, which is still going strong today. I left Media One in 1979 to get into radio management. I started a rock station, K-SKY out in the Black Hills. After that I managed radio stations in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Los Angeles, California."

"Now I'm still in the booking business. I'm in charge of "booking" radio programs on stations across the country as the Director of the Ken Mills Agency (KMA) in Minneapolis. I'm basically still a booking agent, using the phone constantly. I often think about that first call 30 years ago that I almost didn't make."

"As I look back on the whole experience with a little sharper perspective I see a lot of things that could have been done differently, more efficiently. etc. Today it seems so easy and obvious, but back then we didn't know any better. Everything was cutting edge. Overall, my memories are pleasant ones that I wouldn't trade for the world!"


  1. Fun! Re Your picture of the Dynamic Hursmen: that sure could be the Pete Early I worked with at WMIN in Maplewood and at KMNS/KSEZ in Sioux City, IA. and who grew up in Sioux Falls. - Julia Beaudoin

  2. Great Blog. Brings me back to my early days as well. Being born/raised in Siou City, Iowa---your path seems to be mine as well. Was ONLY Road Manager that worked with Tommy Bolin, and The Patch Of Blue. We did Sioux Falls many times. Eddie Skeets was the Booker.
    I remember most of the groups you mentioned.(Especially Those Of Us---The Dynamic Hursmen)
    The Hursmen even did a tune of a group I worked with: "You Tell Me Why", I'm thinking that release was on IGL.
    Take Care.
    John Eckert
    I'm still in the Music biz, living in California.

  3. The good old days... I graduated from Sioux Falls Washington in 1965, so I remember most of what your blog is about. What about the Bleach Boys. I remember them from my high school class and the sock hops at the Y or the Sioux Falls Coliseum. I went to college at SDSU in Brookings, so I spent quite a few nights (and more) with Marlys Roe and the house band of "Hort's" (Horatio's) The Talismen. I knew all of them well. BTW, Ken -- Marlys was not as square as you might think. I'll leave it at that. But I remember you well and you might remember me. Everybody knew everybody in Sioux Falls. After the Army in Korea, I bought a golf course at Lake Okoboji in Iowa, so I know some of your Roof Garden and IGL recording connections like John Senn of DJ and the Runaways. Ah yes... it is so good to reminisce! My 50th reunion is next year and we can do it all again over and over.... Jeff Greenlee, Phoenix, AZ