2013-03-21 / Scene

Having a HOT time with the Halsey Old Timers

Group of musicians offer toe tapping, rollicking good time

The Halsey Old Timers group in action. Above left, the lone banjo player, Mike Marrs, manages the microphone well also. Middle, Steve Krefeld plays harmonica beside Jim McMillin on lead guitar. At right, another Halsey Old Timer, Don Bland, plays and sings with his comrades. The Halsey Old Timers group in action. Above left, the lone banjo player, Mike Marrs, manages the microphone well also. Middle, Steve Krefeld plays harmonica beside Jim McMillin on lead guitar. At right, another Halsey Old Timer, Don Bland, plays and sings with his comrades. GRAND BLANC TWP. — A quote found on the internet says, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and it’s attributed to several celebrities, but no one really knows who said it first.

It is difficult to put a phenomenal music performance into words, in fact, to truly understand it — you might have to carve out a Wednesday morning and go to the Halsey United Methodist community center (behind the church), on the south side of Baldwin Road across from Genesys Health Park.

If you don’t come early you might not find a parking place or get a good seat — but there is no cover charge or cigarette smoke — although 85-year-old Jean Darnell will probably have the coffee on and maybe some cupcakes for the 10:30 a.m. break.

“It’s so marvelous,” Jean explains. “ I tell people they should come.”

Circled around the room is an extraordinary thing — the Halsey Old Timers band; but it’s really just a group of guys who love to play and sing. What’s unusual is there is usually about 20 of them and it is a unique and incredible experience to listen to them play all at once.

The Old Timer’s bring back an era of classic country, ballads and gospel music popular in the ’40s and ’50s — songs about lonesome Sunday mornings, paper roses and the old rugged cross. Friends and relatives make up the small toe tapping and applauding audience.

The gentlemen take turns, or pass; and some sing their own song. A lot of them are military and General Motors veterans singing their own compilations. Bob Lowe renders a song that many in Genesee County can relate to, called “Assembly Line Blues” :

When I left Kentucky, many years ago,

Searching for the rainbow, trying to find a pot of gold,

I headed out for Detroit, I was gonna hit the big time

Ah, but here I am many years later, workin on that ol’ assembly line.

I work for Ford Motor Co, on the ol’ assembly line

Puttin them Lincolns together, Lord they look so fine

But I can't afford to buy one, cause they just cut out my overtime

And I got bills to pay, working on that ol’ assembly line

©Bob Lowe, 1978

Lowe, who came to Detroit as a young man, to find work in the auto factory, also told a story about the first television they had back down in the hills of Kentucky. He said the antenna was way up on the hill and it was hooked up to two wires that ran all the way down the mountain. He said he would climb the hill to check those wires every day after school just to make sure they were still there and there weren’t any branches on them or other things that might interfere with the signal.

Some of the group come from as far away as Auburn Hills and Clarkston, and there is at least one person from each of the surrounding counties represented at one time or another. Joe Caballero, a 64-year-old retired manager from GM stated, “It ebbs and flows.”

“It’s become more than music,” said Caballero. “It’s a bunch of guys that get along really well,” He cautions however that you need to have thick skin — as joking around is a huge part of the group’s camaraderie. The group started with just a few who played music at a barbershop on Dort Highway, but they outgrew the space and soon found themselves at the Halsey UMC.

The unofficial manager of the group, Steve Krefeld, plays harmonica and tries to promote the group with his friend, Sue Jeffes, who he also volunteers with at the Riverside Tabernacle food pantry in Flint.

Some members of the group don’t play at all, only sing, and others don’t sing and will request someone in the group to do so for them.

“It’s the fastest 3-4 hours of the week,” Krefeld added.

Jim McMillan, the lone lead guitar player, said, “We have such a wonderful time…half the fun is our camaraderie, taking pot shots at one another.”

Krefeld had quite a surprise when Everett Weaver joined the group and they realized Weaver had actually been a groomsman in his wedding more than 50 years ago.

Like Weaver, a retired Grand Blanc police officer, you don’t have to be a professional musician or singer to join the group — although several do participate in bands of their own.

Weaver said he got involved with the group when he began singing in the church choir — and then Caballero loaned him a guitar.

“These guys have been bringing me along,” he said, explaining he had only played guitar for about two years.

“My mom made me play piano — you know classical stuff,” Weaver joked. “My grandma and I used to sneak into town and buy country (sheet) music to play.”

Once his mom found out, he did get in trouble he added. He also plays the ukulele now too.

Caballero also didn’t play until the last few years, when their longtime steel guitar player, Basil, heard him sing and brought him to the group. He said he didn’t even know what a “key” was until then.

He thought, “I’m supposed to know this and I’m gonna’ learn something about this music stuff,” and enrolled in Music Theory at Mott Community College. Pretty soon “the light went on” and he understood the difference between his house key and musical notes.

“This is how that darn music works,” he remembers saying to himself. “I keep coming back because I get to meet all these great people,” he said. “People come and go…you get to hear all these different takes on the music. One day after about a year and a half, Jim (McMillin) said to me, ‘That was really good.’ He was surprised because Jim, one of the biggest jokesters of the group, seemed so quiet.

Krefeld said they most recently played at the Bronner’s Snow Fest and were really well-received and hope to play other local venues as often as possible. He doesn’t take 15 or 20 for events, but picks the best in the group and depending on who is available, will assemble a team to go and play. He used to sing, but is still recovering from a long illness which affected his voice.

McMillin invited Krefeld to the group after reuniting with him at Krefeld’s wife’s funeral.

“He invited me to the group, and it’s only a couple miles from my house. Now I never miss it,” said Krefeld. He and others in the group claimed it was like therapy for them.

The oldest of the Old Timer’s, Bob Darnell, Jean’s husband — who is also 85 — was ill the day The Grand Blanc View came to take pictures of the group, but usually comes every day. Jean sits by the kitchen and keeps the coffee pot full and smiles and claps as she feels like.

“I’ve been playing music 55 years,” said Walt Wiitala. “I get to play with guys who know what they’re doing. I have the pleasure of playing with some very talented people.”

They only have one banjo player, Mike Marrs, who has a student who comes to watch and listen as well, and sometimes they have an accordion player.

Bob Deland, who said he was a longtime copy editor for a local newspaper, said he joined back in the barbershop days — before they came to the church in the early 2000s.

“The bass player didn’t want to be there every week,” said Deland. Once they moved to the church the group just started “growin’ and growin’”, he added.

“I’ll tell you what’s good about this group,” Caballero said. “After a lifetime of competing at work, I just go to have fun. It gives you a feeling of well being and security. Your job now is just to have fun”.

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