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Red blazers too spendy, but they sure would have been cool

I have a lot of rock and roll heroes, but Ricky Nelson is the reason I started playing guitar back in eighth grade.

Everyone knew Ricky Nelson and his brother David, the two sons on a television sit-com called "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Ricky started playing guitar and singing in real life, and he had a string of simple songs that appealed to love-struck teenagers. He started doing songs on the television show, too, which prompted me to order a $35 arch-top acoustic guitar from the Montgomery Ward catalog.

With the help of a Mel Bay guitar learners' book, I struggled to master a few chords. When I read in a fan magazine that Ricky Nelson practiced until his fingertips bled, I redoubled my efforts. After a few months, I could chord along to many of the rock songs on the radio.

Then I saw Carl Perkins on the Sullivan Show or some other variety program, and I had to have an electric guitar. I can't recall the amplifier I bought, but the guitar was a Silvertone, a Telecaster copy, $29 and change from Sears, Roebuck. I found out I could sound a bit like Perkins -- Luther, the lead player for Johnny Cash. No, I wasn't good, but I could fumble through some simple intros and leads that Luther played on songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line."

I was pretty shy in those days, but somehow Charlie Roberts, the Chamberlain band teacher, talked me into playing guitar in the high school big band.(He also talked me into being drum major for a couple of years, but that's a different embarrassing story.) We played from charts that were mostly '20s and '30s and '40s tunes. I had to learn a whole lot of chord changes, but I enjoyed the music.

About that time, Hamm's Beer started showing TV commercials that featured a four- or five-piece band with animals for musicians. The group was called the Bearcats. Mike Kehrwald, a trumpet player at CHS, convinced me and four other guys from the dance band that we should form our own six-piece combo. Using the same music charts that the dance band played from, we practiced a while and worked up a nice little set list that included stuff like "Jada" and "Dream (When You're Feeling Blue)" and "Swinging Down the Lane."

One evening after practice, Mike told us he'd landed a gig playing for a school dance after a football game. He also said he had talked to Ray Steckelberg down at the men's store, who quoted him a price of $30 for six matching blazers, fire-engine red with brass buttons.

We were pretty excited about red blazers. I mean, what's $30, five bucks apiece for blazers?

You already knew, didn't you, it was $30 a blazer? We never did get the matched look.

We played the dance, though, and some kids even danced a bit. At the end of a set, somebody yelled for me to sing something. I have no idea why I did, but I stepped to the microphone and did "Folsom," a tune not in our set list. Kids started yelling and clapping, and when I said (I'd heard it somewhere) "Don't clap, throw money," coins started landing on the stage and plinking off the bells of the trombone and saxophone. For about three incredibly sweet minutes, I was Johnny Cash.

Well, some dreams end quicker than others. We finished the dance and packed our stuff. Mike went to track down the school principal to see about the money. It was at that point that the five of us who watched Mike walk away realized that we'd never actually heard a dollar amount quoted for the gig.

Turns out, it was a freebie. The principal said $20 was about right, and that was just about what it would take to rent the school trap our drummer used and the music charts for the rest of us.

We gathered the coins from the stage, something like $3, and split the change six ways.

As Mike looked at his share, he said, "Lucky we didn't get the blazers."