South Bend Tribune
South Bend, Indiana
November 3 & 4, 2005
Many Thanks to Ida Chipman for graciously allowing us to reproduce this article.

Anything with strings

Plymouth's Johnny Keck was quite a whiz with a banjo

This photograph of Johnny Keck dates back to 1992, when he was 74 years old.

First of two parts

PLYMOUTH -- It's been 10 years since they buried the banjo man.

Johnny Keck was one of the most talented musicians ever to make music in these parts.

He was buried in September 1995 in Center Cemetery, dressed in his red vest and open-collared white shirt. No tie.

Johnny rarely wore a tie. Sometimes he'd sport a floppy bow tie on stage, but only when he had to.

He was fond of saying, "The SOB who invented ties should be hung with one!"

In his vest pocket, there was a photograph of his beloved dog, Bunkie, a little white Lhasa apso.

Bunkie had accompanied Johnny everywhere, often riding in the basket of his bicycle. She grieved as few humans could when he died and left her behind.

Viola Keck, Johnny's wife for over 22 years, said she always knew her place.

His music came first, and then it was a toss-up between her and Bunkie for second.

Johnny held a single red rose in his left hand. In the fingers of his right hand was a favorite banjo pick.

Violinist Gretchen Priest, his musical partner for the last seven years of his life, played two songs at the graveside: "Amazing Grace" and Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

Johnny performed professionally for 65 years and taught guitar and banjo to more than a thousand students.

Bill Wagoner, a longtime friend and owner of Wagoner's Music Shop in Plymouth, was 13 years old when he bought his first guitar from Johnny.

"People loved him and appreciated his music, but the truth is, they never knew how good he really was," Wagoner said.

"Johnny Keck was a world-class banjo player, and he never did received the acclaim that he so richly deserved."

One of his students, Donnovan Holderread of Plymouth, said, "Johnny could play anything with strings -- a ukulele, banjo, guitars.

"Hell, he could play a tennis shoe if the strings were tight enough."

Former Plymouth Mayor Jim Yeazel was one of his guitar students.

One day he asked if he was ever going to be as good as Johnny was on the guitar.

"Never," Johnny answered with a laugh. "Never."

"And he was right," Yeazel said.

Johnny was mostly self-taught. He learned to play the guitar when he was 11 in his hometown of Teegarden.

His older brother, Charlie, bought him his first banjo. It came from Sears Roebuck and cost $22.

"You will learn to play it," Charlie told him. Johnny used to say, "if you don't like my music, blame it on my brother, Charlie. He made me do it."

As a youngster, he saved up his money so he could take the Nickel Plate train into Chicago once a week to take banjo lessons. The lessons, in 1930, cost $5.

He quickly learned that he could get more gigs by playing the banjo.

"I played the guitar for fun, but I made 50 cents more a night when I played banjo," he said.

"I couldn't believe that I was actually getting paid for doin' what I loved."

When he was 17 years old, he left the safe and familiar boundaries of Teegarden for the promise of fame and fortune in New York City.

His most notable job was in a burlesque house that doubled as a whorehouse.

The strippers and the bump-and-grind dancers loved his music. The tips were good, but the life was lousy. Johnny was a small town guy and he was lonely in the big city.

He came back to Indiana and, shortly afterward, at the beginning of World War II, joined the U.S. Army.

He served in the Philippines and, during a furious battle with Japanese snipers, was shot in the groin.

The doctors gave him just hours to live.

They didn't know Johnny. He fought to survive. "I had a lot of music yet to play," he said.

He used to joke that "an inch to the left and the Japs would have made a hen out of a rooster."

With a medical discharge, Johnny came back home. In 1942, he and Dorothy Arick, a talented singer who played a mean string bass, were married.

Johnny and Dorothy had five children. Their oldest, Gary, got sick with a common childhood disease. A high fever left him severely brain damaged.

Gregory, their youngest child, was born developmentally disabled. He died in 1972 at the age of 12.

Johnny got a job at Studebakers in South Bend to put food on the table for his family. Food for his soul came from his music.

His talented fingers coaxed melodies from strings that could mellow an audience or cause them to tap their feet and bob their heads in time to the Dixieland banjo songs he loved.

"Won't you come home, Bill Bailey; won't you come home..." was one of the crowd favorites.

He would balance himself on a high stool, one foot on a rung and the other leg straight out in front, his lanky body bent over the instrument.

With his head tilted, a smile curving his lips, he had a look of absolute concentration.

During those times, he was one with his music.

Playing the banjo melodies, his eyes would crinkle with humor and his rear end would bounce up and down until you thought the stool would break into a thousand pieces.

Sometimes after a particularly lusty "Dueling Banjos," they did.

Johnny would laugh and hunch up his shoulders as his fingers flew across the strings with unbelievable speed and perfect rhythm.

Even in his 70s, he never lost his dexterity, his speed or his perfect pitch.

Friday: Johnny falls prey to devil rum or, in his case, peppermint schnapps.


Plymouth's Banjo Man had a life of ups and downs
Tribune Correspondent

Second of two parts

PLYMOUTH -- Johnny Keck thought there had to be a better way to make a living.

So, in 1955, he quit his job at Studebakers and opened a music store in Walkerton called "The Music Box."

He and his wife, Dorothy, sold musical instruments, and he gave lessons on guitar and banjo.

But when the roof leaked, his sheet music stacks would be ruined.

The roof leaked a lot and, if the truth be told, Walkerton was no hotbed of musical activity.

The family could barely make ends meet. If it weren't for the weekend gigs, they would have been in really bad shape financially.

The late Bill Shemberger had a prosperous music store in Plymouth. He asked Johnny to come to work for him.

"It was too good a deal to turn down," Johnny said.

He loved teaching kids and selling instruments, but it wasn't enough.

At night for the next 36 years, he played clubs and restaurants. He was often the "pickup" musician for visiting star performers.

The big bands that came to South Bend or Fort Wayne would contact the union headquarters of the American Federation of Musicians.

They would ask for the best guitar or banjo player in Indiana and Michigan.

The best was always Johnny Keck.

He worked with many famous entertainers: Artie Shaw, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Tony Orlando and Dawn.

He shared the bill as the warmup act for comedian Pat Paulson at the LaPorte County Fair. And being a bit of a clown himself, he loved working with the famous Emmett Kelly.

Johnny wore his red-striped blazer and straw skimmer when he appeared with Bozo the Clown on a Chicago TV show. He also did some pickin' and scratchin' with Homer and Jethro of "Hee Haw."

He entertained U.S. presidents, vice presidents, governors, senators and congressmen.

He couldn't have cared less who was in the audience. He played his music for all the people who enjoyed listening.

"Mr. Bojangles," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee" were always favorites.

But, for some reason, he never got his big break. He had the talent. More than likely, what he didn't have was a good agent.

In the 1950s, Johnny teamed up with Sandy Riner. They had a live TV show for an Elkhart station. Their duet of "Dueling Banjos" is a classic among banjo fans.

Johnny also worked in later years, accompanying singers such as Rita Price Simpson and Mary Pat Martindale Glaub.

He played in a Dixieland band with Roger Kronk of Walkerton. He performed for the dedication of the Old Plymouth Fire House and, for years, he was the star entertainer for Gov. Otis R. Bowen's parties and campaigns.

In August 1968, Dorothy, at the age of 44, died of throat and lung cancer. She, of the beautiful, husky voice, smoked cigarettes right up to the end.

Johnny smoked too. Three packs a day.

He also was fond of peppermint schnapps.

And that got him into a whole lot of trouble.

The life of a professional musician is often terrible. Johnny explained it one time.

"You can play your heart out to a bunch of drunken slobs who talk all the way through your set ... in rooms so dense with smoke you can hardly breathe.

"You take a break then plaster a smile on your face, add a bounce to your step that isn't really there and do it all over again."

You do it because you have to. Not for the money. The money isn't all that great.

You just have to make music. "If you didn't play, you'd shrivel up and die," he said.

It was no wonder that Johnny, who still suffered pains almost constantly from the wounds he received in the war, got hooked on booze.

He was "a binge drinker."

He would go for months without a drink. Then one night he'd be tired and his defenses would weaken.

His son, Dennis, explained it.

"There is always someone in a nightclub who wants to buy the banjo player a drink," he said.

Johnny's "one drink" would turn into an unable-to-stop binge that would last for a week -- or two weeks -- or longer.

And then the binges started getting closer together.

Sometimes he'd end up in a ditch or in some stranger's house, trying to use their telephone.

And one notable time, he was arrested for drunken driving. Four-year-old Gary, his youngest son, was in the car with him.

Johnny was booked into the LaGrange County Jail and Gary, his physically and mentally challenged little boy, was put in the cell with him.

When he sobered up, seeing little Gary sitting on the jail house bunk, Johnny took a vow of sobriety.

Dorothy and his son, Dennis, had come to bail him out. They all wept together.

Johnny Keck never took another drink and he never smoked another cigarette as long as he lived.

In 1963, Johnny became the proud owner of a custom-made bright red guitar, especially designed for him.

Another highlight, 10 years later, came when Johnny and Viola Pike were married.

He used to say that he "had Viola and he had a bright red guitar. What more could a man want?"

When Johnny died, he was still giving guitar and banjo lessons in his home at $5 a lesson, just what he had paid 65 years ago in Chicago when he was 12 years old.

Don Eads, a longtime student, remarked, "I wonder if he ever knew how much pleasure he gave to so many people down through the years."

The Blueberry Parade of 1995 was his last public appearance.

His widow, Viola, has master tapes of Johnny's work, recorded in a homemade studio he built in his garage.

The clarity rivals that of professional recordings. She hopes someday someone will want to make his music into discs for people to enjoy.

Even now -- a decade after his death -- Johnny Keck is missed in Marshall County.

"Johnny Keck was the last of the great four-string banjo players," said Bill Tanner, a musician and teacher in Plymouth.

"There are no others like him left."

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