In the spring of 1965, or some time close to that, six guys got together to form a rock and roll band. It all started by forming a collaboration of guys who had managed to buy some new or used musical equipment, speakers, and microphones. My first love had always been the drums. Probably because my ultimate hero then was Ringo Starr. Every drummer or wannabe that was anybody wanted or tried to get Ludwig drums, Zildjian cymbals, especially if you could get it in black pearl. That was Ringo’s colors.
I had this dream in my mind when I first saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show a couple of years earlier. If I could just be like Ringo, then my life would be complete. At the time, I had two part time jobs in my hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I had two different newspaper routes that were delivered religiously along with my trusty cocker spaniel, Sambo. On the weekends, I was a theater usher at the Ridge Theater. Those of you old enough to remember those days, the primary job was to keep people from making out on the back row, prevent those short on cash from sneaking in down front at the emergency exit and to shine our ever present flashlight at those troublemakers who blew up their popcorn bags and busted them, scaring the audience. Not a ton of responsibility, but at twenty-five cents an hour, what did they expect?
After two years of saving, I finally had enough money ($425 to be exact) to order the first half of my drum kit. My heart was broken to find out that no one in the U.S. had any black pearl Ludwig drums in stock. Back ordered for months, which seemed like years. I took what I could get, which was sparkling pink champagne, nearly last on my list of color choices. Nevertheless, I had the starter kit. With Bill Halsey on lead guitar, Charles Collins on rhythm guitar, Chip Zulliger on keyboards, Chris Stevens on the bass, yours truly kept the beat. The Rogues from Oak Ridge had arrived!!!
For the next two years, we honed our skills and polished our harmony. Memories fade as to the real quality of our talent, but we thought we were the real deal! Playing at ‘sock hops’ from Lenoir City to the Wildcat Den in Oak Ridge, to the gym at Clinton high school, our claim to fame was music by Paul Revere and the Raiders. We were complete with tops adorned with gold piping and tassles hanging everywhere, black tights, pointed boots, and tricornered hats. We really thought we were ready for American Bandstand!
We really thought we had it in the bag when we made it the final four in the summer of 1967, the Tennessee Battle of the Bands. Broadcast live on WNOX radio from Chilhowee Park in Knoxville. The winner was to receive an all expense paid trip to Boston and a shot at a recording contract to the national winner.
As luck would have it, we came in second. The ultimate heartbreak. Then came our departure from guys who had developed a bond that seemed unbreakable. As the summer moved on, some of us went to college, some to a trade school, some got a job. We began an interesting variety of individuals from thoracic surgeon, to (forensic) dentist, to welder, and even a Lutheran minister. Our contact frequency diminished as we got married, developed other interests, grew families, with some still dabbling with music and others letting it slip through the hands of time.
Some of us would temporarily reconnect at the five year reunion, then ten, then twenty. As the internet developed along with accompanying facebook pages, we began to reunite and visit more regularly. A particularly close bond had developed between the drummer and the lead singer, Ronnie Letellier. We had an especially close friendship since the fourth grade, but the accompanying gray hair that we all were experiencing, made mortality and the importance of friendship seem to grow by leaps and bounds.
Ronnie had taken a job at one of the plants in Oak Ridge, X-10, Y-12 or K-25 (if you didn’t grow up there you probably have no clue what these were, but all our parents worked at one of the three!) After a few years, he got transferred to another one of these atomic energy plants in Paducah, Kentucky. Sand continued running through the hour glass of time, until we reconnected at a 40th reunion, back in 2007.
It was then that the bonding really became tight. Every time we would talk on the phone or visit occasionally in Oak Ridge, it seemed like our friendship would instantly rekindle with a fire that was bigger than the previous one. Then, came a call from Ronnie one day. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. Prognosis was not good. That built the fire into a bond fire. Like the ones we had before pep rallies. Remember those?
I know in my heart that he kept his will to live after some of our/his followers talked us into a crude rekindling of the Rogues for the upcoming 45th class reunion. It was last fall. I don’t know if we sounded that good or not, but we had a ball taking a swing at it. I did hear something holler from the back, ‘Pick one up and put one down, the drunker you get, the better they sound!’
We had even arranged for a mixing board, stage lights, and even a HiDef video shot of the entire performance. I spotted an old girlfriend or two, and being the nostalgic freak that I still am, it rekindled a warm fuzzy feeling of those simple and wonderful memories that will forever be locked in our hearts.
Ronnie had moved back to Knoxville, and I made five trips to visit him in his last days on earth that he could remember. Even brought him down to the Sarah Cannon Research Hospital where we grasped at any straw to give us some hope. There was none to be found. We bought some DVD’s of 60’s bands, and tried to reminisce. It was too hard for Ronnie, which made it impossible for me.
Ronnie took his last breath on this earth today. It carved a slice of my heart that will never be replaced. As we matured in our friendship and conversation, we developed a love then that far exceeded our abilities to comprehend when we were young teenagers. We had finally discovered what true love is between two childhood chums. The word mortality finally was beginning to register to our classmates.
There will never be another Ronnie. I treasure every moment I spent with him, and would have given the arm off my body to have his body restored. But it was not meant to be. So we press on with the crudely made 8mm video we shot back then, the silly pictures that teenage boys took trying to be rock stars. I’m not sure we ever got there. But I got a friend who I will never forget.
The last time I saw Ronnie was Sunday, April 26. I ached for his worn out, shriveled up body as he lay there in agonizing pain. I leaned down and whispered in his ear and held his hand, “Ronnie, I love you so much, and I’ll miss you with all my heart, but it’s ok to let go now. It’s for the best. It’s time for you to fly. Heaven will be a better place for our loss here. Do you remember the last song we played at every dance, sockhop, or concert we ever played? It was by the Animals. ‘You gotta get outta this place. If it’s the last thing you ever do. You got to get outta this place. Man, there’s a better than this for you!’” Ronnie smiled and closed his eyes.