I got word this evening that Dennis Heimermann passed away today. Technically speaking, Dennis is my cousin, the only son of my oldest aunt on my mom's side of the family. Dennis was born near the end of World War II, the fruit of the union of my aunt and a soldier who went away to battle. I don't know the particulars, but they aren't especially important to the story. A lot of scenarios of this sort happened during the war and Dennis was raised as a son by my grandparents, so I always knew him as Uncle Dennis.
Every kid should have a cool uncle, a guy who does the fun stuff. When I was little, Dennis was my cool uncle. He was about 12 years younger than my mother and during the late 1960s, he was a strong presence in my life. He had a cool car and he would take me to the A & W Drive-In on the north side of town for burgers and milkshakes. He would play rock music on his car radio and we would cruise around town. I thought it was neat and I always looked forward to seeing him pull up to my grandmother's house. Sometimes he'd take my brothers along too, or my cousin Brian. But I always remember the music and how he was interested in what I had to say.
I had always heard that Dennis was a musician himself, but I really never heard the story. Turns out there's quite a story. I found a blog this evening with a fascinating post about some early rock and roll bands in my hometown. And sure enough, Dennis Heimermann was part of a band called Jerry Williams and the Rockets. I'm reprinting a picture of the band from 1961, which was a few years before I was born:
|Jerry Williams and the Rockets|
In 1958, the band regrouped under the name The Rockets and started performing across Wisconsin. Jerry Van Dynhoven added his first and middle name to dub the band Jerry Williams And The Rockets. Later Jerry's brother Donnie joined the band and began using Williams as his last name. Jerry Williams started out playing drums, but switched to sax and guitar later on. Other members that contributed their talents later included: Jerry Starr, Tom Gebheim, Gary Laabs, Ricky Leigh, Dave Hermsen, Jim Kobs, Dave Yokeum, Pete Miller, Brother Don Van Dynhoven, Dennis Heimermann, Bobby "Bryll" Timmers, and Mike Pluger. The group backed Danny And The Juniors at the Cinderella Ballroom in Appleton on March 16, 1958. They also appeared with Fabian in March 1959 at the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay. They also backed up other bands like Johnny Cash at the Eagles Club in Oshkosh, and Johnny And The Hurricanes at the Riverside Ballroom.I would guess than Uncle Dennis didn't play these early gigs, because he'd have only been a teenager at the time, but they were a fixture on the local music scene. They even recorded a record in 1962:
Jerry eventually got over his early troubles with WAPL, later letting a station dee-jay named Bob Falkner produce his group's only record. which they recorded on January 6, 1962 at the WAPL studios. It was produced by the Gold Star Recording Company in Appleton and released in June 1962 on Rocket 001 (above) and featured an instrumental cover of Blueberry Hill (called Blueberry Lane) on one side, with A Boy Like You, sung by Jerry's wife Carol (formerly Carol Bosman), on the other side. A Boy Like You was a female "answer" cover version of a Gary Stites song from 1959 called A Girl Like You.You can hear embedded MP3 copies of the song at the link. The songs are pretty much straight ahead rock of that era, expertly rendered. Jerry Williams and the Rockets never made it big, but there's a sweetness to their moment that's still palpable from the distance of a half-century. The rest of the essay is well worth your time as well.
As happens to most aspiring rock-and-rollers, Dennis had to move on. He took a job in town, got married and began raising a family of his own. We lived only a few blocks apart, but I didn't get see as much of him as I got older and started pursuing the details of my own life. Eventually he was disabled and could no longer work, so he and his wife Marianne eventually moved to Clintonville, a small town about 40 miles northwest of Appleton, where they ran an antique store. I don't know that I ever told him how much those early moments meant to me, but I suspect that my lifelong love of music might have something to do with him.
We don't always know, and often only dimly appreciate, the ways in which our interactions change lives. While I regret that I can't tell Uncle Dennis how I feel about those early moments, more than 40 years ago, I suspect he knew. And there's solace in that.