The Twist was in, and all the girls swooned over Elvis. The new rock-’n’-roll sound was all the rage.
One group of guys from St. Joseph Military Academy in Hays with their duck-tail haircuts and white dinner jackets brought this new break-out music to local proms and dances. They were called the Flippers.
The story of the band and this early rock history is told in a new book by fellow St. Joseph student Darrell Mudd. The book is called “The Original Flippers.” It is available from Amazon and is a compilation of seven of the band’s members’ memories from the late ’50s to early ’60s.
Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to Thomas More Prep-Marian, and band members and the author will be back in Hays in September for the TMP homecoming for book signings. Gella’s Diner will even name a beer for the band.
Some of the band members said their time in the Flippers was the best time in their lives. For others, it was a jumping off point for a lifelong career and love of music.
Although some of the band members had played in the St. Joseph marching or jazz band, the players were mostly self-taught.
John Cooke Fross recalled picking out tunes on an old wide body guitar in Terry Wierman’s basement. His parents bought that first guitar on payments from Montgomery Ward.
By the time Fross was 16, the band was making good money, (about $10 to $15 per member per dance). Fross and Wierman bought brand-new Fender Startocasters for about $300 each. After Fross left the band, he traded his for a $150 air conditioner.
“I had a wife and a son. That is what we needed,” he said.
Wierman wore his Stratocaster out playing in a second incarnation of the Flippers, The Fabulous Flippers, that toured nationwide. Today those guitars in good condition could be worth as much as $38,000.
Eventually other locals joined the group: Lee Allen Leiker on vocals, Tom Bunker on piano, Dennis Rohr on drums, and Jim Gross on sax.
The band had no sheet music. They listened to records of their favorite singers and duplicated the sound.
“Thank God for 45s,” Gross, sax player, said.
Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Gene Vincent, who is known for “Be Bop A Lula,” all became staples. The band often kicked off its concerts with “Say Mama” by Buddy Dean and the Enchantments, and ended the evening with Ritchie Valens “Oh Donna.”
The band played its first concert in 1958 at a New Year’s Dance at the Sunflower Ballroom. The band members were not sure of their own talents or how the music would be received, so they brought along an accordion player who could step in and play German polkas if the crowd became restless.
He was never needed. The audience loved the new sound.
“The first song we played was Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ They went nuts. We didn’t have much use for the accordion player,” Fross said.
The Flipper name came by chance when one of the band members bought a pair of flipper-style hub caps for his car. The band members all quickly agreed to moniker.
Before long, the Flippers were booked most Friday and Saturdays at dances and proms around the area. An owner at a theater in Lenora, Kansas, booked the band to a regular gig.
The theater would show a movie and then remove the chairs and create a dance floor.
“They did the twist and free dance. How wild it got depend on how much beer they had. Three or four beers will do that to you,” Wierman said.
“It was a great deal of fun. I think it was all legal. None of us ended up in jail. It must have been all legal,” he said of the band’s concerts.
The guys sometimes would have a few beers before or after a show. One night, Dennis Rohr got a little carried away. He drank a case.
“I was totally wiped. I was crazy,” he said. “We had to play at this prom. They gave me a shower and coffee. At one point, I was up in a tree, and they couldn’t get me out.”
However, Rohr said he still honored his faith and family on Sunday morning.
“We might be out to 3 or 4 a.m. We might go to a party afterward, but I never missed church Sunday morning. I had to pray to God for all the stuff I did at the dance the night before,” he said.
Although Lee Leiker was considered by some of his bad mates as the group’s heart throb, there was no leader of the band.
“We had camaraderie,” Fross said. “We didn’t have a leader. We didn’t have disagreements. If everyone didn’t like it, we didn’t do it. Everybody booked dances.”
Although the young men all attended a Catholic military school, they received little pushback from their teachers and elders.
“The parents liked it,” Gross said. “It was something that got the kids off the streets on Friday nights.”
Except for their hair. The cadets were required to wear military haircuts and a couple of the band members were reprimanded for wearing their hair slicked back into duck tails.
Father Timothy Gottschalk, who Wierman said hated the music, even let the group practice in the St. Joseph’s band room for a time.
When the group wasn’t practicing at the school, they pulled a piano up to a door at one of the member’s houses and played in the yard. People from the neighborhood would stop by to listen at the outdoor impromptu concerts. Even police officers would swing by and linger to listen to the band.
Band members also said they enjoyed playing outdoor concerts on top of the swimming pool.
“It was a wonderful atmosphere,” Wierman said. “I won’t mind doing that again.”
The band even sent a letter to Capitol Records, but they were so good at emulating other artists, Capitol told them they couldn’t record the band because they didn’t have an original sound.
The original Flippers were together until 1964 when the guys went on to divergent lives.
Fross unfortunately no longer plays guitar. He broke his hand as a young man, and the bones did not set properly. He can no longer play certain chords.
“It about killed me when that happened,” he said.
Rohr, 73, took a while to recover from his party days with the band. He flunked out of college twice, but eventually graduated with a master’s degree.
“I would have been well educated a lot earlier if it had not been for rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
He lives in North Dakota and still plays drums.
Leiker, 78, became a family man and still lives in Hays.
“In 1960, I got married and, in 1962, I quit the band,” he said. “I had a family, and it was a whole different world.”
He now has four children, seven grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren and says all of the kids and grandkids are getting copies of the book. Although he doesn’t sing much anymore, he still loves music and has fond memories of his time int he band.
“It was a lot of fun growing up,” he said. “I would never change anything. In the band, we are all like one. We all had fun together, That’s how I grew up.”
Gross, 72, briefly co-owned a record shop in Hays, The Record Village, which was located off Vine Street.
He said his time in band made a great deal of difference in his later life.
“It gave me confidence,” he said. “It made a lot of difference in my career. I was managing plants with 300 people working in them. When I was in upper management, I knew how to deal with people.”
Bunker, 79, had a lifelong career in music and is still conducting choruses today, including a large chorus with Idaho State University for the opening of a new Mormon Temple. His children took up music as well, including a daughter who has played with Garth Brooks.
Wierman, 73, went on to play in The Fabulous Flippers and toured the nation. The band was know for their single “Harlem Shuffle.”
The time in the band took its toll from poor food and little sleep from constantly being on the road. He said he saw a lot playing rock in the ’60s. The nation was changing.
“In the bigger cities, there were riots, vandalism and looting,” he said. “It was not safe. … It was a wild time in a disturbing sense.”
Wierman abandoned touring in 1969 and took a construction job with his brother in Hays, where he lives today.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “I play still occasionally, but my hands are not as good as they used to be. I blame it on my mom for having me pray too much over the Rosary.”
Wierman summed up his music experiences very simply, “It has been one hell of a ride. I enjoyed it.”