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Good rockin’ with The Bel Airs
The long journey of Fort Wayne’s premier rockabilly band
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Back in high school, a few months after I got my driver’s license, I saw a rockabilly band called The Bel Airs tear up the stage at a place called the Blue Mountain Café downtown on the Landing. This was the mid-80s, when revisionist history insists we were all listening to The Cure and Joy Division and U2. But you didn’t hear that stuff on Fort Wayne radio in those days (well, maybe a little U2), and honestly, I don’t think I would have “got it” even if I did. The rockabilly though… I got it. To my un-jaded ears, this was real rock n’ roll, not the turgid stuff that was already being called “classic,” and The Bel Airs smoking through a collection of choice rockabilly tunes proved an effective antidote not only to “classic rock,” but whatever Phil Collins song was being played 74 times a day.
“Yep, that’s the same band,” says Tim Andersen, a.k.a. Tim Bel Air, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for the long-running rockabilly band. “We used to play at the Blue Mountain about one weekend a month.”
And apparently, I’m not the only one who remembers them from their Blue Mountain days. “There were a lot of high school folks that came to see us,” Andersen says. “I know we’ve done at least three weddings that folks who were going in high school at the time called us up years later and say ‘hey, would you guys do our wedding?’”
Well, it’s not quite the same band. Andersen formed the Bel Airs in the early 80s with his two brothers Danny and Joe. The two brothers eventually left the band to do other things, and a half dozen or so members have passed through The Bel Airs’ ranks since then — which actually isn’t too bad for a band with a 20+ year history.
“We had a real passion for the style of music, and we’ve stayed pretty true to that style of music over the years,” Andersen says. “We throw in a few songs that aren’t pure rockabilly, but we end up usually doing them in that style. We’ve kept the instrumentation true to the form — electric lead, acoustic rhythm, upright bass, stripped-down drum kit.”
The current line up of The Bel Airs has been together for a few years now, and includes bass man ‘Rocky’ Bel Air (Brad Kinsey); guitarist Jake Bel Air (George Ogg); and Sticks Bel Air (Tod Ramsey) behind the kit. Soundman J.J. Bel Air (John Fecher) occasionally helps out on accordion.
Andersen says the band likes to dig deep into rockabilly’s history to discover a few overlooked gems. “We have to do the standards,” Andersen says, talking about a typical Bel Airs set list. “Not that we don’t want to, but we have to, because in a lot of places, if you don’t play music that people recognize, they sort of tune you out. So we play the standards to make sure that base is covered, but then we do some obscure rockabilly tunes. People would probably say that most rockabilly is obscure, but to us, we throw those in that we really like and have fun playing.”
One non-standard that at least 75% of the band likes playing is their rockabilly version of Rosemary Clooney’s “This Old House.” “Our drummer (Tod Ramsey) just hates doing it because it has a drum solo,” says Andersen. “Not that he can’t do it — he’s a fabulous drummer — but he doesn’t think drummers should take a solo. But we go ahead and do it anyway, even though he doesn’t like it and always puts up a fuss when he see it in the song list, because the audience just loves it.”
If they get really tired of a standard, Andersen says they just take it out of the set for a little while and replace it. But there’s at least one very well known standard — not rockabilly exactly, but from the same era — that the band always looks forward to playing: “La Bamba.” “We’ve got the accordion on stage, Geogre’s solo is absolutely phenomenal… it sounds great and the crowd loves it,” Andersen says.
A little known fact about The Bel Airs: they actually have a handful of originals they occasionally like to drop into the set. Andersen names two compositions by guitarist George Ogg — the instrumental “Jake’s Boogie” and the ballad “That Dance We do” — that he particularly likes. But Andersen says if they play four originals per night, that’s a lot. “Maybe if we decided that this was going to be our life, then we would feel the need to do more of that, but we don’t feel the need to fill a real creative spark.”
For years and years, The Bel Airs did the bar band thing; every weekend night they’d start at 10 p.m., finish at 2 a.m., and get home in the wee wee hours. These days, they’re a little more selective, playing festivals, car shows, and other outdoor events, usually during the warmer months.
“We do it for the sheer fun of it,” says Andersen. “(Rockabilly) is not anything really difficult. If you ever hear us play more than three chords in a song, jump up and tell us to stop doing that. But having someone like George, and Tod our drummer, and Brad… they bring such a level of musicianship to it. What they do may be difficult for a lot of people to duplicate, but the songs themselves are pretty straightforward and simple.”
“It’s very difficult to give up because it’s just so much damn fun.”
The Bel Airs
Foellinger Outdoor Theatre
Franke Park on Sherman Boulevard
Friday, June 15, 8 pm