“I thought that perfectly represents our people.” Mark says. “We’ve all had health problems and concerns, and we’re still kicking.” Rhoda Ostendorf, of Sauk Centre, a retired real estate appraiser, township clerk and Todd County assessor, who handles keyboards, is a cancer survivor. Mel Lamar, originally from Milwaukee and now living in Osakis, teaches guitar and has been a professional musician all his life. He, too, has beat cancer. Bill Riggs, a retired music professor from the University of Minnesota, Morris, has been with the group for a long time. “He’s probably the healthiest of the group,” Mark says.
In Rhoda’s absence tonight, retired band director Mel Hauk, of St. Cloud, provides the keyboard sound with his accordion. Sometimes the Soul Survivors add a sax player, or Mark’s daughter Leah and son-in-law Donald Wirens add keyboard, guitar, and vocals when a little modern jazz touch is needed.
As for Mark, he handles the harmonica and vocals from his wheelchair. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, 20 years ago.
“I have ALS, but I’m surviving with it,” he says. “A guy in England had it almost 40 years, and there are some others in southern Minnesota who’ve lived almost 15 years. The average morbidity is three to five years, and a lot don’t last that long. It’s often a fast- acting disease, but not always. Everybody’s different. In the last eight to nine years, I’ve stayed fairly stable.”
Mark used to play sax and clarinet, but, he says, “My hands won’t handle the sax. I can only play for a minute or two. And the clarinet takes embouchure. It doesn’t look like it, but it’s difficult to play. I had to give it up, much as I hated to.” His doctors are amazed that he hasn’t lost any lung capacity, so his voice has that mellow quality perfect for standards, oldies, Latin numbers and a few from the top of the charts, from a repertoire of about 150.
“But no polkas,” Mark says. He adds, “ I don’t know that we have a leader as such, but I usually call the tunes, and I’m the point person for contacting for jobs. Somebody has to make the decisions, but we’re democratic. If somebody says, ‘I hate that thing,’ I say, ‘Well what do you want to play?’”
The Soul Survivors have all been members of other groups. They met when they played with the Alexandria Stage Band and later with the Dick Thomas Band, well known around central Minnesota, which took over from the Alexandria Stage Band. They played with other bands as well, including the Rock City Jazz out of St. Cloud.
Mark started his musical career as a Melrose High School senior, playing with legendary area musicians Norb Athmann, George Servatius, Dick Trisko, Bud Matchinsky, Tony Moening and Louis Kunkel. At St. Cloud State in the 1950s, Mark joined the musicians union and played with “whatever band needed people.” One of his most enjoyable gigs was with the Melrose Clown Band. Complete with costumes and makeup, they marched in parades and on July 4th famously rode around Big Birch Lake in two pontoons lashed together. People came down to their docks, ready to hand out refreshments or join the fun.
“Sometimes we’d pick up a musician or two. They’d get out their horns and yell, ‘Pick me up!’”
Mark also formed his own band, playing for college dances, high school proms, and the like around the area. Law school took precedence over music for four years until 1964, when he joined brother Bill’s law practice in Melrose.
“Then I bought new horns and got into it again.” He retired from his law practice in 2004.
The Soul Survivors used to hold informal jam sessions at D.B.’s Saloon in Meire Grove every Wednesday night.
“We still get together every Wednesday night in my house. I have amps and a PA system, and that’s where we do our recordings,” Mark says. A potluck dinner replaces the bar food. One of their recent performances was at the ALS walk in St. Cloud, where some 700 people raised $70,000 for the cause. Last April, they played for the St. Cloud Musicians Union’s annual party.
At the Melrose social, the Soul Survivors played ballads like Help Me Make it through the Night, For the Good Times, and Don’t Blame Me. Some Elvis and some Beatles’ numbers, the ones that were once considered shocking, have become this group’s nostalgia. Comments were heard such as, “They play a lot of songs from our courting days,” and “That really takes me back.” A few couples got up and danced. Mark points out that the name Soul Survivors doesn’t just refer to the band members.
“It means we’re trying to bring the soul of the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s as well as the soul of the musicians.” He adds, “We’re there to have fun, that’s our objective, and hopefully somebody else will enjoy it too.”
The Soul Survivors’ philosophy is summed up in this song that Mark wrote:
Let our music fill your day You can hear us on your way enjoy your life and you’ll be whole Be a survivor with your soul Singing songs about fun and good things just begun All the pleasures that we’ve had There’s no reason to be sad Refrain: Soul Survivors hit your stride All your music play with pride Listen close and let them stay Hear the melody for today Making music from all ages Soul Survivors turn the pages With happiness as your goal Be a survivor with your soul.
Mark Meyer, of Melrose, was a member of the Melrose Clown Band, a group that entertained audiences with their appearance and their sound. Contributed photo