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Swingin’ Swede still swingin’

    He’s played in rollerrinks and ballrooms, nightclubs, and live on radio and TV. He performed at the Moorhead Armory, The Flame in Minneapolis and owned and operated The Hillside Supper Club in Alexandria. Yumpin’ Yimminy! This guy’s been around the block a few times!

Known by his nickname, The Swingin’ Swede, Dale Edward Jenson was born in 1931, but, “they always called me Jimmy. I never knew why, but the name stuck,” explained Jimmy Jenson, who didn’t officially change his name until he turned 62. A self-taught musician and master of the accordion, Jenson is a well-known celebrity throughout the area. He’s also a humble and grateful man.

Jimmy’s natural gift of music started early. “I was only about 7 years old when I became fascinated with the accordion while listening to the hired man and watching his hands. He didn’t teach me. I couldn’t have played his accordion if I’d tried. It was too big!”  explained Jenson. Inspired, Jenson began saving his pennies and purchased his first piano-style accordion. He then taught himself how to play.

“My mother played the piano, and my father played the violin, but there was something about the accordion that I just couldn’t resist,” Jenson explained. His first “gig” was playing for the Detroit Lakes Library Club for a meeting organized by his aunt Florence (the wife of his uncle Henry who was mayor), wearing a borrowed cowboy suit. He was paid with chocolates in a heart-shaped box. Not quite The Swingin’ Swede yet, music was a thrill, but “it also became a job for me, something that I had to do,” he explained.

The Swingin’ Swede began his life on a 120-acre farm in Becker County. His mother and father came from a long line of Scandinavian heritage (along with English, Scotch, Irish and French). As a young boy, Jimmy grew up tending to farm chores. He was only 9 when he began milking the cows by hand. As a boy, he loved to shoot gophers with the .22 rifle his dad had gotten him (when he was 8 years old) and fish with equipment he made on his own, “a tree branch, fishing line, a hook, and a piece of wood as a floater.” They didn’t have running water, and when nature called, the outhouse was the place to go. Their house had no electricity. They had an icebox instead of a refrigerator, and kerosene lamps were used for light. Jimmy admitted that the family was “blessed with a telephone, but the real treasure was the console-sized radio that sat in the living room. The two-and-a-half foot tall unit was powered by a large square battery and it was a sober day if we were without a backup when the battery, ran out.”

The family moved three times during the ‘40s; the first from the farm in Detroit Lakes to the city of Moorhead. The old radio kept the family abreast of World War II commentaries, while Jimmy continued school. During the summer he picked potatoes for farmers outside the city and “set pins” at Barry’s Bowling Alley in the city. He continued to play his accordion, that is until he sold it to a kid who came over to his house every day after school. “I showed him how to squeeze it and expand it, and he was hooked. Every single day he came over to practice, until it wore on my patience, and I offered to sell it to him to get rid of him. He bought it and soon moved with his family to Minneapolis. I heard he won a contest.”  And the Jenson family moved out of the city and back to farm life, first in Park Rapids and then on to Glyndon.

When he realized how much he missed his accordion, Jimmy found a way to borrow $100 for his second instrument and joined his first band, “Duane Miller and the Musicales,” when he was 17. The band was together for a year and a half while, “I learned that the show must go on, that ‘who you know’ is critical and those you find yourself in harmony with onstage will be close friends the rest of your life.” Jimmy also continued to help out on the farm and “since I was usually short on cash, I got jobs for pocket money.”

Bernie Ostrom and the Minnesota Woodchoppers came next. This band had radio presence, playing five days a week, at noon, broadcast from the Bison Hotel in Fargo by KVOX, a small AM station. The band played in the lobby, and guests would watch. Jimmy had received a farm deferment when the draft was reinstated in 1948 and also married his first wife, Donna, in early 1952.  “Between the farm and the band I stayed busier than I wanted to be. I would get up in the morning, do my chores, drive into Fargo to play for a half hour, have lunch, drive home to finish taking care of the fields, and then go play in the band again for the evening if we had booked a job,” explained Jenson.

In 1955, when Bernie didn’t care to book the band on the road as often as they had in the past, the task fell upon Jimmy. At the same time Jimmy Jenson and his Band was formed. This five-piece ensemble (booked every night at the Eagles Club in Fargo) had one band member, Dick Berdahl, who was also director for WDAY television. Berdahl soon asked Jimmy if he could play the organ because the station needed an organist for an afternoon talk show on WDAY. Although Jimmy had never touched an organ, he assured Berdahl that he was “proficient” and set up an audition. Jimmy then marched himself down to Wylie’s Piano Company in Fargo and practiced for two weeks. He got the job.

During the latter part of 1956 through the first half of 1957 Jimmy appeared Monday through Friday afternoon on an hour-long show called Party Line, the first live daily talk show in the area. TV was just beginning, and WDAY, the largest AM radio station was branching out into TV. Jimmy Jenson continued to branch out on his own journey. As his star was rising his marriage was falling apart. Divorced, he continued to support his children until they became adults, but sadly, did not have much contact with them until later.

Soon after the Woodchoppers disbanded, Jimmy found himself on a new adventure and in a new band, the Lynn Neely Quartet. The second half of 1957 and most of 1958 was on the road, but before the road trips began, Jimmy met the love of his life, Helen Tiseth. Married, “somewhat spontaneously” at a little church in Iowa, Jimmy was finally with his best friend. Soon after their first daughter, Kim, was born, the couple learned that the “Jenson trio would soon expand to a quartet.” They decided that it was time to get off the road and agreed that California was the place to raise a family.

They never made it to California, instead, there was a curve in the journey. “My brother Jerry was bartending at The Flame in Minneapolis and other friends were there. I soon became a part of Ardis Wells band,” explained Jimmy.  Jimmy was also hired to play at Brady’s Bar, and he and Ardis formed a duo. They bounced between the two clubs and did some out-of-town jobs. Jenson had registered with the local union for musicians but would have to wait a three month period before he could accept any steady music contracts. Once registered, The Flame and Brady’s both became steady jobs and Jimmy took “whatever other opportunities came my way.”

It was around this time that Jimmy borrowed a collection of Yogi Yorgesson records and began learning Scandinavian parody songs. He didn’t do a lot of the songs on-stage unless a request was made, but “I was starting to build a reputation,” smiled Jimmy. It was also a time to build upon another dream, to operate an establishment he could call his own. He was “told about a supper club in Alexandria that was for sale.” By the spring of 1967 Jimmy was the new owner of The Hillside Club and the family left Minneapolis.

Today the location is known as The Phoenix but The Hillside supper club served a full 1960s menu including steaks, chops, broasted chicken (Tuesday’s all-you-can-eat for $1.75), lobster and frog legs. And the club had an experienced entertainer, Jimmy Jenson.

At the same time the songs Jenson had recorded of Scandinavian parody, including “Scandinavian Hot Shot” and “Out Behind the Barn” were frequently on the local radio station. The producers from Channel 7 KCMT-TV recognized Jimmy’s name and contacted him about doing a Sunday TV show in exchange for free advertising for the club. Archie Viering was signed on as MC. The show Country Jubilee was the only program people in Alexandria could tune into on their TVs every Sunday from 12:30-1 p.m., “so we had a captive audience,” laughed Jimmy. In addition, for two years, Jimmy did a live radio broadcast from The Hillside on Saturday nights, from 9-9:30 p.m. for KXRA radio.

After five years of running the supper club Jenson hit “something of a burnout. I continued to do Country Jubilee in exchange for advertising my albums and upcoming jobs. Archie and I played a few jobs together in Fargo and Montevideo. We were both accordion players so we had quite a lively show.” After selling the club, Jimmy had more time to spend with his kids. A few years after selling the club Jenson met a man who offered to be his manager.

Before meeting the new manager, Curt Johnson, Jenson had cut four albums. One of the records was called Jimmy Jenson, The Swingin’ Swede.  This new manager began billing Jenson with the name. Jenson recorded seven albums and was on an “exhausting touring schedule and lifestyle that almost killed me. I was drinking eight to 10 drinks a night, and I felt horrible all the time. I checked myself into the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center for a month. I had my first heart attack in 1976 when I was just 45 years old and required bypass surgery. I quit smoking immediately. It took another six years before I gave up alcohol.” Today The Swingin’ Swede has been sober for 30+ years.

In the mid-’70s Jimmy began playing jobs on weekends together with his son Jay, who was on the drums. It was around this time that Jimmy re-established a relationship with his children from his first marriage. When Jay joined the Marines in the late ‘70s Jimmy found himself in a music burn-out again. He took some time off. He managed a car wash in Alexandria until he turned 62, playing occasional gigs with Dick Kennedy, within close proximity to home. After Dick contracted cancer Jimmy played with Sylvester “Schmidty” Schmidt for a decade. While loading up equipment in 1997 a nagging pain brought on an ambulance ride and heart bypass number two.

The Swingin’ Swede was inducted into the Minnesota Rock Country Hall of Fame in 2005; however, this humble man does not consider himself a local celebrity. “I’m just a neighbor.” Sadly, his best friend and wife, Helen, passed away in 1999. Two months later, daughter Suzanne had a life-changing bicycle accident, hitting her head. “To helplessly watch Sue struggle and not have Helen there was difficult beyond words. Miraculously, she pulled through and even with extreme changes, I’m proud of the way she’s adapted to a new life,” said Jenson.

Bypass number three was in 2006, and today Jenson ponders over his journey so far, “I’ve been fortunate to have been able to make a living with music. Nothing worth having comes without hard work.”  As he enjoys time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Jimmy reflects, “It took me a long time to realize how important it is to take care of my body. I’m grateful that my children and grandchildren seem to have picked up that lesson much faster (Jimmy and Helen have five children, Kim, Suzanne, Jay, Cheryl and Mark). “I stay active walking, exercising, working in my garden.” Although his shoulders are sensitive to injury, he still plays, mostly gospel, with a large and faithful following. Two of his most popular recorded songs continue to be I Just Go Nuts at Christmas, and Walkin’ in My Winter Underwear.

The Swingin’ Swede is scheduled this spring to do a gig at the Galaxy in Barnesville. “I told them I could do three hours, not four. If it goes okay in May, I’ll go back in June.”

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