El Rey and The NightBeats continue to play their tune

El Rey and the Nightbeats: Back row – Ray VonGunten (sax, vocals), Jim Cappozzo (trumpet, vocals); middle – Jack "BJ" Gebhardt (keys, vocals), Gene Schiller (bass, vocals), Terry Thuemling (rhythm guitar, vocals), Rich Gonia (lead guitar, vocals); front – Ray "El Rey" Ojeda (sax, vocals), Jeff "Duffy" Wage (drums, vocals).
Published on: 6/21/2011

No matter how successful, musical groups don't usually have much staying power.

Sometimes the lead singer wants to branch off on his own to make a bigger name for himself.

Other times, the band members might simply become disinterested or overwhelmed by the spotlight.

And sometimes they just might lose some passion for the business.

Luckily for El Rey and The NightBeats, a Waukesha-based band, none of this has happened.

As a result, it's no wonder the band is in its 54th year together.

But what is the key to their longevity?

"The trick is that no one person thought they were a big star," said longtime band member Terry Thuemling, who joined the band in 1962. "We were all good musicians, but we had one common goal. And that was to be a good local band and not to have too big of an opinion of ourselves; Not be great stars, but a really good local band."

Lead band member and the founder of the group, Ray "El Rey" Ojeda added, "Mostly we enjoy it, and I enjoy watching people have a good time."

While band members have changed over the years, the one constant has been Ojeda, who formed the band in 1957.

Five decades and going strong

For Ojeda, he had no idea it would last this long.

"Never," said Ojeda, who was born in Green Bay but has lived in Waukesha most of his life. "We thought it would last through the '60s and that was going to be about it. We just kept going."

Ojeda began playing the saxophone and clarinet at age 12 and fell in love with it.

From then on, it has been one show after another for Ojeda.

His first professional job was with the Latin group, Cinto Burretto Groupo, performing at weddings and festivals in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas.

When he formed the band more than five decades ago, they set a precedent being one of the first rock and roll bands to play in nightclubs in the Milwaukee area.

They are also the oldest rock and roll band still playing continuously.

The latest NightBeats

But there have been some changes to the band over the years.

First, the band has increased from a six- and five-person band, to eight current members. Ojeda has also seen 42 NightBeats over the years.

"We've been to each [band members'] kid's weddings and everything else over the years," Ojeda said. "Even the guys who left, we still stayed in touch."

In addition to Ojeda and Thuemling, the current group, which has been together since 2009, consists of Jeff "Duffy" Wage (drums), Jack "B.J." Gebhardt (guitar), Gene Schiller (bass guitar), Rich Gonia (lead guitar), Ray VonGunten (saxophone) and Jim Cappozzo (trumpet).

All have different stories as to how they got involved with the group.

Take for example Gonia, who joined the group in 2008. His parents, both musicians, wanted him to continue the family tradition. Gonia, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with music and quit his guitar lessons.

Things changed, though, when he heard famous rock vocalist Gene Vincent and famous R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia on TV. He resumed playing his guitar and has been playing ever since.

Or then there is Gebhardt, who was given a guitar from some family friends when he was 11 years old. And he simply learned his first chords by looking at pictures of people playing guitars in magazines.

Then there is Schiller, who had an uncle, a gifted musician who taught his nephew everything he knew. Schiller excelled so much that he landed a professional job when he was 10 as an accordion player on the Milwaukee television show, "Joe Shot and the Hot Shots."

Wage got his start playing at teen dances, VonGunten played at weddings and festivals, Cappozzo fell in love with music when he took trumpet lessons as a fifth-grader at St. Joseph's School in Waukesha and Thuemling was an early bloomer starting at 5 years old.

Changing styles

In addition to the group, hair styles have definitely changed over the years.

"It's funny when you look back at those pictures and the long side burns," Ojeda joked.

Fashion has also taken its twists and turns.

Ojeda and Thuemling both said the band's fashion has changed with the times, as they went through phases where they dressed like the Beatles, wore bell bottoms with flower shirts and had a period where they wore suits and ties.

The group mostly plays at a handful of Waukesha County festivals during the summer, but in the past, the band traveled across the Midwest for short tours and played in bars on a nightly basis.

"We're all senior citizens," Ojeda said. "But we still have a good time. It's like we're 18 again and we dance around. Our pastime is music."

A great hobby

And like years past, the band will be busy once again.

They already played at The Center Court Sports Complex for the 30th annual Waukesha Old Car Club Sock Hop in April as well as the St. John Neumann Parish festival June 4.

The group is scheduled to play at the Pewaukee Beach Party Friday night. The next time they will be in Waukesha is July 29 for the Friday Night Live musical festival in downtown Waukesha.

After a few more shows, the band will celebrate its 54th anniversary Oct. 1 at the Waukesha Elks Club.

"We've played for so many generations," Thuemling said. "I think people in their late 40s, 50s and 60s really look forward to it. They boogie and dance until they drop. It has a good beat, and we play for the crowd. Many groups make the mistake that they play for themselves, but it doesn't do much for them."

All the band members have full time jobs, but because they have such a passion for performing, a handful of shows a summer are worth it.

"It's a great hobby," Thuemling said. "It's a hobby that you get to enjoy, and we get to use the gift God gave us. It's a nice creative thing to do. We're pretty lucky."

Keep on keepin' on

Even if it is just a hobby, they still put the time and effort into it by practicing once a week at a studio near Thuemling's house.

"We've never done it for the money or for a living," Ojeda said. "We've done it mostly for the camaraderie, and we have just as good of a time as the people we play for."

During these sessions and their times together, they've develop a tight bond.

"They're like brothers to me," Thuemling said. "There's a lot of stories and a lot of funny ones. You couldn't stay together all this time if you didn't build such strong relationships."

One of these is with Ojeda, who took Thuemling, a young 13-year-old at the time, under his wing.

"He was like a father figure to me," Thuemling, 63, said. "I was the young'n of the group. He kept me out of trouble."

But after many decades, how long will El Rey and The NightBeats continue their act?

"Every year we say this is going to be our last year, but we're still going," Ojeda said.

And as their slogan on its website indicates, that's what happens when you're still crazy after all these years.

IF YOU GO

El Rey & the NightBeats will be performing at the following local events:

June 24 - Pewaukee Peach Party, downtown Pewaukee Lakefront, 7-11 p.m.

July 10 - O'Keefe's House of Hamburg, 5937 S. Howell Ave., Milwaukee, 2-6 p.m.

July 16 - Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake, 7-11 p.m.

July 29 - Friday Night Live, 260 W. Broadway, downtown Waukesha, 6-8 p.m.

Aug. 14 - Waukesha Old Car Club, East end of Frame Park, Moreland & White Rock, Waukesha, noon-8 p.m.

Aug. 21 - Boomer's Sports Pub & Grill, N29 W24483 Watertown Road, Pewaukee, noon-4 p.m.

Sept. 10 - Bark River Yacht Club, 136 N. Main St., 5-9 p.m.

Oct. 1 - El Rey and the NightBeats 54th Anniversary Party, Waukesha Elks Club, 2301 Springdale Road, Waukesha, 8-midnight