Dennis O’Neal is pictured.
Dennis O’Neal is pictured.
“We moved to Madison when I was young, and I worked with my stepdad at the old Irwin Feed Mill downtown,” recounts Dennis O’Neal. “There was a guy named Charlie Warren who roamed the streets wearing the same brown suit and he always had a pair of drumsticks in his back pocket.

“Charlie would tap out a rhythm on the shop windows with his sticks, then he’d break into Sweet Georgia Brown and do a little soft shoe dance. He swore he played with a bunch of big name bands when he was younger, and he kept saying ‘They’re gonna come back and get me!’

“Now I was already drumming in some bands by then, so I wanted to show Charlie what I could do. He gave me the sticks and I tapped out my best rock beat. ‘Get away from that two and four!’ he cried. I was stuck on a very basic level, with no feeling or nuance. He taught me this amazing swing shuffle beat that I still use to this day!”

And so began a career as a rock and blues drummer, not to mention sound engineer and music producer, that puts Dennis O’Neal among the most rarefied of local musicians who made it big.

Before his decade long run with the Lonnie Mack Band was over, Dennis would tour the world, rub shoulders with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Keith Richards, Neil Young and Eric Clapton. And ultimately, play Carnegie Hall in New York City. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’m going to save the Lonnie Mack Years for Part 2 of this saga. Right now we’re going to focus on Dennis’ Madison musical experiences.

“I was going to the Jr. High downtown in the old High School building,” says Dennis, “and we had a band called The Intruders. We played all the early Brit Rock stuff that was so popular then. It was me, Patter McLaughlin, Bob Schultz, David Bear and Dave Stutler on lead vocals.

“Now you have to understand the garage band scene back then. There were so many teen bands like ours that you actually had to bid to get a sock hop gig! There were also a lot of venues catering to younger folks, a couple of teen centers, the K of C and a few more. Every week some famous band might be in town playing for the teens.

“Let’s see, my high school band was called Heavy Water, still with Patter on guitar, plus Terry Lockridge and Steve Lewis. We actually recorded a single on our own label, White Horse Records, and it used to get a lot of airplay on WORX. That was pretty cool for a high school kid, to hear your song on the radio.

“Not long out of high school in the late 70’s I got hooked up with Lonnie and that was pretty solid through the 80s. But starting in the 90’s Lonnie got more selective, he didn’t want to be out on the road all the time. So I had more time in Madison to get involved with other bands.

“I got with Joe Perkinson, who actually played with Lonnie Mack Band too for awhile, and we started a band called Whalebone. We wanted to play more challenging music, we were tired of the simple rock tunes. Tom Steveley and Big John Adkins joined us. That was a heck of a band, we would try anything, the harder the better.

“And there was another band from that time called 62 East that folks might remember. It was Bill Rosser on piano, he was amazing. Chuck Rogers and me. And Carol Poling, who used to teach out at Canaan I think, was our vocalist. She was the most versatile singer I ever worked with. She could make your jaw just drop sometimes.

“Of course, I have to mention the Blues Devils, I played with them for quite some time. Played with the Doctor’s Band. I even ran sound and played with Young Country. I guess I’ve done a little time with just about every long running band in the area.”

Next week in Part 2 of O’Neal’s story we’ll cover the Lonnie Mack years, as promised, but also reveal how Dennis got into sound engineering. It’s an amazing story! See you next week.

Charlie Rohlfing is a retired advertising man and partner in The Red Bicycle Hall music venue. Look for his distinctive fedora bobbing above the crowd anywhere live music is happening or reach him at crohlfing@madisoncourier.com.

The Online Streaming Calendar

Rusty Bladen and Jimmy Davis are still cranking out nightly music streaming shows whenever they can, but maybe not every single night. Last I heard Jimmy has headed back down to Nashville for some work, which is great. Rusty took a little break last week but he was back as of this Monday night. Just go to their Facebook pages and see what’s poppin’!

• Rusty Bladen Friends and Fans — 8:30 p.m. most nights except Sunday

• Jimmy Davis — 7 p.m. many nights