The first rock ‘n roll band at USD 1957-58
Wed, 07/05/2023 - 7:55am admin
By Lonis Wendt
History was made at the University of South Dakota over 65 years ago, when a small group of mostly “west river” cowboys formed the first Rock and Roll band at the state’s oldest campus. Members were Bill Knutson ’61, (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Lonis Wendt (lead guitar and vocals), both of Vivian, S.D. and Paul Chord of Edgemont, S.D. (bass and harmony vocals). These guys had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and serenading their friends with the songs of the day. They were joined by 17-year old Winston French of Vermillion, S.D. on drums.
The band, appropriately named “The Rock-it’s,” featured the talented Bill Knutson, who’s smooth baritone voice could imitate Elvis, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent, Fats Dominoe, Buddy Holly, Sinatra, Crosby, Satchmo Armstrong, and others. Wendt was the guitarist, Chord was a rhythm/bass player with a near perfect ear, French drummed in the school and pep band at Vermillion High School. Throughout this time other drummers, namely Greg Greenlee of Yankton, or Howie Koth of Omaha, sometimes sat in for Winston. Another talented guitarist, Terry Stefferud of Toronto, S.D. joined us in rehearsals. Our equipment consisted of two Gibson guitars, one Fender Tele, one four-input Premier amp for vocals and lead, one microphone, one Gibson bass amp plus the drummer’s monogrammed set.
The ”Rock-Its” repertoire included the hottest popular tunes being heard on “Fifties” radio stations including rockers like “At the Hop,” “Be Bop a Lula,” “Bye By Love,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” ”Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “I Walk the Line,” “Love Letters In the Sand,” “Rock Around the Clock” “Tuttie Fruitie,” “Young Love,” and similar tunes plus a rumbling guitar of “Rebel Rouser!” Who could forget when Elvis first presented his music on TV, with animated gyrations and gasps of disbelief from the more staid, old-fashioned viewers, including my folks! Knutson got very animated doing Elvis tunes. TV was in its infancy and a generational music revolution was taking place! Big Bands featuring pure vocalists and virtuoso musicians at every stand had dominated pop music from the 1920’s to the mid 50’s.
After weeks of practicing at the Julian Hall dorm and a rented apartment, the “Rock-Its” finally ventured out into the public, performing five or six tunes at an afternoon program at the Student Union, where, as I recall, students, who as part of the college experience, came to have refreshments, mingle, share readings, skits, card games, music etc., began dancing and jitterbugging to our music. USD had only about 1,800 students in those years. (I was in this building watching black and white TV, when the Russian Sputnik jolted the world into space exploration!) After this impromptu beginning and, as luck would have it, Knutson and Wendt, as members of the Lambda Chi Fraternity, were requested to play their music at several sorority and fraternity exchanges. Ultimately, to add credence to our stature, Dr. John Van Whye invited us to be part of a USD Ambassadors Tour group to entice prospective students to enroll at USD. The Ambassadors featured jazz musicians, vocalists, Basketball, Football and Track athletes, Fraternal organizations, and we: the “ROCK-IT’S!” We visited several cities and towns along what is the I-29 corridor.
While gaining a smidgen of experience from the tour adventure and a few parties, luck found us in the form of an offer to play at Joe Girard’s popular “Pheasant Acres” nightclub, located at the highway junction five miles east of Vermillion. He had never had live music, subsequently, we shared the small stage with a “50’s” jukebox! Joe gave us the green light to charge $1.00 admission and…we could keep all receipts! We were ecstatic, and assumed we would be rolling in the dough! We each made about $8-9 dollars after paying for our supper and spirits! We played there several Friday nights, and some Saturdays until school was out in the spring of 1958. We also played a few proms and bars in small towns in the area, as well as an occasional gig in Vermillion, Yankton, Sioux City and Sioux Falls.
Our dream of becoming big-time rockstars faded during the summer of 1958. Our main attraction, Bill Knutson, who had grown up 15 miles south of Vivian on the Knutson ranch just yards from the villainous White River, was drafted into the US Army and served nearly two years on the Korean Demarcation Line.
Knutson had been his Vivian High School class cutup, and usually had the lead in class plays. Eventually, his great voice led him to become the TV-news anchor known as the “Voice of the Black Hills” for KOTA-TV of Rapid City. A job he held for 30-plus years, before losing a battle with cancer in 1994. Bill had the honor of introducing Elvis Presley at a Rapid City concert just two weeks before Elvis’s untimely death in 1977. Bill, who loved riding the vast pastures at the ranch, was the father of Julie and Michael.
Paul Chord was a fun-loving student brimming with musical talent and a zest for life. In 1957-58, there were two Cadillac convertibles on the USD campus, one owned by Casey Tibbs, a purple Cad driven by Cleo Harrington, a Miss South Dakota and at the time…Casey’s girlfriend, the other, a white Caddie driven by our own Paul Chord, whose parents were part owners of a highly productive Uranium mine north of Edgemont, S.D. Paul left USD and finished his collegiate education at Sioux Falls College.
Likewise for Winston French who, as a high school junior, was drumming for the Vermillion High School band and pep band when he joined our group. Winston grew up on the USD campus, as his dad and mother were both employed by the U. Because of his age, I was required to sign guardianship papers, which allowed him to play in some venues. After college he continued to play music with other groups for several years. We crossed paths at a couple Dakota Day events in the 60’s and 70’s. Winston had graduated from USD, married, and became a Real Estate agent in the Webster, S.D. area.
Vivian native, Lonis Wendt, grew up in Iowa, returning to Vivian, S.D. in 1947. After growing up on the ranch four miles southwest of Vivian, S.D., he divided his early years between the US Army, then USD, then marriage in 1959, with a beautiful wife and four kids, and has spent the rest of his life at Vivian. Wendt, who loved baseball, basketball, and all categories of history, eventually receiving the SD Governor’s Award for History in 2011, was fortunate to play music with Hall of Famers, Arlo Huffman, Renelle Huffman Uthe, Dan Hall, Gordy Zens, Buddy and Patty Ree, along with Dave Bergren, Paul Cooney, Red Hullinger, Gene Lumby, Lonnie Schumaker, Dean Wallace, Bill Wendt, Tom Withers, and many others. Playing lead guitar and bass for almost 40 years, Wendt retired when his hearing loss made playing in a band a near impossibility.
In closing, my thought would be that although the “Rock-Its,” USD’s first “Rock N Roll” band, only existed for about 18 months, we undoubtedly opened the eyes of fun-loving students to a new and unique form of entertainment, and those few months will always be among our cherished memories of college days. We never imagined that we were making history and would possibly become an authentic part of USD’s history and perhaps we won’t! Regretfully, none of the instruments we played survived, so none will be placed among the artifacts of the famous National Music Museum on USD’s campus!
Editors note: This story was written at the request of Don Fritz, founder of the S.D. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a part of R n R history. A condensed version is on the “S.D. Rock and Roll Revisited” Facebook pages.