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The band marches on: Old Tyme Kings keeps toes tapping for decades

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Members of the Old Tyme Kings band (from left) Elmer Bjorlie, Lester Larson, Alton Hegvik and Donald Willey perform June 13 with band vocalist Bud Loe (not pictured) during a concert at Nelson County Health System Nursing Home in McVille. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 7
Lester Larson (left) plays his tenor saxophone along with the rest of the Old Tyme Kings band June 13 in McVille, N.D. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 7
Old Tyme Kings pianist Elmer Bjorlie (center) keeps the tempo moving as he and his bandmates perform at Nelson County Health System Nursing Home in McVille, N.D. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 7
Donald Willey, Jamestown, plays the accordion during a recent concert with fellow Old Tyme Kings Alton Hegvik (center) and Lester Larson (left) in McVille, N.D. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)5 / 7
Old Tyme Kings saxophonist Alton Hegvik, 95, from Glenfield, N.D., bops along during a recent concert in McVille, N.D. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)6 / 7
Bud Loe (right) sings as fellow Old Tyme Kings band member Elmer Bjorlie (left) accompanies him on piano during a concert at Nelson County Health System Nursing Home in McVille, N.D. (Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald)7 / 7

McVILLE, N.D. — Hauling heavy instruments. Traveling from town to town. Taking hundreds of requests from fans. It's not always glamorous living the life of a popular band.

Much younger musicians might say playing two to four gigs a week is too rigorous a schedule, but the 76- to 95-year-old members of the Old Tyme Kings just call it fun.

"We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't love it," said Lester Larson, 83, McHenry.

"It's something to look forward to. You can't golf every day," said Bud Loe, 83, McVille. "And it's good to see the people enjoy it. That's a big plus."

Larson, on tenor saxophone, and singer Loe were joined by Elmer Bjorlie, 92, McVille, Alton Hegvik, 95, Glenfield, and Donald Willey, 91, Jamestown, for a recent afternoon concert in the Nelson County Health System Nursing Home in McVille. The fellow band members play piano, tenor saxophone and clarinet, and accordion, respectively.

Melvin "Butch" Stokka, Binford, is another regular in the band, but he couldn't play this day. At 76, he still works at another job during the summer, but when he's otherwise with the band, he usually plays the tuba.

Long history

Larson said his father, Lawrence, and three others formed the original Old Tyme Kings when he was just a boy, and he had the honor of actually naming the band.

The family was in the bar business, he explained, and the club needed live music to keep the crowds dancing.

"My dad started playing when he was 7," Larson said. "I still have the violin my grandmother bought him for $24. She paid $1 a month for two years until it was paid off."

The younger Larson eventually played a bit with the first Old Tyme Kings, and he suggested the current group pick up the name again when they began playing together in 2001.

Earlier, most all of the musicians performed steady — or off and on — for decades with various other bands, including big names such as Frankie Yankovic, The Chmielewski Funtime Band, Dick King Classic Swing Band and Cliff Foreng's Orchestra, as well as Al Roland, Rosebud, Nightrider, Frank Schardin, The Playboys and the Burleson Band.

And apparently, the 70-plus years of practice kept their humor just as well-tuned as their instruments.

"Once in a while, we'll make a mistake," Willey said with a wry smile.

"We usually all play the same song," Bjorlie added.

And then from Hegvik: "And usually in the same key, too. That helps."

Wearing bright red shirts and lined up behind fancy Lawrence Welk-style music stands, the band was in fine form as they roused a full house to clap, hum and sing along during a mix of mellow waltzes, classic two-steps and lively polkas.

Bill and Nicole Reynolds, Rapid City, S.D., had come that day to visit their 96-year-old grandmother and nursing home resident Alma Johnson.

"She made us stay to listen to the band because she loves it so much," Bill said. "If you look at her toes, they haven't stopped tapping once."

"When I was young, we went to all the dances, and it was good music like this," added Johnson's daughter, Mary Hjelden. "They're very good, and she looks forward to it."

The band has a repertoire of several hundred songs, and a single set usually includes about 27 songs.

"You Are My Sunshine" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" are among the most-requested songs, along with popular numbers such as "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," "It Had to Be You" and "You're Nobody Until Somebody Loves You."

Of course, there's always time for a get-out-of-my-way polka such as "Roll Out The Barrel" or "In Heaven There Is No Beer."

Changing times

The band members acknowledge the old-time music may have lost a little of its luster for today's younger crowds, but most people 50 and older can recall those glory days — that magical time when people still had "sweethearts" and everyone thought dancing cheek to cheek was a good way to spend a Saturday night.

Willey, whose accordion flair landed him a spot in the Dakota Music Hall of Fame, says the music's popularity probably began to wane when people stopped dancing.

"Nowadays, the younger generation, they just don't dance," he said. "They go to the pool halls, shoot pool and drink beer, I guess."

Even so, the Old Tyme Kings have plenty of fans. The band sometimes is booked solid for months in advance.

"Our clientele is usually about as old as we are. It's the typical retirement home," Bjorlie said with a laugh.

"The thing about playing in nursing homes is they don't walk out on you very often," Hegvik said.

That's true, said Carolyn Hubert of the activities staff. The band ranks right up there with bingo.

"The residents absolutely love the music," she said. "They'll sing, dance and interact. They really look forward to it."

And the outings are just as much fun for members of the band whether they're playing for a reunion, festival or nursing home.

"We'll keep on playing as long as we can and as long as somebody wants to listen," Larson said.

People who want to book a date with the band can call Larson at (701) 785-2124.