A lifetime of music: Roger Rettig's love of music has led him from England to Medora Musical stage
MEDORA — Over the past 10 seasons of the Medora Musical, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler said has come to know Roger Rettig well.
"We have a weekend routine when we all get together around a campfire in the backyard," Hatzenbuhler said. "Roger and Bill (Sorenson) start telling stories — it’s like Laurel and Hardy. I love his British humor."
England is where Rettig’s music career began 55 years ago — and he’s still going strong.
Rettig is the pedal steel guitar player with The Coal Diggers Band, which plays for the Burning Hills Singers and takes center stage nightly at the Medora Musical.
Rettig called Burning Hills Amphitheatre "an absolutely unique venue," and referenced the recent spell of cold weather when describing how much he appreciates playing there.
"Can you imagine people sitting out in 40-plus degrees and giving us a rousing ovation all the time?" he asked
Rettig came up in the music business surrounded by some of England’s all-time great musicians.
Mentioning The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as his contemporaries, he has enough stories to hold any listener’s interest.
He grew up in London and started playing guitar while in grammar school.
"I spent every hour playing guitar — I loved it," he said.
Rettig credits British singer, songwriter and musician Lonnie Donegan for inspiring him to pursue music as a profession while he was still in high school.
"Back then, Lonnie had a huge influence on me," he said. "I love that man for what he had given me when I was a boy."
Donegan entertained with folk and blues songs, which were described as "skiffle-style" music. While attending a Donegan performance, Rettig recalled, "I was looking at the guitarist with the band, and decided, I can’t be Lonnie — but I can be that guy."
Rettig turned professional in 1959. One of the early highlights was playing with Eden Kane.
"At that point, Eden Kane was a pretty big star — he was very well groomed and very good looking," Rettig said. "It was a great job. I was making four times the money my dad was getting and, of course, I thought it would last forever."
At one point, the band was double-booked with The Beatles. It was during the week when The Beatles’ debut album "Please Please Me" topped the charts. The venue’s manager decided Rettig’s band was to remain on stage.
"Funny part is I remember John muttering a string of expletives, but Paul said, ‘Calm down, John. Don’t forget we get paid anyway,’" he said.
Rettig recalled the time when the Eden Kane band was invited to a poll winner’s pop concert. Kane had topped a poll for having the best single of the year, "Boys Cry."
"We were on immediately after The Rolling Stones and immediately before The Beatles," he said.
Finding the steel guitar
Rettig went on to become friends with The Beatles, knowing them on a first-name basis, as the Kane band played in similar venues. At one point, Rettig played steel guitar for George Harrison during a BBC-TV appearance in 1975, and said he played with him a handful of times after that.
Rettig stayed with Kane until 1966. Afterwards, the work was steady, and he played as an individual for studios when artists needed a band. He also played for West End Theatre musicals — London’s comparison to New York’s Broadway.
Rettig, however, said his story wouldn’t be complete without mention of Duane Eddy, a well-known guitarist during America’s rock ‘n’ roll history. Rettig played for him on a German TV show and later recorded an album with him.
"Duane Eddy was one of the great American sounds I loved so much," Rettig said.
Rettig recalled a turning point in his career, in 1973, when he heard the melodic sounds of a pedal steel guitar played by Buddy Emmons, whose biography describes him as the world’s foremost steel guitarist. He played for greats such as Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and Roger Miller.
"Hearing the beautiful melodies and chords, I decided I’ve got to get one," he said . "I found a steel guitar in Britain and started playing it."
Coming to America
Rettig immigrated to the United States in 1997. He had always wanted to play in America and loved the songs of the artists at the time.
"I resented The Beatles and Rolling Stones," he said. "They spelled the end of the Great American acts like The Everly Brothers."
Another turning point was when Rettig played guitar on a Tribute-to-Elvis European tour with several other American artists. He was hired as a guitar player, but took along his pedal steel guitar for Elvis songs such as "Can’t Help Falling in Love." It was through those contacts that he learned of the need for a player for a Patsy Cline show.
"The steel guitar has gone in and out of fashion in country music ever since the 1950s," he said. "Right now, it’s a big feature. The parts of the steel is what gives country it’s signature sound."
While touring with the Patsy Cline show in North Carolina during 1999, he met his future wife, Susie, who has the show’s costume designer. They were married in 2004, and recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.
After the Cline show ended, Rettig continued to find work as a pedal steel guitar player.
"Usually it was theater work, mostly steel," he said. "There aren’t many of us in the United States, so in 2001, I got a call from the producer of the Medora Musical, Chuck Wollan."
Rettig accepted the offer to work in Medora during the summer of 2002, but turned down the opportunity to play in 2003 because of the distance from home. With little work in Naples, Fla., where he and Susie live, he returned to Medora in 2006 and has been performing there ever since. While Rettig is in North Dakota, his wife remains in Florida, where she works in a fabric store.
Playing with the band
Talent is necessary to be a part of the band, Rettig said, but attitude is just as important.
"It almost goes without saying that 50 percent of this job is attitude and getting along with everyone," he said. "You’re rubbing shoulders with people every single night."
Keyboard player Chad Willow has a friendly dispute with Rettig as who has been with the band the longest.
"Roger and I have played 10 years, but here’s the rub: last year, I came and played 10 shows, so this is my 11th edition," he said jokingly. "Roger is a great guy, great to be in the band. He’s one of the favorites in town. He’s almost like family because we spent 10 years together."
Guitarist Nick Kellie described Rettig as having a great sense of humor.
"It’s a little twisted at times — that’s the word — dry, very dry. But he’s great company, great to be around, an excellent musician and it’s a privilege to share the stage with him."
If Rettig is ever weary, the audience has no way of knowing. While on stage, he’s sporting a smile, chatting with a singer or two, or taking the good-humored jabs from his buddy and show co-host, Wild Bill Sorenson.
When not performing at the Musical, Rettig can be seen entertaining at Chuckwagon in downtown Medora or at the pitchfork fondue on Tjaden Terrace. He’s also volunteers Mondays at the Harold Schafer Heritage Center.
"He’s become part of the Medora family," Hatzenbuhler said. "The show is still lots of fun for him. When you’re playing a show every single night, you could go on autopilot, but his music and arrangements are so interesting, and so good."
Beyond the stage
As the Medora Musical winds down for the season, Rettig is looking forward to a game of golf — his favorite hobby.
"I’m on the golf course every day," he said.
Rettig’s second passion is preservation of the trolleybuses in London. He is one of 25 members of the London Trolleybus Preservation Society, which owns owns and operates vintage trolleybuses in East Anglia and Suffolk.
"Any spare monies are poured into the preservation and operation of the old London transport trolleybuses," he said. "I’ve loved these six-wheeled vehicles since the very early 1950s and far beyond 1962, when LT abandoned their huge trolleybus network."
Rettig said the trolleybuses ran on rubber tires, but operated on electricity provided by booms on the roof.
"Whenever we can acquire another, we do, so we have four London trolleybuses now," he said.
Rettig is never certain if he will return to Medora the next season — that’s for the show’s producer to decide.
"At times, it’s hard to be away from my wife," he said. "But given this band, I love it, the area is beautiful and I’ve got a lot of good friends up here.
"You can’t compare anything else to the Musical."
Sailer is the lifestyles editor of The Dickinson Press. Call her at 701-456-1209.