A few weeks ago, after several weeks of back-and-forth e-mails setting up the deal, I pointed my giant, foreign-made gas-sucking SUV north and headed up to Appleton to “test-drive” a few of my friend Greg Laabs’ Conn 20-J tubas, hoping that one would be a good fit for me, and that it would make the return trip to Madison safely nestled in the rear cargo area of the SUV.
Readers of this blog may not be aware that back in the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s, I spent many nights playing tuba in the back row of some of the finest territory bands in the upper Midwest, and most of those jobs involved playing polkas. I did dozens of LP albums and hundreds of TV shows with polka bands. And, for this kind of work, the most prized tuba is the Conn 20-J model, hand-made in Elkhart, Indiana, until the early 80’s. Since they’re not made any more, those that still exist are prized. I bought my first 20-J at Heid Music in Appleton in 1966 and paid 600 bucks. I sold it just prior to moving to California in the 80’s for a thousand bucks. Nowadays, a fully-restored Conn 20-J can fetch thousands of dollars.
I’ve known Greg Laabs for years. He graduated from Hortonville High five years after I did, and we’re both products of the finest tuba teacher and mentor in the state, Ernie Broeniman. Ernie played with many of the big-name polka bands around the state, and 25 years ago formed his own group, Dorfkapelle, modeled after the great big-bands of Europe. Greg also followed in Ernie’s footsteps as a polka tuba player, and Greg has been at it for 35 years, and is so good at it that he’s a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame. Along the way, he’s collected and restored quite a few Conn 20-J’s, and has also collected some great artifacts of the polka business in the spacious outbuilding behind his house.
When I arrived and entered Greg’s “tuba store”, he had three 20-J’s lined up and waiting for me to play. He has nearly a dozen 20-J’s in his collection, from the three you see here to a couple of meticulously restored 20-J’s that are WAY out of my price range, to a couple “bar horns”, as Greg calls them; horns that, well, have seen better days, still play well, but aren’t very much to look at.
As we visited and caught up with each other, Greg showed me a few of the many albums (they’re all CD’s now) he played on, and told me a few stories about how he’d come by the many horns he has in his collection. Some he bought from eBay and Craig’s List; many are simple private-party transactions, similar to what I did in ’84: just put out the word my horn was for sale, and sold it to the highest bidder.
Over there in the corner of his shop was a trombone hanging from the ceiling. I asked about it. He said “oh, that was Jay Wells’ trombone.” Jay Wells had a background similar to mine; he was a broadcaster by day and a musician by night, with the famous Red Ravens orchestra. Lawrence Duchow formed the band in 1933 and named it “Lawrence Duchow and his Red Raven Inn Orchestra”, as their regular gig was playing at the Red Raven Inn in Hilbert. The band became a huge national hit, touring and recording, and in 1953 called it quits. Jay Wells bought the rights to the name Red Ravens and Duchow’s music library in 1960, and for years fronted the band, which he called “Jay Wells and the Original Red Ravens Orchestra.” Greg bought the library from Wells quite a few years ago, long after the band had become idle, and the library sits carefully packaged and stored in Greg’s building. Man, if those sheets of music could talk…..
Finally it came time to get down to business. Greg told me a bit about the pedigree of the three horns we’d narrowed it down to; his horns #2, #5, and #12. The number two horn, shown here, has seen more than a few miles and has picked up its fair share of bumper stickers from polka gatherings around the state, and a nice WTKM radio station sticker (one of the few stations in the state that still plays a lot of polka music), but the horn has a great sound and plays very easily. Greg told me he used it on the last studio recording job he had.
I played a few tunes on the other two horns, and decided that the number 12 horn was the one I’d buy. The horn was built in 1968, and Greg bought it from a man in Indianapolis, who’d bought it from a high school that was selling off its fleet of tubas and replacing them. Apparently the man who bought it from the high school didn’t ever actually play it very much. Greg told me that when the horn arrived, he took it out of the cases right away and dragged it off to Winneconne for a regular Wednesday-night old-time jam session. The next day he took the horn over to our friend Randy Dorschner, who runs an instrument repair shop in Appleton, to have the horn reconditioned. Greg said a couple days after he dropped the horn off, Randy called him and asked how the horn had played at the jam session in Winneconne. Not the best, said Greg, but…playable. Randy told him that as he was taking the horn apart to recondition it, he found about a dozen stick-pins jammed into the lead-pipe of the horn, and caught in a bend in the horn just ahead of the first-valve junction. No doubt some high school kid’s idea of a joke.
The finish on the horn has a bit of wear, and there are a few dents here and there, but it plays great. Greg insisted on calling his wife out to the outbuilding to photograph the occasion, and she was kind enough to take my camera and capture this shot of the two of us and the “number 12 horn”, which indeed made the trip home to Madison with me.
Quite the place, Greg’s tuba store. Filled with memorabilia and items of historical significance, all of which are in good hands.