Peter Rabbit

The prospect of an act from Iowa having a major nationwide hit is slim, particularly so over the last four or five decades. Musicians from the region are proud of their state's music scene and, indeed, hundreds of Iowan acts have made their mark over the years in that mostly wide open space south of Minnesota, north of Missouri, between Sioux City and Cedar Rapids with Des Moines in the middle. Dee Jay and the Runaways, a one-hit band from Spirit Lake at the state's northwest corner, formed in 1964 and could be considered the most successful rock music act to come out of Iowa during the '60s.

Dee Jay wasn't just one guy. The group's drummer, Denny Storey, was "Dee" and bass player John Senn was "Jay." Gary Lind served as lead singer. The trio leaned in a '50s rock direction and later added Bob Godfredsen. Several others came and went during the band's heyday (which lasted anywhere from three months to three years, depending on how you look at it). There were so many rock, teen and even surf bands in Iowa during the mid-'60s that Senn got together with a couple of local investors and opened IGL Studios (the acronym standing for Iowa Great Lakes) in nearby Milford, giving their group and others a chance to make state-of-the-art recordings without having to leave the state.

"Peter Rabbit" was that one hit that gave the band exposure, not just from border-to-border but coast-to-coast. The character, created by Beatrix Potter in the 1890s, made his first appearance in The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902 and then in several successive novels, sparking a series of dolls, toys and eventually records, including a children's release on Columbia with Gene Kelly narrating the story of the popular garden-raiding bunny. Jimmy Nelson's 1951 R&B hit "T-99 Blues" featured a backup band he called The Peter Rabbit Trio. When it came time to rock that long-eared hopper, Dee, Jay and the guys stepped in, name-dropping other cartoonish characters in the song's lyrics, some of whom hadn't previously made Peter's acquaintance; there was Little Boy Blue (from an 18th century nursery rhyme), Mr. Magoo (an Oscar-winning cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus starting in 1949), Goldilocks (that silly young girl who got mixed up with the Three Bears in an early 1800s fairy tale) and the Little Red Hen (from a popular late-19th or early-20th century childen's story).

Dee Jay and the Runaways

With lyrics of such a juvenile nature, you would figure Dee Jay and the Runaways were destined for a spot among the Simple Simon bubblegum bands of the late 1960s (predating the trend, even). The saving grace for the track was the punky, funky organ solo at the song's bridge, a 20-second boss blast of garage rock delirium clearly indicating the band's grittier roots (though later recordings walked a tightrope between raw rock and powdery pop). "Peter Rabbit" was released regionally on IGL's own label, then nationally on Smash; the single hit the charts in May 1966 and came close to the top 40 in June and July while an appearance on Dick Clark's Where the Action Is helped make the record a top ten hit in a few far-flung U.S. cities including Minneapolis (the major market nearest to Spirit Lake). The band released a follow-up on Smash, "She's a Big Girl Now," and at least one other single in 1968 on the local Sonic label. They called it quits in '68, but Denny, John, Gary and Bob have gotten together throughout the years to revisit those hitmaking weeks of mid-'66 and may be performing "Peter Rabbit" somewhere near you as I write this.

As for those other music acts from Iowa, there were a few who found nationwide success over the course of the last century. Jazz cornet and piano player Bix Beiderbecke (from Davenport, Iowa) performed with several bands and had a couple of hits in 1928. Trombonist and bandleader extraordinaire Glenn Miller (of Clarinda) had more than one hundred hit records between 1935 and his death during World War II nearly a decade later. Harriet Hilliard (Des Moines) was a singer with husband Ozzie Nelson's band, performing on several popular recordings between 1935 and 1939 (later, of course, she became the universally-loved mother of David and Ricky Nelson on the long-running radio and TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet). Andy Williams (Wall Lake) became a household name with an impressive string of top sellers from 1956 through the early '70s. The Velaires of Sioux City, with a remake of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over, Beethoven" in 1961, became the first Iowa rock group to hit the charts. Following Dee Jay and the Runaways, Mason City's Pete Klint Quintet enjoyed fleeting near-fame with "Walkin' Proud" in 1967 and truck drivin' country act C.W. McCall (of Audubon, Iowa) had a run of popularity during the '70s including the number one hit "Convoy" in 1976.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Peter Rabbit