December 7, 2017
A popular oldies band for three decades, Spike and the Bulldogs were a familiar attraction at local festivals around the area for decades, offering their spirited renditions of 1950s and 60s classics for an appreciative audience. Then around four years ago, Val Assay, better known as “Spike,” called a band meeting and made a major announcement. “He had been hinting around for awhile that he might retire,” says Bob Zmyslony, keyboardist and band member for nine years. “All but one of his kids lives in Utah, and he has grandchildren and great-grandchildren and wanted to spend time with them. He gathered us all together at the Venice one night and told us he was retiring. The rest of us got together and decided we wanted to continue. It was just too good a thing to stop. We had three lead singers in the band, and we didn’t want to try to replace Spike. You can’t replace a guy like that.”
But the addition of guitarist Kenny Taylor the year before Spike’s departure and the return of Maggie Hawkins have reinvigorated the group in the wake of Assay’s departure. Although it took awhile for the Spike-less Bulldogs to re-establish themselves, they’re busier than ever now.
“It was a little different at first, and we did a lot fewer shows for awhile,” says Zmyslony. “Some places were skeptical and thought without Spike it wouldn’t be the same. But after awhile it felt the same as it had before.”
The infusion of new people helped the Bulldogs make the transition, and Zmyslony says the band has three great singers once again.
“Wayne [Neukom] is a great singer, and Kenny is a great singer. Kenny has been with us for five years now, and he’s the best guitarist in Fort Wayne. I’ve never played with a better guitarist than Kenny. And Maggie is a well-rounded musician – a great singer and plays saxophone and flute. I had never been in a band with a female singer before, and it brings a lot of new possibilities for the band. We can play songs by Leslie Gore, Little Eva, the Shirelles. It’s a lot of fun for us guys to sing backup for her.”
Those additions add bulk to an already packed repertoire. Though the Bulldogs stick with material only from the 50s and 60s, there’s plenty of material right there, and for those who don’t know what to expect from the Bulldogs (is there anyone who hasn’t heard them yet?), Zmyslony says there’s plenty of variety from those two decades.
“We do a lot of Buddy Holly, and Maggie does a great ‘Unchained Melody.’ We play Roy Orbison. And we’ve added more from the 60s since Spike left the group. The Monkees, the Beatles, Mitch Ryder. It’s all good stuff.”
They continue to expand their options, Zmyslony says, adding 15-20 new songs a year. The band itself has played together enough to only require a couple rehearsals a month. In fact, although Zmyslony has only been with the Bulldogs for nine years, he’s known Neukom for almost 50 years, since the two were in bands together while students at Garrett High School. The entire band – which also includes Bernie Stone on drums and Phil McDonald on sound – bring decades of professionalism to the enterprise, and they’re able to accomplish what they need to with minimal rehearsal time.
“We usually get together every other Thursday at my house. Kenny has usually laid out our parts, and those new songs are a lot easier to put together now.”
The Bulldogs also continue to record each year, with plans for another release early in 2018. Their annual schedule sees a slow time in the first few months of each year until they start playing events and festivals toward spring and summer. Those are their busiest months, and Zmyslony says they had one spurt in September when they played six shows in seven days. The new CD, which helps them kick off each year’s hectic performance schedule, will be recorded live as have the others. It’s been a great way to capture what has made the Bulldogs so popular for so long.
They have also tapped into the kinds of venues which make their festive and family-friendly performances well-attended by audiences of all ages. Zmyslony took over the duties of booking the band after Spike left, and they’ve stayed busy for all the years since.
“We don’t play bars really. We play one or two of the local legions, but we play a lot of private and corporate events. We do 4H and covered bridge festivals and a lot of festivals during the summer. We don’t even play a lot in Fort Wayne, but we play a lot of places regionally and in places in Ohio and Michigan. We play a lot of smaller towns and a lot of big festivals.”
They’ve also tapped into an increasingly hot place to catch live music: cruise ships. In fact, the Bulldogs were doing it long before it became a trend among oldies bands.
“We’ve done 17 Caribbean cruises with Norwegian Cruises as guest entertainers. We go there and use their equipment for the most part. We’ve been working with Travel Leaders for years, and every cruise we book anywhere from 180 to 320 people who sign up to come to hear us play. So on a cruise of 2,300 or 2,400, about 10 percent of them are wearing Bulldogs T-shirts. It’s a great time, and they come to hear us play between all of the other things going on on the ship. And it’s a treat for us as well.
Finding their focus, sticking to the music of the 50s and 60s, has helped the Bulldogs maintain and continually grow their audience for 30 years, and Zmyslony says it’s the great relationship between the band and its audience that has kept them busy all those years.
“People want to hear what we like to play so that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”