When Gregg Bender, longtime Journal Gazette illustrator and frontman of his eponymous band, was a teenager growing up in Berne, he and his friend John Ludy performed original music in the style of the West Coast rock revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s – a revolution that involved infusions of country and folk music. “He’d write five songs a day,” Bender said. “When I got together with him, we were like ‘Why can’t we make it? Why can’t be one of those people?’”
This may be an especially plaintive question to ask in tiny Berne, which is known more for Swiss homages than rock revolts.
But long odds didn’t stop the young men from getting into a car and driving to L.A. The year was 1974, and they had $200 to their name.
“The first day we got there, we drove around the city twice and said, ‘What are we doing?’” Bender said.
They checked into a fleabag motel and started offering to perform at restaurants in exchange for meals.
Fortune soon smiled on them. A well-to-do family in the dining room one night asked them if they’d like to provide entertainment at a party they were hosting.
“It was in Santa Monica,” Bender said. “A really nice house. He was a lawyer. She was a writer and also a professor at UCLA. They had four kids.”
After the party, the couple made a proposal that may seem exceptionally generous and credulous in these paranoid and cynical times, but might have been fairly typical in Southern California seven years after the Summer of Love.
They asked the guys if they wanted to move in.
“We were Midwestern youngsters,” Bender said. “We were like, ‘Oh no. We can’t do that.’ Three days later, we were knocking on the door.”
One day after Bender and Ludy had moved in, the family went on vacation and left them alone in the house.
Many great things began happening for them.
The family had connections in the music business and hooked the men up with composer Patrick Williams, who went on to score several dozen of the biggest films and TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, including Breaking Away, Columbo, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Streets of San Francisco.
Williams liked their music and offered them free studio time.
“It was $100 an hour,” Bender said. “And the Stones had been in there. Vanilla Fudge.”
They recorded a demo tape and took it to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records where they received further kudos and blocks of free studio time.
That resultant accumulation of recordings was subsequently well received by Jackson Browne’s manager.
And while it did nothing to further their career, babysitting for former Gilligan’s Island star Dawn Wells — who lived down the beach from where Bender and Ludy were luxuriously bivouacked — provided the men with a brush-with-greatness tale that still impresses today.
But establishing a national musical career requires much exigency and many falling dominoes, and the men began to lose faith before too long.
Six months after they’d arrived in Los Angeles, they returned to Berne.
“I mean, we were 19 years old,” Bender explained.
The men eventually went their separate ways.
Bender’s newspaper career took him to Kendallville; Jackson, Tennessee; South Bend; Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson (again) and, finally, Fort Wayne.
It was during his stint at the Kendallville News-Sun in the early 1980s that he hooked with an old college buddy named Tracy Warner.
Bender became a fixture at, and sometime host of, the open mic nights at Munchie Emporium, and it was during this period that he learned Warner played saxophone.
The two formed an atypical guitar/saxophone duo for a time.
In all the towns where he has lived, Bender has always tried to find places to play his guitar and sing.
He seems to get an almost daredevil thrill from entertaining.
“Not everyone is geared for that sort of thing,” he said. “But, for me, stepping out in front of people and playing is almost like putting yourself out there in a sporting event. You practice and practice and have one shot to be the best you can. If you are a perfectionist, second place is not an option. But the rules of the game are: You’re not going to do your best every time.”
About two years after he started working at the Journal Gazette in 2003, he started performing solo again in Fort Wayne and with Warner.
He had no grander plan than that.
But sometimes grander plans are thrust upon us.
In 2006, Bender started attending, then participating in, open band nights at the North Star Bar and Grill.
He ran into a former high school friend of his named Jim Childers, and the pair repaired to Bender’s house for a jam session.
“And I said, ‘If we’re going to do this and make it sound pretty good, we might as well go out and play,’” Bender recalled. “I dragged him out to open mike night and it went over really well.”
The twosome began to accrue additional musicians: Drummer Mike Andrews, who Bender said owes his lead style of playing to Jimi Hendrix’s percussionist, Mitch Mitchell; bassist Dave West, who Bender said has mastered a bewildering array of songs and genres in his decades of performing in Fort Wayne; and Warner, of course.
Before too long, the Gregg Bender Band was born.
A mere three years after forming, the Gregg Bender Band performs almost weekly in numerous regional venues and has been featured on Julia Meek’s public radio music showcase Meet the Music at least four times.
The Gregg Bender Band is strictly a cover band, but Bender said they try to choose deep cuts that probably can’t be heard anywhere else in town.
Bender said this unexpected later-life success is much more fun than any of the triumphs of his callow youth because “these guys are my friends and we get to share this experience together.
“I had never really played in a band before,” he said, “although I knew of others where fights developed and everyone parted ways. We’re older now and don’t have that baggage anymore. There are no aspirations of being big. We just want to play the best we can and let the other stuff roll off. There is really no pressure except the pressure we put on ourselves to play to the best of our abilities.”
Bender said Ludy, now a retired teacher living in Fremont, might come down in March to participate in a recording session.
But any resulting CD would serve posterity, not fuel ambition.
“This is a vanity project,” he said. “We have no illusions. We can hand it out at shows.”
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