Lake Minnetonka’s ’60s Surf Band — The Yetti-men (Part Three)
“I’d probably have to say that I’d put Lee Hanson, as a lead guitarist at that point in time, up against anybody… including Tony Andreason of the Trashmen. I honestly think he could’ve held his own. He was that good.”
-former Yetti-Men member Brian Mahin to writer/rock historian Jim Oldsberg
All this summer we’ve been reviewing the story of a group of five young Minnetonkans who rode the popular wave of sixties surf music, forming a band called “The Yetti-Men” and composed of: Lee Hanson (lead guitar), Henry “Skip” Webster (rhythm guitar), Joel Peterson (bass), Brian Mahin (sax, keyboards), and Jim Robinson (drums). Thanks once again go out to Brian Mahin and Skip Webster, and to Midwest rock historian Jim Oldsberg – without their help I would be unable to tell this story.
Now for the conclusion of the Yetti-Saga…
By the Autumn of 1963 the Yetti-Men were getting to be pretty well known by fellow high school students as a great band to have at a Lake Minnetonka weekend house party or at the high school for a “Stomp.” They began to develop a pretty busy schedule of paid gigs, entering local “Battle of the Bands” contests with such groups as the Accents, the Castaways (who would later have a big hit with “Liar Liar”) and Gregory Dee & the Avantis, of “Footstompin'” fame. Skip Webster remembered a party that they played for at his house: “People were parking in the fields and the cops had to shut us down at the end.” If there was anything “wild” about the Yetti-Men appearances however it was mainly because the group played LOUD. “These parties that we played at were fairly innocent in that we didn’t smoke or drink at the time and the beverage of choice was Coca-Cola,” said Brian Mahin. Now in their junior year of high school, the group began expanding their repertoire to include original songs written by Lee Hanson. According to Skip Webster, this caused a slight problem in that, whereas Lee could take music that he heard or wrote in rough form as a departure point to practice and fine tune on his own, the other band members would have to try to keep up without notes or Lee’s internal thoughts when they could not practice together as a group, because Lee, being self-taught, didn’t know how to write musical scores. “I didn’t have Lee’s music to take home and practice,” Skip remembered, and added, “On the other hand, I had the albums and sheet music to other big artists like the Beach Boys and the Ventures that I could take home and develop my skills following along with.”
Into the “Recording Studio”
“It was Joel or Lee or both, with Jerry Brown, the leader of the Uppa Trio, who decided we should record an album together,” said Brain. Jerry Brown was friends with another fellow student at Minnetonka High, David Leitzman. David Leitzman and another friend, Mike Kramer (of Excelsior) had ties to or were members of the school’s Hi-Fi Club. The Hi-Fi Club would help with some of the supply of recording equipment, while the high school auditorium would serve as a makeshift recording studio. Kramer and Leitzman had created their own after-school business recording local musical acts and even had a small collaborative record label, KAL (Kramer And Leitzman). Mike Kramer had professional microphones and David Leitzman had an old Brush Soundmirror BK 401, which was one of the first magnetic tape recorders introduced after WWII. His father was a sales rep for these machines. The Yetti-Men were now ready to make a record. It was February of 1964.
A few new obstacles now faced the Yetti-Men. Once again, the story requires some telling from Jim Oldsberg, who interviewed David Leitzman and got a first-hand account of some of the difficulties involved: “My and Mike’s original intent was to tape both of the groups [Uppa trio and Yetti-Men] live,” said David. “The theory was a live audience would come across as more exciting on the tapes (which were originally intended to be used as demos). We found that in the small halls that the guys usually played at, it was extremely tough to balance the sound. Also, the sound was hampered by the lighting boards the bands used. Their mikes would sometimes pick up interference by the boards and the tapes came out quite distorted.” David continued, “It was decided upon to try the ‘studio’ approach for the second go-round. Both bands talked Minnetonka High School into letting them use their main auditorium on two consecutive Saturdays. The Uppa Trio went first, using one single, ribbon-type mike. Everything worked out fine with their acoustic guitar, banjo, stand-up bass sound. But when Mike and I tried that with the Yetti-Men we met with complete disaster. Because the guys were used to playing so loud, distortion and overloading were again prevalent. We decided to add a second mike, one of Mike’s Electrovoice 626’s, which wasn’t quite as prone to overloading. By adding a second mike, Joel Peterson was able to turn down the volume of his bass amp, but yet not have his sound get buried.” During the recording sessions, Lee would often insist on several takes of an individual song, pushing the rest of the group until he was satisfied with each of the six tracks the group recorded.
Kramer and Leitzman took the tapes to 2129 Washington Ave. N. in Minneapolis, the Kay Bank Pressing Plant, to be mixed down and committed to vinyl, an lp record on the KAL label (KB 4348) that featured both groups, one on each side and a group photo on each side of the outer sleeve. Just in time for the final day of school, 500 copies of the album were released, to be snatched up by paying fellow students, many of whom had pre-paid earlier in the year. Today, copies of this album are extremely hard to find. Brian Mahin still owns his copy, and said that he had heard of someone paying up to $600.00 for an original copy on ebay recently.
Jim Oldsburg Reviews the LP
Rock historian Jim Oldsberg was fortunate to have heard the entire album, and he reviewed the Yetti-Men side for Lost & Found. Here is his review, which includes an interesting take on the haunting/sick tune, “My Baby Left Me” (which predated the Cohen Brothers’ film “Fargo” by three decades):
“Side B, the Yetti-Men side, began with an ominous reverb spooker called ‘High Himalyas,’ co-written by Hanson and Mahin. Skip – ‘I recall that song being extremely long and tough to play when we used to do it live on stage. Lee was kind of fussy about a couple takes on a few of the numbers; ‘High Himalayas’ was one of them.'” Oldsberg continued, “Next up for the Yetti-Men was a spirited cover of the Nightcaps’ 1960 hit, ‘Wine Wine Wine.’ Batting third, and definitely hitting a home run, was a brilliant (albeit somewhat demented) Hanson original, ‘My Baby Left Me.’ The gist of the tune was a simple one: A guy wakes up one morning and finds his girl has left him. He searches the town from top to bottom, finally tracking her down in the park. Here’s where the twist comes in; ‘…found my baby sittin’ there neckin’ in the dark / Snuck up behind her and this is what I said / ‘Baby if you don’t come back, you’ll soon be dead!’ The story continues on with the girl not heeding his warning. ‘Now I’m going to tell you my lover’s lament / she didn’t come back, so I killed her dead / I’m sittin’ at the bar just havin’ a beer / I hear them sirens, the police are here.’ Pretty morbid for a 16 year-old suburban high school student in 1964. ‘My Baby Left Me’ became a huge song for the group…because kids misconstrued Lee’s lyrics to say, ‘My Baby Is A Lesbie.'”
“Lee was somewhat of a strange guy,” said Skip, in the interview with Jim Oldsberg. “We practiced in his parents’ spacious basement of their house countless times, but I can honestly say that I never really got to know him personally. I never went to parties with him; never went on double dates with him like I did with the rest of the guys. At those practice sessions, Brian, Jim and I always seemed to be congregated over in one corner. Lee was in another corner, by himself, almost on a different plateau than the rest of us. And Joel would float in between.”
Continuing with Jim Oldsburg’s Album Review:
“Hanson shifts gears on the fourth song, ‘Blue Surfer.’ This time around he weaves a ballady tale of a boy pining away for his unrequited surfer-girl love. No bloodshed this time though. Song five is an instrumental entitled ‘Yep,’ [a cover version of the Duane Eddy tune] and features Brian on sax. Rounding out side B is the fourth and final Hanson original, and it’s one of the most blistering surf-instrumentals ever committed to vinyl. ‘Break Time’ runs at 110% from start to finish and features Lee’s extraordinary guitar work in its finest form.” “Break Time” ended up being a group staple and was usually played before the group took a time out between live sets.
Brian told Oldsberg: “I’d probably have to say that I’d put Lee Hanson, as a lead guitarist at that point in time, up against anybody… including Tony Andreason of the Trashmen. I honestly think he could’ve held his own. He was that good.”
Drunken Fiji Islanders
Word about the group got around and during the Summer of 1964, at one of the local “Battle of the Bands” that the Yetti-Men were in, they were approached by a fellow high school student, a girl who was dating a guy who went to the University of Minnesota. She asked the Yetti-Men if they would be interested in playing at her boyfriend’s fraternity house. It turned out that her boyfriend was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, otherwise known as the “FIJI Islander” fraternity. What a huge break for a bunch of 16-17 year-olds who still had a year of high school before them!
What followed was not just some well-paid gigs at FIJI, but a few more gigs down Fraternity Row, as well as…SORORITY Houses like Tri-Delt!! This was LIVING! Brain Mahin remembered the fraternity gigs as being both fun and financially-rewarding: “We were able to pay for all of our equipment and instruments and keep going. All of the group’s earnings were split evenly between the five members.” Brian also thought that at fraternities like FIJI, the fraternity guys looked pretty funny when they got drunk and clowned around on the dance floor. Often a hat would get passed around to collect more money for the group so that they could extend their playing well into the night, sometimes into the next morning.
Skip had a Slightly Different Take on the Drunken College Students:
“The aspect of people getting loaded on a lot of beer and falling down drunk and sometimes taking the microphone away from us started to get to me,” he admitted. He elaborated somewhat to Jim Oldsberg in an earlier interview: “We were trying to develop a sound and improve ourselves, but that was definitely the wrong group of people to be doing it with because all they wanted was to hear the same song over and over. And some guy would invariably come up and grab the mike and want to sing or beat on the drums. Once that started happening, you lost control real fast.” The impromptu extended gigs started to get to him as well. “Sometimes we would start out planning to play at a fraternity for a few hours, but the house would ask us to continue on after that, so we’d get more money that way, but the downside was we would be so tired the next day – and I had a full academic load plus hockey practice – so I felt torn between staying in the band and giving up hockey or quitting the group altogether. I had to make a choice,” he concluded.
Dean Walker and The Beatles
“I went to see the Beatles with my girlfriend when they appeared at the old Metropolitan Stadium in the Summer of 1965,” remembered Skip. “I really liked their music, as did the other Yetti-Men,” he added. Brian recalled really liking the Beatles’ records but being a bit “put off” by their long hair. Today, it may be hard to imagine, but the Beatles’ haircuts were extremely controversial in 1965. Elvis had had his long sideburns, surfers had been known to let their bleached blonde hair grow long in the front, in a sort of “Dennis the Menace” look, with close-cropped hair on the sides and in back—but the Beatles grew everything long—-they had their hair combed forward down to their eyebrows and also had it hanging over their ears and long in back, looking like…girls! Probably more than rock ‘n roll music, this long hair fad for boys would really drive a wedge between some kids and their parents, a real “generation gap” in the sixties.
Nobody in Minnesota (not any of the Yetti-Men or their friends at least) were in any way remotely interested in growing their hair long in 1965, but they and many other kids all across America paid attention to the Beatles’ records, which completely dominated the US charts, ultimately wiping out surf music for good. In 1964, however, surf music still held on, particularly in the Midwest, where it gave the British Invasion a run for the money. Still, the Yetti-Men fairly early on began incorporating some Beatles tunes into their act. “We performed ‘Twist and Shout’ after hearing the Beatles’ version,” said Skip, “and people were actually screaming over that.”
All that screaming aside, by the Fall of 1964, as the Yetti-Men entered their Senior year at Minnetonka H.S., Skip began to weigh the choices that had begun to press upon him. He opted to get some rest for hockey and most importantly, for his studies, and dropped out of the Yetti-Men. The others continued on, joined now on rhythm guitar by a new Yetti-Member, Dean Walker.
Skip wasn’t the only guy in the band to have internal doubts about the future however. Brian Mahin told Jim Oldsberg about continuing into the 1964/65 school year with the group: “It got to the point where if you were going to go anywhere, you had to have a group of people who were willing to commit to that, and that alone. I think, other than Lee, none of the rest of us were willing to give that total commitment. We were all entering our senior year of high school and were being drawn in all different directions – from sports, college preparation, high school activities, etc. It was fabulous while it lasted, but sooner or later all things must come to an end.”
The Class of ’65: From Minnetonka to the Gulf of Tonkin and Back
By 1965, the British Invasion launched it’s second tier of groups on our shores, groups with “weird” names like the Who and the Kinks. American artists like Bob Dylan and the Byrds electrified folk music, and began to turn teenage ears away from reverb and toward twelve-string guitars and more “serious” lyrics. Other artists followed suit. As a war began to heat up over in Southeast Asia, many of the new songs were politically controversial, like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” To say that things were changing quite rapidly was an understatement. Meanwhile, surf music began to seem somehow quaint and passé. It’s days were numbered.
As June rolled around and the guys graduated, suddenly keeping the Yetti-Men together as a group became impossible. That month they played their last gig, and amiably parted to go their separate ways. It had been a nice run of almost three years, but it was time for new challenges and responsibilities. “There was never any animosity between the group members. We just ended, but stayed on good terms with one another,” said Brian.
As Jim Robinson, Skip Webster, and Brian Mahin prepared to go to the University of Minnesota, Joel Peterson departed for the Philippines with the AFS Program. Afterward he would enter Yale University. Only Lee Hanson would continue to pursue rock ‘n roll music with a driving passion. Going to school in the New York City area, he started up a new rock group called “The Chains.”
Both Brian Mahin and Jim Robinson entered the U of M for two quarters together, but college life just wasn’t the thing for them at the time, and they both dropped out in early 1966, just managing to stay in long enough to make the annual Spring Break pilgrimage together down to Fort Lauderdale in Brian’s volkswagen. Brian decided to enter into business, but before he could get very far in this venture, Uncle Sam intervened, acting on behalf of General William Westmoreland, who told LBJ early in the year: “Just give me 500,000 more men and I’ll have the Vietnam War won.” Drafted into the Marines in May of 1966, during the single biggest month for the draft in Minnesota, Brian had a lot of company. But before the Marines could get him into basic training, Brian quickly enlisted in the Navy.
Serving in the Navy meant that he wouldn’t have to see combat in the steamy jungles of Vietnam–or so Brian thought! The Navy put him into the Mobile Riverine Force, a shallow-draft boat force that traced its origins to the American Civil War, when Union ironclads were sent up into Southern river systems. “They sent us right into the Mekong Delta and I actually saw combat action,” stated Brian. While in operation, the Mobile Riverine Force effectively shut down the VC in the Delta. Mahin served in Vietnam until honorably discharged in 1970. With his term of service ended, he finally came home to a “completely changed world from the one I had left, in 1966.” He went back to school, getting an Associate Arts Degree from the U of M, and then he married in 1975. Today he lives in the area and considers himself to be a very lucky guy.
Skip Webster married one of the Tri-Delts from the University of Minnesota, and lives in the area. Jim Robinson moved out west, running a grocery business in California for a while. He still lives out west today. Joel Peterson lives in Minnesota and is a teacher. Lee Hanson came back to Minnesota from New York, but then moved out to Florida, where he now lives. And Dean Walker? Nobody knows what happened to him…
Return to Part One of The Beachcomber’s series on the Yetti-Men.
Return to Part Two of The Beachcomber’s series on the Yetti-Men.
Visit The Beachcomber’s virtual hut at: www.SnyderConcepts.com.
Many thanks to Lake Minnetonka’s resident music expert, The Beachcomber, for this excellent series of articles.